Posts Tagged 'international development'

Seven internships and counting…is a career in international development worth it?

In my third year of a Religions and Theology degree, I knew I wanted to work in international development. And for this, I knew I’d need some experience. I applied for a part-time internship (… internship number 1) with an international inclusive education network located close to my University, which was a good few months and in hindsight provided me with very useful contacts and experience.

This internship also provided me with research and some editing experience and through doing it, I was offered some voluntary work on another NGO project. Naively I thought that this, combined with a gap year spent in Nepal, would be enough when I started my masters degree in international development. The MSc came and went and by this point I was 23 years-old and with an enormous career development loan debt. I applied for another internship in India (internship number 2) with a Dalit postgraduate learning centre.

I was fresh out of my MSc and back living with my parents, unable to afford to do much. My intention had been to move home after Uni and spend the 3 month gap between then and leaving for India doing temporary work (by this point I was well experienced in admin temping). No such luck. Despite a masters degree, lots of admin experience and voluntary work, I was considered too “over-qualified” for the positions I was applying for. The best I was offered was two weeks working in a factory. Eventually, and kindly, my parents offered to pay for my flight to India.

Internship number 2 was 3 months long and was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. Very unstructured, no clear profile, etc. Myself and another foreign intern had to pay out own flights, visas and insurance and were paid a very, very small stipend (which was about half my monthly career development loan repayments for which I got into additional debt). Immediately after India, I went to Nepal for internships 3 and 4, working for a women’s rights network and a newspaper, respectively. At the former, I was provided with food and accommodation (which initially meant sharing a room with a teenager and a young child) and basically editing English documents. The second internship at a newspaper was very useful, but only paid a basic rate for articles I had published. They also, frustratingly, had a policy of not assisting non-Nepalis with visas. This meant no job at the end of the internship.

I returned to the UK for financial reasons and after two months of unemployment embarked on internship number 5 at a local newspaper. I was now 25. I initially worked 5 days a week, but they said this was too much of a commitment and reduced my days to 3. I received no travel or food allowance, despite effectively doing the same work as a junior reporter and writing a lot of copy. They had made it clear at the start that there was no chance of a job – but what else was I supposed to do? I wasn’t getting any of the admin jobs I was applying for and I needed some form of stimulation and outside interaction. I was 25, living at my parent’s place and splitting my dole money between paying my career development loan and paying travel costs to get to this internship. The really frustrating thing was the fact they didn’t even offer to pay for travel. I lasted 3 months and became very, very unhappy.

Increasing frustrations (shouting at the tv, becoming too bitter and cynical to read the newspapers, etc.), led me to start a development consultancy business, because I needed to do SOMETHING of value. And, I’d rather intern for myself than for someone else. And shortly after starting this, I was offered 3 months of private, well paid teaching work.

I then started what was effectively internship number 6 in May. This was done from home and involved editing work. It did involve one trip to London earlier in the year, which, of course, they didn’t offer to cover the travel for. I’ve received criticism from senior staff, too, and there has been a complete lack of guidance throughout. But, it looks good on the CV (which is all that matters for us desperate grads, right?)

So now… it’s October and last week I received news that I’ve been selected to go and work abroad for, yes, you guessed it… internship numero 7! Fortunately, they provide accommodation, a small stipend and food. Sadly, this means the money I saved from teaching over the summer will just about cover my career development loan for the six month period. It also means I won’t be able to come home for my best friend’s wedding… and, perhaps even worse, I’ll be 26 and still an intern (DOOM!)

Yes, I’ve done a lot and have quite a packed CV. But, it’s really not fair. Having your work consistently undervalued and it made me lose alot of confidence in myself and caused me to become very depressed. Sadly I know people in all too familiar situations who, like me, feel that we’ve been somehow cheated and are perpetually left out of an unjust and unfair system. It makes you want to scream…

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BRAC Internships in Bangladesh

I am currently coming to the end of a 6 week ‘general’ internship with the Bangladeshi international development organisation BRAC and consequently feel qualified to offer some insights into the phenomenon of internships at home and abroad.

The first two weeks of the programme were essentially an orientation in the Dhaka headquarters, followed by three weeks of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh, before two more weeks in the capital.  

I should add that in this case I was participating in the first cycle of the internship programmes and as such probably felt the effects of a few ‘teething problems’ that subsequent interns might not have experienced. I graduated from University of Sheffield (BA East Asian Studies) in July 2008 and University of Manchester (MA International Development: Social Policy and Social Development) in September 2010.

I deliberated long and hard about whether or not to undertake a 6 week internship with an NGO on the other side of the world. In this case, interns were required to meet all their own accommodation, living and transport costs (including flights) and I estimate that this experience has set me back around £1000-£1200 in total i.e. a maxed-out overdraft. I was aware of these costs prior to making my application and considered this an expensive yet valuable addition to my CV. As per the application guidelines, I nominated a specific department within which I wanted to be placed for the duration of the 6 weeks (advocacy and social development). So far, so good.

