Demography in action: a day in the life of an intern at the United Nations

Date: 20/12/2017

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I vividly remember the excitement of visiting the United Nations Headquarters in New York whilst on vacation four years ago. I remember the tour guide taking a photo of me in the Security Council Chamber, and thinking to myself that this was probably the first and last time I would ever step foot inside the United Nations.

Since starting my undergraduate degree in population and geography, I was always intrigued and curious about the work of the UN and its other specialized agencies, yet it always seemed like a castle in the sky; a career path that would be way out of my reach. So when the phone call came to say that I was being offered an internship at the United Nations in Bangkok in Thailand, I was elated.

So, in September 2016 I set off for Bangkok to commence a three-month internship within the Statistics Division at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific. I was placed on a project focused on civil registration and vital statistics in the region, which was perfectly suited to my background in demography. This project which was named ‘get everyone in the picture’, aims to improve the national registration of births, deaths, health and other population statistics across the Asia Pacific region. Sufficient registration systems are vital not only for monitoring and facilitating progress towards the sustainable development goals, but also a fundamental human right. Official documentation provided by civil registration systems provides access to basic services for individuals, such as health care, financial services and amongst the most vulnerable sub-groups of society; helps to reduce trafficking, statelessness, sexual exploitation and child marriage.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to put my demographic knowledge into action, and one of my first tasks involved analysing the baseline civil registration statistics and creating a report for the Pacific Island communities. This report was then presented at the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) sub-regional meeting in Fiji. However, one of the most valuable outputs from my internship was my contribution to the Sustainable Development Goal baseline Report for Asia and the Pacific, for which I was the lead author of chapter three. Chapter three presented a regional analysis of the third sustainable development goal which focuses on ensuring health and wellbeing for all at all ages.

It was whilst completing my internship that I also began to appreciate the value of maintaining connections and networking which is something that I personally find very difficult. So, whilst in Bangkok I decided to touch base with somebody I had been previously working with on an ESRC impact acceleration research project which looked at adolescent motherhood in Latin America and later Southeast Asia. Through this connection I was also able to spend two weeks at the United Nations Population Fund Asia-Pacific office, working with the Technical Advisor on Adolescents and Youth, to produce disaggregated analysis on adolescent first births and contraceptive use in Cambodia and Philippines. I know that as PhD students we are often reminded of the importance of networking, the notion of which is actually quite daunting in practice. However, this is perhaps one of the most valuable things I learnt from my internship: talk to everyone, find out about the projects people are involved in and ask if you can be involved.

For me, taking part in an internship really helped to keep things in perspective during my PhD. Since my research is also focused on Southeast Asia, being and working there in an international organization was also a great motivation for me to complete the PhD with the hope of producing outputs that I may be able to share with these organizations upon completion. Meeting and talking with international colleagues, made me realise the complexities of implementing and monitoring the sustainable development agenda and the unique challenges it brings for each country.

Going from what I believed was once an inconceivable aspiration, the ESRC internship scheme made this whole experience possible and I really appreciate the invaluable opportunities it has provided me with.

Chloe Harvey is an SCDTP-funded student working on a PhD in the Division of Social Statistics and Demography at the University of Southampton, and is part of the Population Change, Health and Wellbeing Thematic Cluster Pathway. Her PhD examines early years nutrition and infant feeding behaviours in developing contexts, and the long-term health outcomes for mother and child. Chloe’s other research interests include changing disease profiles of emerging economies, where non-communicable diseases are increasingly dominating the burden, global sustainable farming practices and their implications for human health.

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