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Advantages and Disadvantages Working for the UN

In 1942, representatives from 26 countries signed the Declaration of the United Nations, marking the first usage of the term “united nations.” It wasn’t the first time the international community had attempted to come together, but the League of Nations, which had been founded in 1920, was failing. The League had its final meeting in 1946, one year after the signing of the United Nations Charter. Three years later, as WWII came to an end, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established universal human rights and freedoms. Since those early days, the UN has sought to achieve four goals: keep world peace; develop friendly relations between nations; help nations improve the lives of the poor and encourage rights and freedoms; and serve as a center for achieving these goals. What is working for the UN like? In this article, we’ll describe the UN’s structure, the advantages of working for the organization, and the disadvantages.

The structure of the United Nations

The UN is the world’s largest and best-known intergovernmental organization, which is a type of organization made of sovereign states established by a treaty. The UN has five main organs:

The General Assembly

The GA is the main deliberative body. It consists of representatives from all the Member States. Each State gets one vote. It’s based at the UN headquarters in New York City, New York.

The UN Secretariat

This organ is made of staff representing all nationalities that work at duty stations around the world. The Secretariat handles the everyday work of the UN and administers the programs and policies. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is part of this organ.

The Security Council

Made of 15 Members, the Security Council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security.

The Economic and Social Council

This organ debates economic, social, and environmental challenges and issues policy recommendations. The World Health Organization (The WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are specialized agencies within this council.

International Court of Justice

As the judicial organ of the UN, the Court settles legal disputes between States and provides advisory opinions to the UN and its agencies.

Advantages of working for the UN

The UN has offices in 195 countries and around 37,000 employees. Here are the pros of working for this huge organization:

There are lots of career opportunities

Within the UN system, there are 45 job “families” and nine job networks. Job families are occupations and sub-occupations grouped in a common work field. The job networks are flexible groupings of job families. The reason for this structure is so employees can get multidisciplinary opportunities for new skills and experience within different parts of the UN. The nine networks are:

  • Management and Administration- Families include administration, audit, ethics, finance, and human resources
  • Economic, Social and Development – Families include environmental affairs, social affairs, sustainable development, and statistics
  • Political, Peace and Humanitarian – Families include civil affairs, rule of law, human rights affairs, and electoral affairs
  • Information and Telecommunication Technology – Families are media technology, telecommunications technology, and information management systems and technology
  • Legal – Families are jurists and legal affairs
  • Public information and conference management – Families include conference services, language, protocol, and public information
  • Internal security and safety network – Families are security and safety
  • Logistics, transportation and supply chain – Families are engineering, facilities management, human settlements, and transportation
  • Science – Families are medical and natural and life sciences

The UN works to promote justice and protect human rights

Through its many entities, the UN is the world’s largest organization working for human rights and justice. Whether you want to work in women’s rights, public health, food security, sustainable development, or other similar areas, the UN has many career opportunities.

  • UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) – the UN fund focusing on children’s rights and health
  • WHO (World Health Organization) – the specialized agency responsible for directing and coordinating international health in the UN system
  • WFP (World Food Programme)- the UN program focused on eliminating hunger and malnutrition
  • UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) – the UN body responsible for protecting refugees

You have opportunities to travel

For those who’ve always wanted to travel the world, the United Nations is a great place to work. An employee will likely need to travel at some point. The UN is also a great place to work if you’ve wanted to live in another country. Traveling opens you up to different cultures, food, languages, and experiences. There are offices in 195 countries, including:

  • Armenia
  • Bahamas
  • Chile
  • Djibouti
  • Greece
  • Nepal
  • Samoa
  • Zambia

The UN generally pays well

There’s a wide range of salaries within the UN system, but generally, the pay is good. The UN has a specific pay structure for Field service and Professional & higher categories. The salary level for Professional staff is set by referring to the highest-paying national civil service. The salary scales for (P) jobs are based on five grades (P-1 to P-5) and two Director levels (D-1 and D-2).

  • Entry level (P1 – P3): 37,000 USD – 80,000 USD
  • Mid-career (P4 – P5): 67,000 USD – 106,000 USD
  • Senior level (D1 – D2): 95,000 USD – 123,000 USD

You can look for salary scales for specific years on the UN’s Salaries, Allowances, Benefits, and Job Classification website. Depending on where you live, even a salary on the lower end can go far.

The UN has great benefits

Many UN careers come with excellent benefits. Not every job comes with the same perks, but the UN is known for good remuneration packages. Benefits can include:

  • Dependency allowances for eligible spouses and/or children
  • Travel and shipping expenses when you’re moving from a different duty station
  • Hardship allowances for working at certain duty stations
  • Hazard pay for hazardous and stressful locations
  • 18-30 days of vacation time per year
  • Possible home leave travel
  • UN-sponsored medical insurance plans

Disadvantages of working for the UN

Before considering working for the United Nations, it’s important to understand its downsides. This gives you a realistic and not rose-colored view of the organization and its complexities. Here are the main cons to know about:

It’s hard to get a job at the UN

The first downside of the UN is how challenging it is to get a job there. As the world’s most prestigious international organization, it makes sense that it would have extremely high standards. It’s rare for anyone to just waltz into a (P) level job. Most start with short-term contracts like positions with the United Nations Volunteers. These positions offer a small living allowance and medical insurance to volunteers (who must be at least 25-years old) who serve 6-12 months. There are also Junior Professional Officer positions at agencies like UNICEF and UNHCR. There are age and national restrictions, as well as requirements like a few years of experience. With a structure like this, your career will likely not be stable for quite a while.

The UN system is bureaucratic and complicated

As a huge organization, the UN is difficult to navigate. Settling into a career in such a complex system is frustrating to many people. Recruitment, job structure, and trying to move up in the organization are frequent sources of stress for workers. The UN also has a reputation for depending on processes and systems even when they aren’t effective. This is serious business for an organization dedicated to protecting human rights and striving for world peace. Working for an organization bogged down by bureaucracy can be infuriating and disheartening when lives are on the line. In 2016, Anthony Banbury resigned his position as the Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, he wrote: “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result.”

The UN has a history of scandals

There have been several scandals at the UN, including child sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. An AP investigation in 2017 exposed a child sex abuse ring in Haiti run by more than 100 UN peacekeepers over 10 years. None were imprisoned for their crimes. The report also found more than 2,000 global allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation over 12 years. In the article covering the abuse, a survivor was quoted: “As far as the U.N. goes, they came here to protect us, but all they’ve brought is destruction.” With the abuse so widespread, it’s reasonable to suspect the problems are systemic. While any organization as large and significant as the UN will have abuse and corruption, the UN must be held to a higher standard.

Working for the UN can be dangerous

Many UN field offices are based in dangerous areas. According to UN data reported by NPR, 56 peacekeepers died from violence in 2017. This represented the highest number of fatalities since 1994. The reason for the increased danger is the heightened violence in conflict areas, as well as the UN’s deeper involvement in the conflicts. According to Conor Foley, who worked as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 2010 to 2012, peacekeepers are pushed to be more assertive in protecting civilians. This is part of the job, but it does put peacekeepers at more risk. Not all UN careers are risky, but it’s important to know that they can be.

Final thoughts

The United Nations is a huge, complicated organization with some serious systemic issues. It is also the world’s largest and most respected international organization committed to peace and human rights. It has access and resources no other organization does. Even if you don’t spend your entire career working at the UN, there are many opportunities available there, including travel, good pay, good job benefits, and projects that make a real difference in the world.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.