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Is development a sector for the 1%?

Is development a sector for the 1%?

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.

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Jessica Meckler

Jessica is a Master’s candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she focuses on economic development and NGO management. She also currently works at the Akanksha Foundation as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow, assisting with impact assessments, curriculum design and system creation in schools for children from low-income communities. Previously, she taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, and she has interned at multiple community development organisations in the U.S., South Korea and Bangladesh. Jessica is particularly interested in sustainable development, monitoring and evaluation, organisational learning and education.

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12 thoughts on “Is development a sector for the 1%?

  1. JSI is unique in that we pay all of our interns hourly (including those in high school, college, and grad school), and that culture of valuing and paying for someone’s time (specifically an interns) comes straight from senior leadership.

    I agree with the earlier comment on the wide range of support an intern requires, and have found that bringing on an intern is the best fit for the org and the new hire when there is a specific scope of work and deliverables to work on. I remember my internship in grad school (which was very beneficial, but unpaid) and what I found the most joy in was being well managed but trusted to do the work given to me and do it well.

    When there’s less structure and the internship isn’t attached to specific activities, it also makes it a harder sell to fund, in my opinion.

  2. Wealth inequality is definitely a barrier to participation in international aid/development – that’s true whether you’re an American wanting to work overseas or a would-be social entrepreneur in Tanzania.

    I think this limits what ideas are heard, as well as who international aid/dev companies work and how they work with them.

    Funds are allocated and projects designed/implemented based on those biases. It supports a paradigm of donor/recipient or savior/victim, rather than a relationship of partnership or mentorship.

    And then it distorts those people/groups from backgrounds genuinely different from the majority. In order to get your idea heard or get hired by a major aid/dev company, you have probably shaped your thinking or your project to fit that company.

  3. Meredith

    I lived in Geneva on an unpaid internship for six months when I first started out. I lived in low-end hostel and house-sat for my supervisor. I also had saved some funds that I was willing to put forward towards the experience, as it it was important to me to get my foot in the door. I didn’t feel exploited; on the contrary, I was excited! I made sure I had all the resources in place to be able to do it well before I committed and then took a leap of faith.

    I do see how some organizations take advantage of the “free” labor, but it also takes a lot of work from both parties for an internship to be successful. Everyone makes their own decision as to whether or not the relationship is worth it in the end. For this gentleman, it was obviously not.

  4. Erin

    The publicity that the story about the UN intern camping has really irked me. Although I see great value in young people being exposed to any industry and learning from that experience, and I do feel that unpaid internship can often be highly exploitative. It strikes me that internships (especially the prestigious ones at place like the UN) are really only for people who come from a position of privileged in the first place. That it perpetuates systemic discrimination that limits access to opportunities for people from poorer backgrounds in both developed and less developed countries. International development organizations need to get much more serious about promoting diversity and creating career pathways for people from less privileged backgrounds…

    1. I completely agree, Erin! We had a post here a few months back that made a great case for the unique perspectives & insights that people from less privileged backgrounds bring to development work.

  5. Sally

    From the perspective of someone who regularly manages interns, a lot of work goes into doing it well to ensure it is a genuine learning experience: a thorough recruitment process to ensure their skills, goals, and values align with the organisation’s needs, visa support, a guide to preparing for the internship, orientation, on-the-job training and mentoring, assessment, and responding to reference requests after the internship. Some hit the ground running, some require a lot of guidance, which can pull attention away from other priorities. Partnering with colleges which offer students grants for international internships has worked well for us – many of our interns have been scholarship students from developing countries, who have each brought unique insights.

  6. Hayley

    I interned for World Vision for nine months while studying undergrad. The position was unpaid but they reimbursed my travel costs, allowed me to work flexible hours, and offered me great training! It has added to my student loan but was so worth it; I’m ful-time there now!

    1. Jessica

      Hi Hayley,
      Thanks for commenting! It’s great to hear that you found your internship added so much value to your learning and that you have continued your career at World Vision. Has your internship experience enhanced your current work at World Vision and if so, how?

  7. Weh Yeoh

    Just my 2c as someone who works with a small NGO, and regularly faces difficulty paying staff, let alone interns. I agree it’s not a great feeling but it’s a simple lack of resources. If large organisations start paying interns, while small organisations simply can’t, wouldn’t that shift all the interns away from small NGOs to large ones? Would we see even more shifting of resources?

    1. Jessica

      Hi Weh!
      You raise some very good points. I don’t know what kind of trends we would see if large organizations offered paid internships and small organizations offered unpaid positions. It is possible that we would see a shift in resources. However, I don’t know if paid internships at large organizations would exhaust the student demand for internships. There are a limited number of positions (even now, as unpaid internships) at large organizations. I wouldn’t expect that number to rise if interns were paid.

      Perhaps another important question is whether or not interning at small organizations has a different type of value for students. The experience can be much different at a small organization than at a large organization. Do you think that the benefits of interning at small organizations would attract students and young professionals despite lack of pay?

  8. Sketchthing

    I don’t think it is a necessary option for small NGOs which can’t afford to pay for interns to hire them as an unpaid. How many people wants to work for company without any payment even though they are super rich? In the end, It is not only actually about money, it leads to the responsibility and ethics at workplace.

    1. Jessica

      You have a great point – internships are a learning opportunity for students. It’s a time for young professionals to learn about the field and professional values. An important question for me is: How do we make these learning opportunities available for everyone?

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