Unpaid Internships

Interns #FeelTheBern

In August, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeted an application for unpaid interns, requiring a résumé and two letters of reference. Just a few days later, she was posting about the student debt crisis.

…of the 16 candidates running for president, only one pays his interns: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), at $10.10 an hour.

I know this article by Christine Greer and Alexis Grenell probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It isn’t a new topic.

Just like international development, politics is a hyper-competitive sector that doesn’t traditionally pay very well (unless your last name is Clinton and you like making speeches).

Interns are many, money is little; nobody else is paying their interns,  so why should I?

Ignore the ethics of it for a second. Ignore the fact that inequality (i.e. inequality  of income) is becoming one of the defining political issues of the 21st century. Ignore the hypocrisy of not paying interns and then banging on about jobs and job creation, bemoaning debt and calling for people to work their ways out of poverty. Think about it in terms of recruiting.

If your interns have to self finance then you’re limiting your pool of candidates to the rich. You won’t be recruiting the best. Even worse, these limits aren’t just class-based, they are clearly related to race. As Greer and Grenell put it:

A recent Pew Research Center study found that the median wealth of white households is more than 10 times that of Hispanic households and 13 times that of black households. There is a racial divide between students wealthy enough to participate in internship programs and those who lack the financial reserves to do so.

Sure, the topic isn’t new but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Full article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/presidential-candidates-ignore-the-costs-of-unpaid-internships/2015/12/03/07436850-99d6-11e5-94f0-9eeaff906ef3_story.html

Experiences, Unpaid Internships

My Unpaid Internships


by Lauren Baldwin

My first experience working as an unpaid intern was the summer before my junior year in undergrad.

It was a five month, twenty hour per week commitment working on a cause-related fundraising event. I had a massive commute and the responsibilities of a full-time student. As there was an “all-hands on deck” mentality, I got autonomy and responsibility from day one. Interns were heavily relied upon to make the event a success.

I had a supervisor who really listened to my interests and needs and the whole team shared “bitch work” like cold calling. I felt lucky to have a great first intern experience.

Because of a paid position I held in my university’s fundraising department after that internship, I gained database management skills – something nearly all nonprofits utilize. This gave me the chops to nab internship #2.

I recommend looking for jobs seemingly unrelated to your exact field/ideal role/dream org but that can be applied broadly: database management, research, event planning, customer service etc… Having practical skills that someone who spent all their time “getting experience abroad” or volunteering might not have can be a huge asset

My second internship was stateside at a small, young NGO that installed water catchment systems in the global south. I was tasked with researching and pitching donor database software, assisting in the decision/strategic recommendation process, and then carrying out the implementation/data transfer. Again, I had a supervisor who gave me autonomy quite quickly.

Remember, newer/smaller orgs and offices are more likely to really need you, and you can self-start your way into meaningful impact. Alternatively, the event I first interned for had been in existence 20+ years so their internship program had had its kinks ironed out.

There’s no tried and true answer – just feel out what the organizational structure is like and how interns are utilized and how well that pairs with what you are hoping to learn or gain.

My last undergraduate internship experience was, unfortunately, the least fulfilling.

I worked for a nonprofit media/advocacy organization. My supervisor was extremely out of touch and unavailable, and there were far too many interns for the amount of work. The only positive from this experience was the networking and connections I gained – something I took into consideration before applying. My contacts there have served me well and are inspirational, smart people I benefit from on a relational and professional level to this day. If you have your doubts, but can see pros within an organization’s internship program (i.e. influential and connected leaders), maybe suck it up to get that person in your corner.

I now, before even applying to orgs, always seek out Skype dates, informational emails, etc with current or former staff or friends of friends.

The Internet is mostly kind and willing to help – utilize it. Most people in development had a non-linear path, filled with doubt and stretches of being completely broke. So they’re willing to help. I go to conferences such as Harvard’s International Development Conference (grad student run) when I can. I email PhDs and practitioners whose writing/career/blog/work I admire.

My big stint abroad, “cutting my teeth” in development , was at a human rights legal organization with (at the time) eighteen field offices. I knew I wanted to work abroad after school, and a paycheck wasn’t the biggest deal breaker.

This opened up lots of options; if I had limited myself to paid work it likely would have never happened for me.

This org was the first on my list I made – just because its application were due the sooner than the others. Once that ball got rolling, I was offered a position in their newest, most rural office. I was able to thrive in this location – something I truly didn’t know until it happened. You can never know, you just hope your self-assessment is accurate!

I was the Executive Assistant to both a national director and expat director (due to a leadership transition halfway through my time) in Uganda. I actually extended my time 6 months, for many reasons, but mainly in order to have a good-looking chunk of time on my CV (eighteen months total). This org’s internship program did a good job of giving the interns real work – I had a 9-5 schedule, set vacation days, etc. There was a standard to which I was held, performance reviews, access to professional development resources, etc. I had many other friends in my small town frustrated with their “jobs” because of massive lack of structure – you can only self-start so much.

