Commentary

Sleeping Rough in Geneva: What is behind Unpaid Internships at the UN?

by Alex Odlum

The international press have been quick to jump on the story of David Hyde — the 22 year old New Zealand intern found squatting in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva due the impossibility of meeting the city’s exorbitant rents on a UN salary of zero Swiss Francs (CHF).

As a law graduate with recent Master in Public Policy eager to start out on a career in international affairs, David’s struggle to afford the strangling prices of a city consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 most expensive is one to which I can closely relate.

Fortunately – for me at least – I am able to call a small apartment home and so far have not had to resort to a tent. Nonetheless, many a time I have found myself munching on nothing more than plain baguette after weighing up the horrendous prices of a more traditional bakery lunch – a humble ham sandwich (forget about the cheese!) will set you back nearly 10 CHF in many places.

Of course it is not fair to him but, in some respects, David has had it easy. At just 22 with only four years of study – and presumably four years of cumulative student debt – under his belt, David’s finances are potentially a lot healthier than those of many graduate job seekers today.

Many of the UN’s other unpaid interns have spent five, six, seven or more years scratching out master’s degrees and doctorates at the world’s best (and most expensive) universities, only to find themselves working for free.

I have known qualified medical doctors with public health master’s degrees to be on the World Health Organization’s books as unpaid interns. Sadly, such stories of over-qualification and under-valuation are more common than they are unique.

The point I am making here is that the discourse on David Hyde’s dilemma, whether justifying or scandalising unpaid internships looks only at snapshot in time and fails to grapple with the further issue that ambitious and talented young people often undergo years of financial sacrifice just to be eligible for a coveted internship at their dream institution.

Of course, students will always be poor.

That is a truism that one cannot challenge. Being a student is as much about learning about life outside the classroom as it is about books and grades.

There is nothing like a couple of weeks of a lavish indulgence followed by a couple of weeks of acute poverty to teach us the finer points of monthly budgeting and personal finance.

But whereas obtaining a good bachelor’s degree peppered with a bit of work experience over the summer breaks used to be a pretty fail-safe launching point to a junior position, the hard truth is that today over 5 years of study, a master’s degree or two, and a host of paid or unpaid internships is no ticket to employment.

At the UN, for example, entry-level professional positions – “P1” – simply do not exist. You’ll need to miraculously summon two years work experience from the day of your graduation just to qualify for a P2 position.

Ultimately, the problem here is not that the UN requires highly trained and experienced entry-level candidates – after all, this is a highly sought after employer operating in a competitive, global market. Rather, the problem is that such reasoning ignores the fact that just getting to graduation day costs vast quantities of students’, parents’, or even the government’s precious savings, leaving highly qualified graduates in a precarious position.

Although US tuition fees are at the high extreme of the global spectrum, the fact that average graduate loan debt in the US hit $35,000 in 2015 is indicative of the predicament young job seekers face around the world.

Investing three, six or even 24 months of your time to make contacts, demonstrate your skills and learn the ropes is not simply a matter of roughing it for a few nights, akin to pitching a tent on your new plot of land before you are able to afford the bricks and mortar.

Instead, it is more like sleeping rough deep in an excavated building site. Sure, you might have some pretty solid foundations lying around that in theory could support a skyscraper. But without the money to buy construction materials, you’re not going to be able to build the home you dreamed of. What is worse, with just a bit of rain, you will soon be up to your neck in mud.

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Advice

The People You Work With Should Help You Grow

A growth culture

By Maia Koytcheva

Have you ever found yourself wondering where you will be in 5 years time?

It’s a question that should be defined by more than your abstract career goal of becoming the next Ban Ki-Moon. It’s important to think about what makes you personally happy and what kind of environment you will thrive in professionally. You have to figure out how you work.

Over the years I have realised a few things about myself and what I want from my future. I have worked for a number of very different organisations – from small think tanks to large international organisations. But the one thing that, above all, has defined my career choices were the people I worked with rather than the different jobs and positions I have had.

When you start a new job, be it in a small 10 people team or in a huge organisation with thousands of employees, it will never take long for you start feeling a certain way about your colleagues, the team and ultimately your job.

