Interning at UNHCR Ecuador: Samuel Balcazar

Throughout the summer of 2021, I had the remarkable opportunity of being an intern in the finance department of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its Ecuador operation. Due to my innate interest in finance and development, I was enthusiastic to join an organization whose mission is to safeguard the rights of refugees and finding durable solutions for people who have been forced to flee. Ecuador remains as the Latin American country hosting the largest number of recognized refugees, and as a consequence of COVID-19’s border closures, informal displacement of people has intensified the refugee context in the region. Being an Ecuadorian citizen myself, the purpose of this internship is very personal and close to my heart. I quickly became eager knowing that I would be actively contributing to the progress that I hope to see in the future of Ecuador.

Samuel working on his laptop
Samuel Balcazar cleaning data to construct a report for the finance unit.
This internship has been immensely rewarding in allowing me to explore the financial aspect of a global organization focused on human rights. Through conversations with my colleagues and reflecting upon the work I was doing, I further understood the UNHCR’s mandate, as well as the specific goals for Ecuador. Because of the nature of the finance department, I had the opportunity to learn about the context of all ten offices that comprise the Ecuadorian Operation, and work in collaboration with their respective administrators to ensure efficient use of funds. Some of my tasks included crafting seven reports that were utilized to assess the restructuring of the organization’s financial budget, monitoring payments and invoices internally, as well as working on official United Nations documents. For instance, I synthesized information and requirements across different U.N. agencies to construct a request for proposals for tax-related services.

The highlight of my internship experience was participating in the mid-year financial and budget strategy analysis that took place throughout July. I was invited to participate in meetings between the finance department and the directors of different offices across the country to effectively formulate a budget-plan that would cater to the needs of each field office while guaranteeing adequate financial implementation. By evaluating costs to date, and forecasting expenditures for the second semester of 2021, I was able to understand complex processes germane to financial planning, as well as learning adequate methods of forecasting and strategic management of resources to maximize the impact of UNHCR’s mission.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in completely unprecedented circumstances concerning migration, healthcare, refugees, and the operations of UNHCR. These conditions deepened my understanding of the versatility of the organization, as well as diversified my experience in multiple levels. The High Commissioner paid a visit to Ecuador’s operation during my internship. I had the honor of being invited to a virtual meeting where he spoke about the impact of UNHCR’s work, and the future of Ecuador’s mission towards people of concern. Not only was my knowledge of the UNHCR’s influence broadened, but these events also augmented my passion towards the topics of development and community-impactful roles.

Samuel's laptop and notebook
Samuel Balcazar’s valued notetaking during his internship to support his learning process.
One of the challenges I faced during this time was related to screen-fatigue and tired eyesight, which come in hand with a purely virtual working environment. Additionally, due to organization guidelines, interns are not given access to the platform utilized for specific financial and accounting processes, which, in turn, limited my involvement in certain tasks. Nevertheless, my team gave me meaningful responsibilities where I was still actively supporting the group without direct connection to such platform. Through my tasks, I was able to polish my analytical skills, my Excel expertise, my ability to work in a team, and my attention to detail, all of which were part of my initial objectives when starting this role.

My internship with UNHCR widened my awareness of the intricacies of the operations of a UN agency and provided me with a unique understanding of the refugee crisis’ context in Latin America. The learning opportunities from this internship are unmatched. I was able to become involved in ways I did not think possible prior to this internship, along with the chance to apply my academic background and heighten my understanding of economics, finance, and development.

This has been the pinnacle of my university experience at McGill, and I am immensely grateful to Mr. Hodgson, Mr. Schull, and Ms. Yang for making this internship a reality, thanks to the generous support I have received through the Allan A. Hodgson Internship Award and the Schull Yang International Experience Awards. Thank you so much.

I would also like to thank the ION for their unconditional support to student development, and my wonderful colleagues; their patience, enthusiasm, and mentorship made for a truly unforgettable and enjoyable opportunity.

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