This position was completely self-funded, down to the last penny. I was able to fundraise, mostly through my own network (which is an advantage undoubtedly – having a network that can write checks) – family, friends, friends of friends, – and kept a blog throughout. I didn’t have every dollar raised before departing and just kept plugging along. Through practising the discipline of blogging though I’ve gained a deeper appreciation and value for my international support system and all the people interested/willing to come alongside me.

While I am definitely not a fan of unpaid internships and don’t think they’re fair – it is the current system.

In order to gain experience and contacts in my desired field I did not really see a way around it. Because it was my choice, I committed to keeping a positive attitude. I frame my whole career’s emphasis (at this point in my mid-twenties) on learning and growth. I will not always get paid for my time or get an immediate monetary reward. But over time there will be benefits to reap.

My current job is a direct example – my experience, time and network in Uganda enabled me to get a paid position doing what I want to do. Even my first internship with that fundraising event enabled me to get a job in between my Uganda gigs when I was resigned to wait tables or bartend due to a desire for a temporary commitment.

Unpaid internships are the current lay of the land. Rather than spend energy and time resisting, I tried my best to make it work for me and gain the experience (especially getting a head start while still in undergrad) that gave me a workaround for that strange stipulation of an entry level job that requires two years’ experience, which we are all too-familiar with.



via @NewYorker

Unpaid Internships

“No, no, we’ll pay you with valuable experience.”

Advocate, Unpaid Internships

Rights for all (except our interns)

“If it is to deserve its reputation as a beacon of justice, defending the rights of every person with a clear conscience and impeccable record, Human Rights Watch must cease the exploitation of its interns.”

A group of Human Rights Watch (HRW) unpaid interns have reportedly filed a report calling for the organisation to start paying their lowliest workers. Outrageous right?

Human rights organisations are held to a higher standard, naturally, and this sort of easy hypocrisy doesn’t do anything to help their image as imperialist outsiders trying to get governments of developing countries to uphold values and standards that are routinely ignored by Western governments.

This isn’t a criticism I agree with, I should add, but these organisations make it stick all the more readily by continuing to offer interns ‘experience’ instead of money.

Of course, tons of organisations use unpaid interns. We’ve covered this subject pretty thoroughly, covering the last intern scandal in Geneva (which focused on underpayment), asking why development seems to expect a period of (maligned) unpaid work and offering some alternative paths into the field. We also polled our readers and stopped sharing unpaid internship opportunities back in 2013. Hell,  the first two posts I ever posted on here dealt with the ethical concerns of unpaid internships – one of the reasons I started this website was to give a platform to interns in the development industry to raise these issues.

Let’s hope HRW does the right thing. But I’m not holding my breath. So let’s help them along by adding some more weight to the debate.

I’d love to hear from more unpaid interns in the sector.

What jobs are you doing? How many hours do you work/volunteer? Are you learning much? Does your supervisor trust you or give you any attention? How long is your internship?

Tell me your story and I will help you publicise it right here on Development Intern. You can submit to me via our Facebook writers group or via email.


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.


We Want You!

Development Intern is now 18 months on from its first ever post, reblogged from a wordpress site I started so I could vent my frustrations somewhere away from the office.

I really enjoyed blogging. I loved trying to write my way through issues I was grappling with at work – both professional and theoretical. I liked discovering and engaging with the amazing development blogosphere. I liked getting recognition for my thoughts and having people respond to what I said – a massive departure from the relative anonymity of a long-term intern.

But I couldn’t keep it up.

Successful blogs need to be updated regularly and I just didn’t have the energy or, frankly, the inspiration to keep churning out three pieces a week. My blog wound down. Other (much better and more popular) development blogs closed down as well: Think Africa Press, Kariobangi, even the mighty Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Too often, the burden of keeping such sites going is concentrated on one person and it gets to be too much.

So why not get other people involved? I had figured out the tricky back-end business of putting together a website and built a modest audience. I realised I could

With a relatively stable bunch of regular writers, we’ve put out close to 100 posts in that time. A lot of them I think are genuinely great blog posts which I often refer back to in my academic and professional life. 18 months is actually relatively long lived for a development blog. But things inevitably start to slow down. People lose interest or get distracted by work/university or run out of things to write about or get poached by thieving Australians running a different website*….

But I don’t want this site to run down. How can I stop that? By inviting more people to get involved!

Running this site has shown me that a) there are some amazing voices out there that deserve a platform (probably a better one) that I can give them and b) having more people involved means you cover more diverse topics and gather different points of view. Of course I should get more people on board.

Join us here!

