Interning at the World Health Organization

The ins, outs, and WHO's whos



Yesterday, May 8, 2017, I was reminded by my trusty iPhone Photos app that it had been exactly one year since moving to Switzerland. I had landed an internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva, and as a Biochemistry student with a budding interest in health policy who spent many nights combing through WHO-published research papers, it was a larger-than-life dream gig.

The biggest learning curve in my first days on the job was getting acclimated to the absurd amount of acronyms thrown around within the organization. A perfect exemplar was my job title, “Hi, I’m Betty, a Policy, Programming, and Planning (PPP) intern in the Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health department (MNCAH) at the World Health Organization (WHO).” The reaction to my lengthy title was generally, “Wow, that’s so cool!” followed by a plethora of questions including, “What does that mean?”, “What do you do?”, “Do you like the work?”, “How is WHO coping with its Ebola failure?” These are great questions, and ones I get often, especially from peers interested in working in global health or for the UN. So I’m here to break it down for you.

How the WHO works: Defining the acronyms


The World Health Organization is a specialized UN agency concerned with the international public health of its 194 Member States. In structure, the agency works at three distinct office levels that provide technical assistance to the Member States. Headquarters is located in Geneva and there are six Regional offices where further strategy and coordination takes place. Ultimately, technical assistance provided by the HQ and Regional offices which includes evidence generation, guidance, and training supports Country offices who work directly with Member State governments and stakeholders on national health development. Each Regional and Country office is organized uniquely to best fit the health contexts of the countries. For example, in Syria, a country currently going through a humanitarian crisis, emergency response to support lifesaving health interventions is a priority; whereas in China, rapid urbanization and industrialization means that resources are being allocated to combatting environmental health risks like air pollution and traffic accidents.


HQ is divided into overarching clusters and departments; I worked in the Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health department, which is under the Family, Women’s and Children’s cluster. The health mandate of the MNCAH department is guided by the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health 2016-2030, a roadmap towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring every newborn, mother, and child survives and thrives. The department’s broad scope of work involves research and development of the evidence and information that guides the creation of norms and standards, guidelines, and the tools that support policy and programming in country. These policies and programmes – and ultimately their results – are monitored and evaluated to further inform research and development. This cyclical, iterative process facilitates access and improvements to health services and delivery that every woman, newborn, child, and adolescent needs to realize their right to physical and mental health and well-being.

Below, is a visualization of my department’s role, responsibilities, and outputs within WHO.

MNCAH scope of work
MNCAH scope of work

MNCAH programme implementation
MNCAH policy, programming, and planning

My internship experience

The internship program at the World Health Organization is close to non-existent in terms of structure. There isn’t a streamlined system that guides staff on how to hire, on-board, delegate responsibilities, evaluate, or off-board interns, and the intern hiring policies are not often enforced. This means that every intern’s role and experience differs drastically. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a bad supervisor, team, or project can contribute to a bad internship. On the other hand, the decentralization of internships at the WHO means interns can have a large hand at shaping their own experience, and make the most of what a WHO internship has to offer.

Why intern at the WHO?

To me, the biggest pros of a WHO internship are:

Access to a global health learning hub. WHO is arguably the largest and most influential organization in global health, which means as an intern, one has access to a hub of health resources, events, and stakeholders. I attended lunchtime workshops on Zika response in Brazil, and sessions at the 69th World Health Assembly that ranged from school nutrition with Jamie Oliver, to Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan’s opening remark. At meetings, I spoke to multi-lateral stakeholders including private funders, implementers, and government policy makers who provided a different, holistic perspective to the public health agenda. Not to mention, having your name attached to WHO gives you noticeable clout in the health sector. Exhibit A: I e-mailed from my address an Oxford professor with a question on his paper and he responded back in less than an hour addressing me as “Dr. Chang”. Unfortunately, I only have a Bachelor’s degree to my name.

69th World Health Assembly

Working with passionate, expert colleagues. Although there are many barriers hindering WHO’s work including funding, political agendas, and bureaucracy, the one thing that keeps the organization on the right trajectory is the passion and dedication of its talented employees. I had the privilege of working with colleagues – interns, consultants, and staff – who represent the cream-of-the-crop of health economists, lawyers, doctors, and researchers from around the world. Many colleagues began their careers in the field, and over coffee chats, relayed poignant stories that capture why WHO’s work is so important: a Pakistani teen girl with no access to reproductive contraceptives who became a mother at the age of 15 and is shunned by her friends and families; a malnourished toddler in a Nigerian refugee camp who suffers from pneumonia. It is their passion to do better for these mothers and children that is contagious, and one that I carry today.

Contributing to projects with big impact. Seldom, can an intern have the opportunity to influence 194 countries’ policies, but in a global governance organization like the WHO, there is that potential for impact. At HQ, what I appreciated most was the human-centric mindset that I developed in strategizing the guidance and tools that countries needed to implement effective policies. “Make every mother and child count”, was tacked onto our departmental whiteboard, and the achievements of my summer were accomplished in such spirits.

My takeaways

In professional terms, i.e. as copy/pasted from my resume, my internship outputs were:

  • Spearheaded the strategic planning and execution of a multi-UN agency capacity building workshop that trained 52 global health experts and established a MNCAH Investment Planning working group.
  • Contributed to the data analysis of a post-“Countdown to 2015” policy and systems indicators paper that highlights MNCAH systems, finance, and policy progress in 75 priority countries. Co-authored “Monitoring and evaluating progress in health policies for women’s and children’s health in 75 Countdown countries: How the MDG experience can inform the SDGs” (Oxford Journal of Health Policy & Planning, August 2017).
  • Provided technical assistance on the development of a new advocacy initiative aimed at increasing millennial engagement in the WHO, as one of two selected youth advisors.

But in broader terms, I came out of the summer having turned in deliverables I’m proud of, learned from and working with global health superstars (including my fantastic supervisor and mentor, Blerta, a clearer picture of my career goals, and a full-time offer… which I accepted!

Betty at WHO