Commentary, Experiences

Dear Backpackers

I have spent the last couple of weeks in Colombia. I went there partly to celebrate graduating, partly to visit a friend and partly just to go somewhere new. Side note: Colombia is great! Go visit.

Colombian cities are pretty good at viewpoints

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One of the reasons I became interested in international development (of which there are many) was my desire to go overseas and to see new things. It’s a selfish reason. I know that there are a bunch of problems with volunteering or working overseas. The majority of development work should be carried out by people from the place being ‘developed’ – that just makes sense. But when you’re laying out your career aspirations, it’s useful to be honest.

I would like a career that takes me to new places and challenges my worldview, I want to go see the world. I dread the idea of finding myself living where I grew up. (I also want to be able to do creative work, to contribute to something meaningful and to be able to live comfortably while doing it. I’ll probably have to choose between these, but that’s a task for another day). And so, these factors all considered, international development seems like a good fit – it’s got ‘international’ right there in the name!

Now, some people might argue that I could discover new places just by visiting them. I could go on package tours or plan long backpacking trips. I have always heard this referred to as “going travelling”. And, I’ll be honest, the thought of it brings me out in a rash.

When I lived and worked in Kampala my friends and I would see backpackers in a bar and groan. They were always dressed like they were about to hike over a mountain when they were, in fact, simply having a few beers in a nice bar in a large, cosmopolitan city. Leave your safari boots at the hostel. And then they’d be overenthusiastic about every ‘authentic’ detail – whoa, man, is that a genuine calabash? – while simultaneously only hanging out with other backpackers.

Not every experience is life-changing. Having a couple of drinks in a bar is pretty similar no matter where you are. Try talking to some of the ‘authentic’ Ugandans all around you. This phenomenon was such a recurring one that we joked about starting lookatthisfuckingbackpacker.tumblr.com*.

Santa Marta is both a tourist destination and a working port, with all the grit that comes with that.

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In Santa Marta the other week I overheard a group of white people discussing which yoga retreat/hiking weekend was going to be the most rewarding, “spiritually speaking”. They were the only other white people in the restaurant. You’re making us all look bad! Yes, of course arepas are gluten free! Stop asking!

Irritating hipster parallels aside, backpacker culture can (inadvertently) stir up nastier waters. In Kampala, I always knew that I could turn up to a film premiere, fancy part or fashion event looking pretty much however I wanted. I could have been out partying for several days, dressed in a raggedy t-shirt, jeans and dirty flip flops and still get let into the VIP section. If my Ugandan friend came looking like that it’s likely that they would get barred at the door. Mzungu privilege. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

As foreigners, we should be making the extra effort not to behave like we’re trekking into the wilderness to experience the exotic delights of the new world. We’re in someone else’s city, their home. Dress and act appropriately. Of course, expat development workers are guilty of disregarding this advice too but, in my experience, they’re less likely to than backpackers. Why? Maybe because they work with and know people from the country they’re visiting. Maybe because they are hanging around long enough to notice people reacting negatively to their behaviour.

In the wake of the recent Brexit vote and the rise of xenophobia all over the Western world I actually think more people should spend extended periods of their lives living overseas. But living and travelling are hugely different. I propose the three month rule: three months in one place is enough time to get to grips with it. You’ll know your way around, you’ll have figured out where some of the better bars/restaurants/clubs are and, most importantly, you can actually form friendships that will distort your Facebook bubble and open your world up a little more.

After (at the very least) three months, you’ll have a genuine glimpse of how life somewhere else looks, really looks. Working overseas is a great way of doing that. If I learnt anything from Colombia it’s that while I genuinely do love travelling oversea, I greatly prefer living there.

Now to get back to reality and start churning out job applications.


*Still very happy to get this going if anyone is interested.

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Experiences, Projects, Unpaid Internships

The Internship Grind: Better Know An Intern Pt. 2

In this Better Know An Intern episode Clement speaks to Anke Van de Velde about her internship experience, wanting to go to space, Criminal Minds, and human rights.

For past episodes, the blog, and more info visit theinternshipgrind.com/

// Are you currently a UN intern and want something a little bit better than the WhatsApp chat or the Facebook group to get all the internship information you need to know? Sign up for the new UN Interns Association at unia.ga/

As always, help support the Internship Grind by contributing to Clement’s Generosity crowdfunding campaign:igg.me/at/vUrRUldFoEA

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Experiences, Projects, Unpaid Internships

The Internship Grind: Better Know An Intern Pt. 1

Clement is, if nothing else, a generous guy.