This was previously our internal writers group. We post ideas for blog posts, discuss articles and generally help each other out. Now, I’m inviting you guys to join. I will continue to act as editor and site manager, helping you craft your messages and promoting them as best I can. I will also regularly post ideas for articles anybody can write.

This is blogging made easy. Here’s to another 18 months with you guys.


*Obviously, I’m super proud of Jennifer becoming editor at WhyDev and only very occasionally curse out Brendan and Weh.

Advice, Jobs

Seven Tips For Getting That Summer Internship

With summer break looming into view, I am sure that many of you have begun the hunt for a coveted internship in the international development field. Having just applied for a slew of jobs, internships and fellowships myself, I felt that it might be beneficial to pass along some of the tips that I have learned having undergone this exciting (and yet sometimes tedious) application process for the past four years.

In the current economy, applying for a summer position has become even more competitive and stressful. Students and young professionals are no longer afforded the luxury of cutting corners or being generic when applying for a position. The days of being able to send the same cover letter and resume to multiple organizations and merely tweaking the ‘to’ line are long, long gone.

Since I’m fairly certain that most people are not completely clueless when it comes to the interview process, I’ll spare you the lecture on common tips such as what to wear, controlling nerves, speaking clearly and confidently, etc. Below are my top seven tips for setting your job application apart, nailing the interview, and landing your desired summer position.

1. Use your networks.

Many of the internship opportunities that I have applied for I heard about through a friend, former colleague, or classmate. Talking to my classmates about their different internship experiences has provided me with a good indication of who are the top employers, where to look for exciting job opportunities, the culture of different organizations and which organization may be the best fit for me. I have also had many former colleagues forward me job opportunities that they thought I may be interested in. With so few opportunities available these days, utilizing your network is an absolute must. Make sure to talk to as many people in the field as you can, and ask everyone to send you any opportunities that they may stumble upon.

2. Don’t be lazy. Tailor your application.

As I mentioned above, do NOT submit a generic or ambiguous cover letter or CV. I know that it can be tempting, especially if you are applying to dozens of jobs. However, you must resist the urge and put in the extra time! Be sure to read the position description, do your research about the organization, and customize each application to reflect how your previous experience and future ambitions make you a perfect fit for this specific position.

3. Preparation is key.

After weeks of playing the waiting game, you hear back and have been offered an interview. First, take some time to appreciate and celebrate this small success! You deserve it.

You should start preparing for the interview a few days in advance (at the latest). Before the interview, you should know the organization’s website like the back of your hand. It is important to know the company’s mission, values and anything related to the position or team you have applied to work with. If they are available, skim some of the organization’s annual reports and try to incorporate what you have learned about their past and present projects into your interview answers. Also, if you have any kind of connection to someone who works for or has worked at the organization, be sure to ask them for the insider scoop on what the interviewer is looking for.

4. Don’t be afraid to creep.

Okay. I’ll admit it. I used the internet to do some serious research (read: creeping) on my interviewers, and even the intern who had previously held the position. It actually turned out to be extremely helpful. In the process, I found a series of YouTube videos in which my interviewer had spoken at length about some of projects that the team was working on. When I researched the student who had previously held the position, I was extremely surprised to find some of the interview questions! It turns out that someone had written an article about her getting the internship and the article mentioned that “the applicants were asked to outline a proposed innovation to address a complex global health challenge” which turned out to be very similar to one of the questions I was asked during the interview. Don’t be afraid to use the creepiness of the internet to your advantage.

5. Do a mock interview.

Make up a list of questions that you think may be asked by the interviewer and do a couple run throughs with a friend or a family member. Trust me, it will help to ensure that your answers are more clear and confident during the actual interview.

6. Be yourself.

The interviewer is looking for someone who will be an ideal fit with the organization and the team. Do everything in your power to come across as professional and extremely interested in the position, but do not try to be something that you are not. I personally am an extremely outgoing, animated and sometimes overly enthusiastic person, which can be very off-putting to some people. Although I try to tone it down in interviews, I often don’t succeed. At the end of the day, that is the way that I am and the way that I would act as an employee. If the team leader does not feel that I am the type of person that they want to work with – it is probably for the best. Make sure you are portraying an accurate representation of yourself in the interview, it will probably be the reason you get the job. If being yourself works against you, at least you won’t be working in a terrible work environment with people who don’t like you!

7. Don’t beat yourself up! Every interview is a learning experience.

One time I had to do a two hour long case study-based interview for a position I was completely unqualified for. Calling my performance in the interview an utter failure would probably be considered an understatement – I literally almost started crying in the interview! You are not going to have a perfect interview every single time so don’t beat yourself up about it. Treat it as a learning experience: write down the questions you were asked and think about how you could improve your answers. I can almost guarantee you that the interview will go better next time.

Do you have a particularly interesting or cringe-worthy job interview story? Maybe some tips for other aspiring international development professionals? Be sure to leave them in the comments section, I would love to read them!