This might be obvious, but you should not be filled with a sense of dread when you leave the house on Monday morning to head to work.

It will never be good for you to feel like you contributions at the work place are not valued – it will affect your productivity and the quality of your work. You should look for an environment that fills you with a sense of worth and excitement. A new task or project should not make you want hide because you feel it’s pointless.

On a side note, the lack of worth and challenges you may experience at one point or another in a job is not necessarily your own fault. Often it will be a result of bad management and a lack of understanding of the employees and the company needs.

What you should keep in mind is that you will learn much more in a workplace that accepts your questions and where you are allowed to challenge things – it’s the best way to grow professionally. You don’t want to belong to the 87% of people that don’t enjoy going to work.

You might be thinking that you prefer working by yourself in your home office, but I would argue that is simply because you haven’t had the luck to experience a truly great work environment.

A good team and company will be able to push you to a new level and you will gain much more than by working alone.

I have found myself in positions where I saw no future for myself in that company, not because of bad colleagues or my “boring” job but purely because of a lack of company culture that made me proudly want to say what I do and who I work for. (This is an interesting look at company culture and it’s different definitions).

The value of your labour and the intrinsic motivation attached to it are very important drivers for how well you work and how happy you will be.

I have been very lucky to have worked for some fantastic organisations, as well as some that have been less good. This has taught me to spot a few clear warning signs of a bad company culture.

Here are some questions you should be asking.

  • Have you spoken to people that work for that organisation, if so, what was their reaction to being asked about their job?
  • How often do people leave the organisation, how long have your boss and your immediate colleagues been there? (It’s always a bad sign if no one has been there for more than a few months or a year.)
  • Does a company value it’s interns (and for that matter also the secretaries and lower level office staff) and their contribution or are they just nameless, ever-changing elements to help with the more menial tasks that no one really wants to do?

These are questions you can quickly find out about during an interview or by talking to someone that already works there. You can even start finding answers by reading about the company values or their vision statement.

Ultimately I would say that beyond the immediate experience you might gain from a great position, there is little value in risking your own happiness and sanity for the sake of that experience if you cannot see a future for yourself in the company and cannot wait to leave the office every day.

You will gain a lot more by becoming a part of a team that values you and your efforts. There is no better feeling than achieving something together and feeling proud of your work and the organisation you work for.

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Advice, Experiences

Course Review: Development Studies and African Studies at SOAS

Written by Tomas Zak

When choosing what course I wanted to do at undergraduate level, I wanted to strike a balance between the practical part of my degree, which I thought would get me a job (Development Studies) and my own personal interests (African Studies), but I eventually realised this was a false distinction.

It was not a job-orientated degree. Both sides were intensely theoretical. In African Studies, the focus was predominately on learning a language and different aspects of African cultures such as film, music, literature, religion, etc…

Similarly, in what should really be called Critical Development Studies, there is a concerted effort to dismantle the problematic notion that “we” develop “them”. Instead, the course examines what it is in Western societies that inhibits development elsewhere. It looks into broader attempts at systemic reform, rather than piecemeal palliative measures perpetuated by the development orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the degree sought to marry this critical analysis of the development business with an understanding of a particular context – primarily by learning a language.

Pros

Language
As funding is getting cut across the board, fewer and fewer places have the language specialisation on offer at SOAS. The one thing I would have done differently when it comes to languages is to have gone on the year abroad, even if it meant taking a year longer to complete my degree, paying more fees and dealing with the pitfalls of SOAS organisation in a foreign country.

Through immersion you learn the most, but you have to be driven and above all, interested. SOAS has some great connections abroad, but it’s all about how you use them. I’d think carefully before picking a language as it is probably one of the decisions which will take the longest to bear fruit, but for me it was definitely worthwhile.

Interdisciplinary
In the core courses in development, there is no one lecturer. Lecturers will vary and come to teach their area of specialisation. So you will meet a lot of lecturers from different faculties and get to hear about how their current research ties into the topic at hand. It also gives you the opportunity to scope out potential dissertation supervisors.

