There’s nothing new about criticism on the practice of unpaid internships, but The Washington Post’s latest story about a young man sleeping in a tent to cut living costs during his (unpaid) Geneva-based UN internship shines light on the issue yet again.
Unpaid internships seem like the perpetual bane of a student’s existence: you compete against hundreds of highly qualified students and young professionals from around the world so you can work for free. Unfortunately, in today’s playing field, it seems imperative to have internship experience to land a job.
In a recent survey conducted by WhyDev, human resources staff at NGOs in Australia identified volunteering and internships as an effective means to get a job. Basically–work hard enough as an intern or volunteer, prove your worth, and you just might find yourself with a job.
But what does this do for development as a whole? How do we work within the existing systems, stay true to the mission of getting development right and ensure that development workers (yes, even the young’uns) can at least keep a permanent roof over their heads?
Unpaid internships impose a number of limitations with serious implications for the sector as a whole, and highlight its hypocrisies. Many organisations work to alleviate poverty or promote human rights, but use the work of unpaid interns to supplement full-time staff. It’s great if you can afford the costs of an unpaid internship (loss of income during the internship period, housing, room and board, insurance, visas, flights, and more) or if you can get funding through a school program.
However, this system has no room for students and young professionals who cannot afford to pay for the associated costs. This system leaves even less room for those who rely on wages earned during summers or after graduating to pay for expenses beyond the internship.
Despite all of the talk about participatory development, have we made the sector accessible only to the privileged?
In some cases, small NGOs don’t have the funds to pay interns. WhyDev has had some amazing help from volunteers recently – and we haven’t been able to pay them. Does it make us feel crappy? Yeah, it does, and if we were in a position to pay our interns, we would. It’s not a great excuse, but it’s our reality at the moment.
That leaves us with two final questions: Does a lack of resources excuse small NGOs from the need to pay interns? Should large NGOs with larger operating budgets offer unpaid internships? Tell us what you think!
Featured image shows a dome tent. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.