Anna Ko, Consultant, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific

Thailand scenery

Do your research on… the specific organisation, on the department you are applying to, and if you are contacting an officer directly, take interest in the work that they are involved in. This will help you to write a strong application.

Name: Anna KoMain country of residence: Australia(currently lives in Thailand) Current Position: ConsultantOrganisation: UN ESCAP
Qualifications (and University): Master of Laws (LLM) – Governance and Development from The Australian National UniversityGraduate Diploma of Legal Practice from The College of Law

Bachelor of Arts/Law from The Australian National University

Years of experience (development/overall): 1
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address:
Languages (and level of fluency): English (native), Korean (native), French (limited working proficiency), Chinese (limited working proficiency)


What is the nature of the organisation you currently work for?

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP) is a regional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ESCAP has 53 member States and nine Associate members. As well as countries in Asia and the Pacific, it includes France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. ESCAP provides results-oriented projects, technical assistance and capacity-building to member States to promote inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in the Asia-Pacific region.

When did you first start working in international development and what was your first role?

In 2012 I became an intern at the UN Global Compact Korea Network, which hires interns on a rolling basis. The UN Global Compact is an agency initiated by the United Nations and organised by a network of private corporations.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get your first role? Was the role paid or unpaid?

The internship program was unpaid. I found the organisation online and emailed them. I sent in a cover letter and a résumé and was invited for an interview. As there are not many UN internships available in Australia, I was looking for internships abroad.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferrable.

I have a background in law, which opens doors for various career paths. My law background has been useful in reading and analysing law and policy documents such as UN resolutions, international agreements and national policy documents. It is also helpful when negotiating and drafting contracts with project partners. My legal practice diploma also helped me gain a sense of professionalism and essential office conduct and etiquette. More broadly, an awareness of legal norms and principles gives you a gauge for what is reasonable and sensible when dealing with daily office situations and people.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role?

I lived in Korea for three months for my internship at the Global Compact. I also lived in Thailand for three months for my internship at the UN ESCAP. I am currently living in Thailand for my Consultant role at the UN ESCAP.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

It depends on the type of organisation you want to work in and the type of work you want to pursue. Development jobs can vary greatly. I have some experience in field studies as part of my university education. I have also been on a mission trip to conduct research for my current role as a consultant at the ESCAP. However, I have not worked at a country office in a developing country or volunteered with the UN Volunteers programme (UNV) as some other consultants at the ESCAP have done.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

Networking is, of course, very important – particularly if you want to work at the United Nations, as even internship programs are highly competitive. Initially I was discouraged by this, but realised that it’s not as scary as it sounds. It is just another career skill that can be learnt. If you take genuine interest in the organisation’s work and show off how you can use your skills and knowledge to promote their goals, this should suffice. Finding the right people to talk to is also important. Some people will be interested in you and your work and some people simply won’t. Just keep knocking on doors. Find opportunities to talk to your lecturers at university, or speakers at conferences. Or just do some research on the organisation, department, officers or researchers you are interested in, and shoot them an email. Also, at every step of your career, build on your knowledge and skills as much as you can. Become a specialist in what you do. This will equip you with a unique set of skills that you can sell for your next employment opportunity.

In brief, what other roles have you had throughout your career and if you did not start your career in development what was your previous profession?

I had various short stints in law. This was mainly for part time work during my studies and to gain work experience points to become admitted as a solicitor. I did not want to practice law however, and I also wanted to live abroad in my youth.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

Apart from the actual work, there are many perks to working in an international organisation. I enjoy living abroad. I enjoy learning different languages and cultures, trying different foods and visiting new places. I also like working in an international environment. I find intercultural office relations interesting. The people I meet at work are from diverse backgrounds and are generally intelligent, adventurous, and open-minded. As an international civil servant you are also exempt from income tax.

The disadvantages are that – unless you get in through the Young Professionals Programme exam or the Junior Professional Officer Programme – you are most likely working as an external contractor on a short-term basis, which means you miss out on some employment rights and live an unstable lifestyle. I also find maintaining a long-distance relationship with my fiancée difficult.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

If you are interested in the workings of a United Nations organisation, an internship can provide a useful insight. The type and amount of experience you gain from an internship at the UN really depends on your supervisor. You may be conducting some research for your supervisor or you may be involved in more practical work like conference preparation. This is why there are varying opinions among interns regarding how helpful they found their internship experience.

Still, regardless of what work you will be doing, there are a few benefits of interning at the UN. First, it gives you a chance to network. Talking to other interns with similar interests, meeting officers and just being in the environment can help you define your career path. It can even lead to a job offer, normally a consultancy position which lasts for around 6 to 12 months. It is also a unique work environment, in that you will be meeting people from many different countries and cultures. Not many other organisations would be able to offer that. Often interns are very active and outgoing and you will probably want to join them in their many trips and adventures.

The main way to get an internship with the UN Secretariat is through Inspira, their job application site (note that UN agencies which are not part of the Secretariat, like UNHCR, UNDP, and UNEP have different job application systems). Look for internship openings online and apply through Inspira. Apply to as many positions as you can and in as many organisations as you can, but keep in mind that some UN organisations will have a limit on the number of different internship positions you can apply for.

There are also other ways to apply. Your university may have an agreement with the UN. You can also contact an officer and express your interest in their work and try to network this way. This may simply be through emailing them, or trying to chat with them at a conference. Be proactive in networking – if you can show your passion for their work, you will find that many officers will be surprisingly friendly. You may also have a language/cultural advantage. If you speak fluent English and another language, this could work to your advantage as there may be officers who need your skills. Also, if you have a specialised area of knowledge, flaunt it in your application. The UN does not care about your background, the school you went to or your degree, but they will value a specialised area of knowledge.

You normally need to be enrolled in a graduate program to apply for an internship at the UN. The internship position is normally unpaid. However, UN agencies such as UNDP, UNHCR and UNEP have different systems of job application and different rules. UNEP for example only requires enrolment in a Bachelor degree programme. The ILO also provides a small stipend for their interns. You can apply for the headquarters in New York or Geneva, or regional headquarters, or national branches. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Do your research on the United Nations system, on the specific organisation, on the department you are applying to, and if you are contacting an officer directly, take interest in the work that they are involved in. This will help you to write a strong application. Once you have the internship position, make sure that you take a proactive stance. Do not wait for the work to be given to you. Take genuine interest. Talk to people and do research online. Think in advance about what your supervisor may need. Network widely and you might land a consultancy job at the end of your internship.


Image credit: Hartmann Linge, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 3.0


  2 comments for “Anna Ko, Consultant, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific

  1. Sergio
    May 8, 2017 at 4:48 PM

    In your opinion, which one is the best committee for the internship? Where you can learn the most.

  2. Anna Ko
    May 17, 2017 at 8:57 PM

    Hi thanks for the question but I can’t give you a definitive answer. I think it depends on your supervisor and also on what you want to get out of your internship. If you want to compare different organisations, perhaps you could try asking past interns about their experiences.

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