Diversity
Not only in terms of nationality – but also in terms of a diversity of experiences, influences and norms. This applies to teaching staff and students alike and leads to interesting, albeit heated, debates both in tutorials, but also in the bar. It can begin to sound like a bad joke. A Tibetan monk, an anarchist and an Old Etonian sit down for a tutorial…

Cons

Ideological straitjacket
It is no secret that SOAS is one of the foremost centres for the study of Marxism and this seeps through into almost all aspects of teaching. There is very much a SOAS-line and after sitting in yet another tutorial full of nodding heads bashing the IMF, it can begin to sound like a broken record so try and break out.

London is perfect for this. There are talks, conferences, debates and book launches at places like the Royal African Society, the Africa Centre, the Overseas Development Institute, the London International Development Centre, Birbeck, LSE, Kings, UCL, etc… Chances are you’ll hear more than enough and come running back to the bubble that is SOAS, but it’s still worth hearing the other side.

Admin and organisation
Navigating the corridors of the Byzantine system that is SOAS bureaucracy will probably take up a substantial amount of your time. Menial tasks like changing courses or submitting a hard copy of an essay will have you running around chasing signatures and knocking on doors.

Tips on getting the most out of the degree:

Follow good lecturers not interesting sounding courses (H/T Chris Blattman).
At SOAS, the course I was most excited about on paper turned out to be taught by one of the worst lecturers. Some academics might have a wealth of knowledge, extensive work experience, huge research grants or have written ground-breaking books, but are very bad at public speaking and transmitting that information.

By contrast, a lecturer that has been running the same module year-on-year, benefits from a number of students shaping, improving and even challenging their thinking. If they are a good lecturer, they will have incorporated new ideas, have tried and tested different ways of teaching and altered the content of the course in response to current events and contemporary research. If you do end up taking the risk with a new course, don’t be afraid to change even if you are a couple of lectures in – I wish I had.

Don’t get fixated on the job at the end of your degree
Like I said, it’s not a job-orientated degree. For that reason, I got more out of courses I was genuinely interested in, irrespective of whether a module in “African Philosophy” has any practical application beyond university. In all probability, you won’t have as good a chance to explore your academic interests again after university so you might as well go for it.

SOAS isn’t for everyone, but to my mind one of the biggest drawbacks is probably its main selling point. Coming from a fairly right-wing environment, SOAS was an oasis where radical thinking was not dismissed outright, but considered as a plausible alternative. There are very few places in the UK where this is the case.

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Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 2)

Written by Hannah Todd

HART distributes emergency aid to its partners as the need arises. When it does so HART has the ability and agility to do so rapidly with targeted relief. Even if the size of donation is much smaller than larger NGOs, feedback from our partners has reinforced the importance of this facility. For example, in South Sudan one of our partners told us: “You gave little but in time. Others gave more but it came too late.”

HART responded to the refugee crisis in South Sudan with emergency aid to its partners in Bahr-El-Ghazal, Wau. Funds were also given for the purchase of seeds and tools for cultivation, anticipating that food shortages would be exacerbated by the rainy season. The type of aid HART supplied here had one eye on the future as well as dealing with the immediate problems the community was experiencing. The delivery of appropriate relief in South Sudan is but one example of how need can be combined with the necessity for sustainability.

Traditionally the time gap between emergency aid being withdrawn and developmental aid being injected into a society by major donors has been too large.

The two forms of aid have been too rigidly divided: aid distribution should not just coincide with the outbreak of conflict or natural disasters (frequently exacerbated by conflict). Rather, if aid is to be preventative as well as palliative then it should be given in times of peace and stability as well as conflict and hardship. In other words emergency aid should be combined with developmental aid. It is during crises of leadership (that cause or are caused by humanitarian disasters) that the seeds of development should be sown.

HART makes a special effort to ask its partners to identify their priorities for aid, thereby giving them the dignity of choice and respecting their knowledge of the problems confronting their people. For example, in Jos, Nigeria, HART visited a Peace Initiative Project earlier this year that seeks to heal relations between Muslims and Christians in the region through teaching entrepreneurial skills. The project has since sent HART detailed accounts of their most urgent needs which range from desktop computers to basic carpentry equipment. HART regularly visits its target communities to highlight these needs, to gather first-hand evidence of human rights violations (for example, in South Kordofan), and to ensure that it is fulfilling its remit in the most responsible and appropriate way possible.

