Veni Vidi Vici as a UN Intern in Rome

11 March 2016 15:41

Veni Vidi Vici as a UN Intern in Rome

This summer I was blessed with the opportunity to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as an intern at their headquarters in Rome. It’s been an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

By Maria Flinder Stierna, NHH student and UN intern

This summer I was blessed with the opportunity to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as an intern at their headquarters in Rome. It’s been an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.It’s a very special feeling entering a UN building for the first time, knowing you’ve been hired to work there, looking up, gazing at the blue flag flapping gently in the warm, Roman breeze, and knowing that on that special first day in the office you’ll get your own keycard so you can enter whenever you want. The only thing that can destroy the romance of such a glorious moment is sensing the sweat trickling down your back, moving south towards the jeans that you already regret putting on, at the same time cursing yourself for forgetting to buy deodorant in the tax-free when flying in the day before.

What a relief that the office culture was more about handshakes than hugs. Anyway, 3 months later and well-deodorized, I still feel a little bit proud every time I swipe my card. Working for FAO this summer has been challenging and interesting, educational and fun. I’ve learnt a lot, whilst at the same time experiencing that my input and knowledge was appreciated and valued by my supervisor and bosses. I know for a fact that the analysis I’ve been working on will already be of practical value as I leave in August, and that my report will contribute to a new communications and development strategy for an important unit at FAO. And that’s a great feeling. I’m leaving Rome to start my CEMS MIM in Santiago with both a job offer I had to turn down and having discussed potential topics for writing my master’s thesis for FAO later on. I guess that’s the best proof I could have of managers taking seriously the efforts of their interns.

So, “What is FAO?”, you might wonder. “What do they actually do?” FAO is the UN agency which leads global efforts towards eradicating hunger. The aim is not to provide food assistance during a crisis (that’s the job of the World Food Programme), but to secure long-term sustainable food supply and food security.

So FAO works in a holistic way, with 5 main objectives:

  1. Eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition,
  2. Make agriculture, fishery and forestry more productive and sustainable,
  3. Reduce rural poverty,
  4. Enable inclusive and efficient food systems and
  5. Increase the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crisis.

As you can imagine, there’s a quite diverse group of professionals working at FAO: veterinarians meet statisticians and lawyers, ocean specialists meet agronomists and economists. And the number of nationalities is possibly even higher than the number of professions. The environment is as international as it gets, and few days go by without one hearing at least five to six languages and interacting – or trying to interact – in three or four of them. The language geek in me has been adrenalized for ten weeks straight - ¡Olé!

What being a fisheries intern is like

The internship is offered through ICC at NHH, and it takes place in the branch called “Products,Trade and Marketing” in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division at FAO. I’ve been mainly working on two projects related to information on international fish trade and sustainable growth in aquatic resources. I didn’t have any previous experience from fisheries, but after reading about the importance of this sector for improving the economy of developing countries - not to mention feeding the world in a sustainable way – there was no doubt in my mind about applying for it. And I’m so glad I did.

One of the best things about being an intern at FAO is being able to influence your area of work and specific tasks. As FAO asks every intern about their preferences before drawing up the contracts, all interns work on different topics according to their study background, experience, interests and future plans. While some "fishes" (FI interns) study trade and price indexes of fish products or socio-economic issues like child labour or gender equality in the sector, others assist in organising forthcoming conferences or preparing material for distribution at the conferences. Many interns also work in fields like statistics or IT. 

As I hoped and expected before going to Rome, most of the work was interesting, while some tasks – of course – were a little boring. I’d also prepared myself to encounter a slow bureaucracy. Being used to the high pace of retail and sales, smaller private NGOs in Norway and the student life at NHH and in NHHS, meeting a UN office with around 2,000 employees from 197 member states requires some adjustments. But I was happy to find it less bureaucratic than I’d feared. My impression is that the slow process in some projects I got to know about was mainly due to a rather hierarchic decision –making model with (too) busy bosses on top, and a temporary lack of staff.

My general impression of the other interns is that they’re happy with their tasks and topics, and with how the internship is organised. However, there are different opinions of the supervisors, since the time and effort a supervisor is able to invest
in the intern’s project has varied. Luckily for me, mine really put the "super" into supervisor. I had a great time discussing my findings with her and challenging each other’s way of thinking. She’s guided me through how FAO works, and towards
my final report and presentation.

Overwhelming hub of knowledge  

FAO is a great place for learning. There are several conferences and meetings every week where you can learn from leading experts on food and agriculture related topics, and e-learning courses are available for all employees. There are also great facilities for other hobbies and services; everything from art classes and meditation sessions to using the gym during the workday, see a doctor free of charge when needed, or even using dry cleaning and banking facilities – all inside the building. FAO trusts you to make sure you work the hours you’re supposed to work and get your work done before deadlines, so the work schedule is quite flexible. This was
great for me, being anything but charming in the morning, and working freelance for the Norwegian Fundraising Association.

Friends, fun and Roman frustration

Besides the internship itself, the new friendships established with people from all over the world has been the best thing about this summer. In addition to having a lot of fun in Rome and travelling during the weekends, these friendships have also been quite educational. Because it really gives the conversation about gender rights a new dimension when a 21 year old intern from India says her family has considered marrying her off twice, but that she’s able to study and work because her mum prevented it both times. Or when discussing freedom of speech and media with a Chinese intern who’s spent the first 24 years of his life without access to Google search, social media or neutral newspapers, before coming to Rome. Every single one of these new acquaintances at FAO has increased my knowledge about other countries and cultures, and many of them have also become close and dear friends whom I know I will see again in the future.

If you know me well, you also know that I was complaining a lot this summer. About the record heat wave, the public transport not worthy of being categorized as "transport" and our lovely landlady staying in the apartment she had rented to us, redecorating it without notice and eventually kicking us out. I know I’ve been whining like an ungrateful little brat. The stay in Rome was not perfect, but looking back on it as I leave, I know the work at FAO and the new friends I’ve made were worth every single 2-inch mosquito bite. The truth is, even though beautiful Rome is dysfunctional nowadays, I will actually miss admiring ancient ruins while drinking my coffee at a modern family-run caffetteria. And when I go back to Bergen in January, I’ll probably even miss the heat!

The bottom line is that I’m so, so grateful for this opportunity, and I would encourage other NHH students who are committed to working for sustainable development and an end to hunger to apply for next year’s internship. You won’t regret it.

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