Street scene in Dhaka

 Upon arrival at BRAC HQ in Dhaka the 21 interns eagerly collected their intern packs (security passes embellished with INTERN in big and important looking letters, a map of the city, a list of about a thousand emergency contact numbers…) We then learnt that there had been a slight change of plan. Owing to the unprecedented number of candidates that had been accepted onto this cycle, it would not be possible for everyone to tailor their internship to their specific chosen theme. The various interests and priorities of 21 individuals were to be covered by a broader ‘general’ programme whereby everyone, in theory, got to learn a little bit about each department’s work.

However, the “9 to 5” working schedule that we had all been told to expect never materialised and it became clear that BRAC hadn’t organised anywhere near enough to keep 21 motivated, energetic and frequently impressively qualified young people occupied. After sitting through a posterior-numbing week of interminable departmental presentations (whose content we could have probably learnt by reading the Annual Report ourselves) the question of expected outputs from the fieldwork component of the internship arose.

Dhaka cityscape

Myself and most others had expected to be involved in researching and producing serious ‘academic’ reports for presentation to department heads and had travelled to Bangladesh armed with laptops and armfuls of books to help us with our work. I refreshed my memory regarding the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methodologies in development research, ready to put my postgraduate skills into practical use. Disappointingly, when the question of written reports and data collection arose, the internship co-ordinators seemed uninterested in getting us to do anything more than photograph, film and case-study the life out of anything that moved, all part of the giant refurbishment of the BRAC website. I tried to suppress the feeling that the internship programme represents a remarkably convenient way for the organisation to get unpaid foreigners to take on some of the organisation’s least glamorous tasks, all under the banner of having a ‘unique cultural experience’. After all, which up and coming member of the BRAC communications department wants to spend their evenings in a basic training and resources centre in an unfashionable rural backwater discussing hardcore poor latrines with the poverty-stricken masses when there is a new air-conditioned coffee shop to be discovered in the capital? The interns will do it – they like that sort of thing, it’s cultural.

The fieldwork component was similarly disappointing. Although we had been given printouts denoting a packed timetable of activities, we soon realised that there was a lot of ‘padding’ and we were frequently left with hours to kill as the day’s work ended early. When we did undertake visits to rural projects, we usually felt as though we were disrupting daily life as the entire village turned out to stare at us and scheduled meetings ground to a halt. We were certainly taking from them – taking photos left, right and centre – but what were they getting from us? Without projects to work on, we became listless and bored. The option of quitting the internship early to fly home began to be mooted amongst the interns.

The growing feeling of ‘why are we here?’ (apart from to ogle poor people) led us to conclude that we had unwittingly become ‘poverty tourists’ or participants in a grotesque ‘NGO safari’. Surely the original point of an internship was to allow a potentially viable candidate for employment within an organisation to ‘test the waters’ and impress those whose job they may one day occupy. In an organisation like BRAC which does not employ foreigners in its Bangladesh offices, all that an intern can stand to gain is an exposure to the workings of the organisation rather than a chance to get a job. Show and tell, if you like.

Upon returning to Dhaka, 5 of the original 21 interns decided to cut their losses and head home, changing flights to leave earlier than planned. The communications department hastily thought up four mini-projects to which individuals were then randomly assigned, whether or not these related at all to one’s area of interest or expertise. I do not consider the creation of a ‘visual mind map of the BRAC approach’ for example to be a sufficiently challenging task for postgraduate and PHD-level students. Consequently, myself and a few disillusioned others can now be found haunting Dhaka’s coffee shops, biding our time before we are able to fly home and sharing our experiences with Interns Anonymous so that others may avoid making similar expensive and disheartening mistakes.

Of course my experience hasn’t been entirely negative. I have been able to explore this country thanks to my participation on this internship programme and I have met a wonderful group of similarly-minded people who I will remain friends with for a long time. In an interview I can probably spin several positives out of this negative experience. However, in terms of gaining new skills or consolidating existing ones, I can honestly say I have achieved zero. A disastrous mismatch between interns’ expectations and the organisation’s ability to meet them has created profound dissatisfaction on this internship programme. What was promised was sadly never delivered and I would urge potential interns to thoroughly investigate the pedigree of a programme before making a commitment and, ideally, get in contact with some previous interns to hear the real story.

Sign of the times: intern advisor

I have recently been consulted on my internship ‘expertise’ by the organisation I am working for. Having done several internship programmes in my bid to further my career, I unwittingly found myself being able to give advice on the one area of expertise I had built up – ‘being an intern’.

Continue reading ‘Sign of the times: intern advisor’


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