International implications

Part of HART’s strength is its small size which helps keep it focused on the individuals it works with. Of course, larger NGOs and donor governments cannot hope to replicate this level of extremely personal and flexible care because with increased size comes increased responsibility. But what they can do is to adopt some of the approaches HART uses to build these relationships and apply them at a high political level. It is precisely because at this level bilateral and multilateral aid make up the vast proportion of international aid that it is vital that the art of sustainability is mastered.

Many critics have argued that bilateral and multilateral aid given in the form of concessional loans and grants is unsustainable and should be reduced, if not cut off altogether. The problems they cite straddle the social (government corruption and patronage) and economic (trade barriers between neighbouring countries) and all ultimately come down to the exacerbation of aid dependency. This is precisely where the values behind locally-led aid and development initiatives become vital.

It is possible for the ‘partner model’ of aid and development exemplified by HART to be scaled up to a macroeconomic level.

For example, applied at an international level the observation that aid should be invested locally and for a finite amount of time could solve the growing convergence between concessional loans and grants in the realm of international aid. Not differentiating between these two mechanisms of aid distribution – assuming that a loan will eventually turn into a grant – instils a lack of initiative in recipient governments. There is no incentive for them to nurture a fledgling situation of prosperousness so that they can escape the reliance on in-flows of aid to which they have become accustomed.

HART’s Projects Coordinator, David Thomas, says that one of the joys of being involved in HART is to see people’s enthusiasm to rebuild their communities before they have to worry about their ‘track record’ to impress larger aid agencies. It is this spark that larger aid organisations as well as governments need to capitalise on to make aid go further and last longer. The enthusiasm and trust that HART nurtures in its relationship with its partners is the vital aspect of sustainable development that continues to elude major donors and hamper their drive towards eliminating aid dependency.

Sustainability is about scaling up successful models of development. If international governments do not begin to realise this and learn from the models provided by smaller organisations such as HART then we will find that “sustainability” – currently an ever-evolving buzzword within the world of development – is still being discussed as the major hurdle to development in another fifteen years.

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Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 1)

Written by Hannah Todd

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming and criticism of aid unabating, governments have begun to increase cooperation between departments towards the creation of a successor to the MDGs – the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), due to be launched next year. Specifically this forges a triangle between economics, development and political strategy that has been lacking from aid and development to date.

Although bilateral aid (passing directly between governments) and multilateral aid (between countries via aid agencies and/or multilateral institutions) dwarfs the charitable and emergency aid of smaller NGOs like Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) it is important that we do not disregard the work of such agencies. It is precisely because smaller organisations have less margin for waste that they are forced to maximise their own efficiency. They thereby gain a better grasp of sustainability and their morals and mechanisms of working should arguably be made more central to the politics of bilateral and multilateral aid distribution.

Organisations such as HART not only help the communities they work with but also strive to engage with the principles and responsibilities surrounding aid and development. The most illuminating lesson I have learnt through working with HART this summer has been that aid is not cold hard cash. Instead, it is a decision. Most importantly, it is a decision that affects the course of a communities’ history. If delivered in the right way, for the right length of time, and in the most appropriate form aid has the potential to lay the foundations for an affluent and peaceful society.

Aid distribution: partners

The way aid is delivered dictates its value. HART exists to support its partners on the ground in eight countries around the world. Many international organisations can only go to locations with the permission of a sovereign government. But because HART’s partners are local, it maintains access to these areas even during times of crisis – when others have been forced to withdraw, either through conflict or because permission is withdrawn by the government. HART has no in-country staff and so if violence breaks out it doesn’t have an obligation to pull its staff out. In other words, HART maintains an access point to societies in need when they are most in need.

HART’s partners know how society works in their country and can achieve things that outsiders cannot. They are both the recipients and distributors of the aid HART sends them and this makes them more able to lay a sustainable foundation for the work that they do. The ‘partner model’ restores local agency and makes HART’s aid a form of private investment albeit without the conditions of repayment. HART’s aid provides the capital for project start-ups, local crisis relief and a range of other initiatives that contribute towards the overall improvement of a community’s standard of living.