Rather than bang on and on about himself, he’s decided to let some of his peers have their say. (A bit like how this website is a platform for development interns, not just a way of stroking my ego).

I’m trying something a little bit new for the podcast. I’m kind of over sharing my own internship experience so I’m going to start doing this thing where I sit down and chat with other interns about their own internship experiences. This is the first in a series of “Better Know an Intern” episodes.

As always, help support the Internship Grind by contributing to my Generosity crowdfunding campaign:igg.me/at/vUrRUldFoEA

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Experiences, Projects, Unpaid Internships

The Internship Grind: Tennis Court Oath

On June 23, 2016, the UN Interns Association was launched as a way to bring unpaid UN interns in New York City together to institutionalize a community.

I speak with UN interns Bolu Oyewale and Anke Van de Welde about what UNIA is all about and to other interns about why they think we need a UN Interns Association. I also spoke to Jolan Remcsak, another UN intern at the centre of organizing this organization, about the UNIA Executive, what it’s for, and how choosing the leadership for this executive will take place.

If you would like to run to become a part of the executive, please register at uninternsassociation.ga/ and tell interns more about yourself and why you want to get involved.

As always, help support the Internship Grind by contributing to my Generosity crowdfunding campaign:igg.me/at/vUrRUldFoEA

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Experiences, Projects, Unpaid Internships

The Internship Grind: The Intern Social Scene

Ah, now we get to probably the best bit about interning. Cutting loose.

I am possibly biased because I spent most of my intern days in Kampala when it was still very cheap. The parties were often and epic. And I swear I could handle hangovers a hell of a lot better back then (although my old supervisors would probably beg to differ). The relentless marching of time eh?

Clement has some big questions this week:

Where do interns meet? How do you find out about what’s going on within the intern community? Who is Calico Jack? All this will be answered on this alcohol-fueled episode of The Internship Grind.

As always, help support the Internship Grind by contributing to Clement’s Generosity crowdfunding campaign:igg.me/at/vUrRUldFoEA

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Experiences, Projects, Unpaid Internships

The Internship Grind: The Intern Food Review

If you don’t get paid, work all the time and you live in an incredibly expensive city how are you supposed to eat?

Clement Nocos takes us through his routine. He spends 12 hours a day out of the house and eats out in New York while he does his UN internship. He has something like $8 a day to do this. How?

Clement has some good tips so listen to him, especially if you’re in New York.

This episode gave me flashbacks to spending my last 5000 Ugandan Shillings on an order of chips-chaps at Chicken Tonight. My card had been blocked and nobody was paying me, cash or otherwise, but I splurged it all in one go anyway. It was a surprisingly liberating evening and, thankfully, Natwest sorted out my card the next day. At other times I also relied on the largesse of friends – Kampala crew, you know who you are – to keep me fed.

As for my two cents, I would advise staying at home a bit more and cooking a whole lot. Learn to cook big batch pasta sauces/stews using cheap cuts of meat, roast whole chickens and keep using the meat throughout the week, make rice/noodle and veggie stir frys like Mee Goreng. This saves A LOT of money (and impresses dates).

Cook up several portions worth on weekends and portion it out throughout the week. Also, figure out a way to cook whatever ingredients are very cheap where you are. When I was living in Nairobi last year I learned how to make a delicious Szechuan green bean dish because I could buy a kilo of the things for next to nothing. Googling recipes is pretty damn cheap.

As ever, please support Clement and/or check out his other podcasts.

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Experiences

Course Reviews: Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance

When I started my graduate degree most people would hear ‘Master of Public Policy‘, nod, pause a couple of a seconds and then ask me what that was, exactly. At first I didn’t know how to answer. Judging from the answers given by my graduating class (and myself) we’re still not entirely sure.

Now, at least, when people ask me about the course I did I have a quickfire response: it’s like an MBA but for politics.

Need someone to revamp a bit of your company? Hire an MBA grad. Want somebody to draft you a new policy or run a project that isn’t profit oriented? Hire an MPP grad.

The world of modern government is difficult. The public sector is responsible for far more than it ever used to be, people expect much more from and the general public is generally more dissatisfied with it than ever. Public policy schools have sprung up to try to train people who can solve some of these problems.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin

Personally, my motivation for doing an MPP came from my various internships in development and hearing the experiences of friends and bloggers who were doing similar things. I saw that, often, many organisations in the sector aren’t run very well. They aren’t financially stable, the people in charge are often technical experts rather than people who know how to run organisations, and, as a result, most organisations are struggling to stay relevant, transparent and respected during a difficult moment in history. Rather than become a highly specialised lawyer or logistics expert, I figured, why not go study to be a generalist – be the person who lets specialists focus on their specialisations.