This model successfully promotes sustainable development. The relationship is temporary and the supply of aid is withdrawn once the partner has built up their own contacts, thereby enabling them to continue along the path they started with HART’s help.

The unique role aid agencies such as HART play in facilitating this starting point is lending their voice and unique access to international governments that partners on the ground lack. This highlights the importance of the second of HART’s twofold remit: advocacy. Frequently partners move onto bigger funders but it was HART who got their work off the ground and HART who can recommend them as a referee in their applications to larger funders. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Yei, South Sudan, is one such example. Its healthcare clinics and agriculture projects no longer need funding from HART because EPC has grown to the point where it can forge partnerships across the country on its own and teach others, drawing on its now considerable experience.

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Advice

Course Reviews: Communication for Development at Malmö University

There are a lot of development related degrees out there. So many, in fact, it can be overwhelming. To help people out, we’ll be running several reviews of courses. If you would like to contribute a review of a course you’ve taken or if you want to attract more students to your programme please email development.intern.blog@gmail.com

comdev1

Communication for Development (ComDev) is an interdisciplinary field of study and practice, combining studies in culture, communication and development integrated with practical fieldwork. It explores the use of communication – both as a tool and as a way of articulating processes of social change – within the context of globalisation.

While Communication Studies commonly is associated with concepts like information, media and messages, Communication for Development not only encompasses these terms, but also embraces a much broader approach. ComDev focuses on approaches that work to facilitate dialogue and define priorities for messages and information, but most importantly, on social processes to involve people in their development – making people active participants, and not only passive receivers of messages and information.

From its start in 2000, ComDev set out to be an academic programme available to everyone, everywhere, even those students unable to relocate for their university studies. One of the key aspects of this approach is our livestreams where our students can follow the lectures in real time, no matter where they are in the world. These livestreamed sessions also allow students to interact with their peers and the teachers and to engage in group discussions and assignments.

Our student body is diverse: culturally, geographically and in their academic and professional backgrounds. This allows our students to deepen their knowledge within their existing area of expertise while also gaining a broad overview based on the academic backgrounds and practical experiences of their peers, allowing them to be able to work both interdisciplinarily and transculturally in their future professions. Many of our students and alumni work in professional media companies, international organisations (governmental and non-governmental) or are undertaking doctoral studies.

The programme runs part-time over two years and is conducted online with the opportunity of attending two or three weekend seminars in person. During their first year, our students receive a comprehensive overview of globalisation and an introduction to the field of Communication for Development. During their second year, the students are introduced to the use of new media and ICT in a development context and receive a thorough introduction to research methodologies in order to prepare them for their final thesis.

The benefits of studying in an international setting with the opportunity to interact with students from all around the world is a great asset to the programme and in combination with students who are working in ComDev-related fields, the opportunity to share experiences provides added value. ComDev embraces the international mind-set when planning for seminars and to date we have held seminars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, South Africa and Tanzania to name a few and we encourage our students to attend the seminars in person if they have the opportunity.

When writing their theses, we recommend students to conduct field studies and our students have had the opportunity of doing fieldwork in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. We always encourage our students to think outside the box and employ innovativeness and creativity to their fieldwork experiences. ComDev theses have included documentaries, short films, photo essays and a wide array of dissertations presented in exciting and original formats.

As an addition to our master’s programme, we offer a part-time course called Advances in Communication for Development, which aims to enhance skills and deepen knowledge in the strategic use of media and communication in development cooperation. Students are given the opportunity to independently plan, implement and evaluate a ComDev intervention. From 2014 this course is also offered as Commission Education for organisations and companies.

Web: www.mah.se/comdev

Twitter: @mahcomdev

Facebook: www.facebook.com/comdevmalmo

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Experiences

Working In Aid Without Volunteering

Written by Chloe Safier. Chloe currently works as the Regional Gender Lead for Oxfam in Southern Africa. Opinions here are her own and do not reflect that of Oxfam or her other affiliations. Chloe can be found on twitter @chloelenas

Jennifer Ambrose points out on her post, “Volunteering: The Paradox at the Beginning of an Aid Career” that many of those who work in development aid or humanitarian fields start their careers by offering their free labor in the form of volunteering in a foreign country. Ambrose points out the swath of problematic issues with this well trod path, not the least of which is that it puts (often young) people with little experience into rural contexts that require highly specialized expertise for any kind of real contribution to occur.

It also creates opportunities for those who can afford to work without compensation – most often those come into the situation with some money or cushion – and leaves those who can’t afford to work for free at a big disadvantage.

As someone who specializes in gender, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the gender inequality elements of the paradox Ambrose describes; namely, that the majority of the unpaid work force is women. In the case of the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics” in 2013. A 2009 study by InternBridge found that as many as 77% of unpaid college internships are held by women.

But I’m a firm believer that there are alternative ways to break into the international development field besides volunteerism and unpaid internships, and finding these alternate routes may help ameliorate some of the problems inherent with the volunteer/intern model (though it doesn’t, of course, address the bigger power and gender inequalities that lead to those problems).

One colleague of mine began his aid career working on the factory floor of car company. Another started as a corporate lawyer, another was a journalist, and another was a policy analyst for a US congressman.

My first job out of college was a (paid) position working for a faith-based non-profit in Boston, which included a mix of community organizing, event planning, and volunteer coordination. The job served me well, partly because it taught me some of the basics of being a working professional: project management, being accountable to a team, working with diverse groups of people, and how to craft an agenda for a meeting that actually results in a decision, to name a few.

But what’s been most useful in applying and interviewing for positions in international development has been the ability to tell my story as a coherent narrative (which, funny enough, is a skill I picked up in community organizer training). I’ve found that being able to fluidly link my work with Boston community groups to my work in the development sector by explaining the natural progression of my interests has made me (I hope) a more compelling candidate.

In interviews, I tell the story of how my two years of experience working for a community based group in the US gave me a set of experiences which propelled my interest in a graduate degree that focused on gender, law and human rights; this then led me to a job focused on gender justice and women’s rights in international development, and so on.

I have been an unpaid intern and it was mostly a good experience, but in retrospect, I’m not sure if it was necessary – had I been hired for a paid job in a different field, and continued my due diligence of networking and continuing to develop my skill base and technical expertise, I think I could have translated those acquired skills to the work I’m doing now.

In a recent job interview, I pointed to my first job in Boston to demonstrate how I’d been able to work in diverse communities, participate in community mobilization, and develop new leaders. I had tangible professional skills, and a story arc for what brought me from point A to point B, from domestic work to international work (even if, at the time, the plan wasn’t exactly mapped out as such).

I can’t speak for all the hiring managers in the international development sector, but in my case, I was offered the job.

My colleague who worked as a policy analyst before starting an international career is also able to demonstrate how that experience allows him to make a unique contribution to the international development sector; as someone who understands the ins and outs of US politics, he’s been able to position himself as someone who can translate on-the-ground experience in Ethiopia (where he currently works) to high level policy forums. The former journalist was able to translate writing and reporting skills to provide sharp and effective communications (and a strong network of reporters) for an NGO.

I’d argue, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree, that variety in our past work experience, and in our cultural backgrounds and identities, adds richness to the work environment and depth to the work itself.

If the only route to working in international development is by studying international development and getting entrenched in conventional aid industry thinking, we’re not going to bring new ideas or innovations into the field.

Which is to say: there are a lot of ways to get to where you want to be. International experience is critical, absolutely. But we, as a sector, can’t expect that the only way to get international experience is to have one type of experience, international or otherwise. And those seeking to work in the sector must develop all types of skills that can contribute to this work, so that people with real skills can make real contributions in a way that is not extractive or problematic in the way that Ambrose describes. One entry point would be to develop skills that are difficult to obtain in contexts where international aid works – technology, agriculture, engineering, monitoring & evaluation – to name a few.

Of course, in the current economy, getting hired for any kind of job- volunteer or paid- is a challenge. But it would be a lost opportunity to the development field and those who benefit from aid work to suggest that only those who have chosen to volunteer away from their home country or work for free are the only ones who have something to contribute to the collective goal of making the world a more just place to live.

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