The MPP programme dips into economics, law, politics, public administration and statistics; enough to give graduates an understanding of the broader set of challenges facing public and nonprofit organisations today. This is a degree that sees the fox as superior to the hedgehog, an approach that I think global development truly benefits from. If you want to come out of your graduate school experience an expert in your field, this probably isn’t the course for you.

Of course, you do learn skills. In the (brutal) first semester everybody gets a crash course in economics (both micro and macro in 12 weeks!) and statistics, where you learn to use STATA and understand multiple regressions. I did courses on digital economics, learned how to download and analyse social media data, got an introduction to law and participated in a series of mock negotiations during my two years in Berlin.

The MPP is a professional graduate degree that focuses on shorter, more workplace applicable outputs: memos, short essays, presentation after dreaded presentation. It is a tough and full time course that gets through a lot of material very quickly. The day I handed in my thesis I had an oral exam. After that, I went right home to work on two essays due that same week. Many of my peers would agree that this course was a lot more work and hours (say goodbye to your weekends) than most jobs. But once you get through it, nothing else is likely to phase you.

The Berlin experience

I chose to go to the Hertie School in Berlin for three main reasons: it was cheaper than most of the other options (both in terms of tuition and living costs); I really liked the city from previous visits; and my partner grew up in Berlin. I’m still very pleased with my decision.

There are things you probably already know. Berlin is cheap as chips. Berlin is still just about the coolest city on the planet right now. But it is also the capital of Europe’s most powerful country and the Hertie School is located a couple of minutes from the Reichstag, slap bang in the middle of the government district. Practically every day at Hertie a important minister, ambassador, policy maker or social scientist visits to give a talk (with free food and drinks afterwards). You can’t help but feel you’re at the centre of a major political capital. In addition, Hertie is tiny compared to most of its competitors – my graduating class, the only class of my cohort, was just 146 people. That’s it. You’ll know most of your peers and most of the professors will know your name and learn your interests. You don’t feel part of a huge machine at Hertie, but part of a very active, very well connected political community.

There are downsides. Hertie is a very young institution, just over a decade old, and doesn’t have the name recognition (at least outside Germany) of the LSE or Columbia University. Particularly for non-Europeans, battling with the bureaucratic German registration process and finding housing can be gruelling. While my fellow students were largely very well integrated there is no denying that the Germans tended to stick with their fellow Germans, leaving the rest of us ausländer to club together.

On the whole, however, the downsides were handily outweighed. What Hertie doesn’t have in brand recognition it makes up for in faculty and staff who are massively committed and energetic – it’s a young, small, hungry institution that doesn’t coast along on its name. One of the worst aspects of my undergraduate experience was the feeling that I wasn’t seen as a student with interests and potential, but a source of income. This will not happen at Hertie.

The MPP network

I heard about the MPP via the Master of Public Administration course offered at the London School of Economics (which is, broadly, the same as the MPP offered at Hertie). There are several Public Policy schools who band together around the world offering more or less comparable degrees and a huge amount of study abroad and dual degree options. Friends of mine studied part of their 2 year degrees in London, New York, Washington, Paris, Tokyo, Cairo, Milan and Moscow.

Hertie is the most Europe/EU focused of the public policy schools. It has EU staffers and former European Central Bank officials in its faculty. Most of the lessons focus on European issues (not German, specifically, but in recent years the two have been hard to disentangle). Some students were disappointed that they could not focus on geographical or thematic areas – such as Latin America or Conflict Resolution – so check out the rest of the policy schools before you choose one: most have a general area of interest/focus.

All MPP/MPAs are taught in English. You can travel the world and meet your fellow politics geeks at yearly student conferences like the European Public Policy Network or the Global Public Policy Network (which I attended in 2013). My graduating cohort contained students from 36 different countries, starting with Afghanistan all the way through to Uruguay. Friends have gone on to travel and work or study in many more countries. There aren’t many places in the world I can go and not find somebody in this network, sweating it out writing policy memos, ready to give me local tips and share a drink or two.

It’s not often in life that you will meet so many interesting people in such a short space of time (several of whom have written for this blog). In 20 years time, I’m sure that the most valuable thing to come from my time at Hertie won’t be the skills or ideas I learned, but the network of people I met.

Five characteristics of a happy Hertie MPP student:

  1. You don’t want to be a specialist/you don’t know what you want to specialise in just yet.
  2. You want to work in the public or nonprofit sectors (or in socially oriented business).
  3. You value personal attention over big name recognition.
  4. You care about the EU.
  5. You are internationalist in outlook.
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