by Iris Leikanger

Networking. At worst, there's free wine

There are two interns at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Luckily for us, our responsibilities go somewhat beyond fetching the coffee. The diplomats and local counsellors are keen to include us in all sorts of events – from meetings at UN House to receptions at the Ambassador’s residence.

We’re becoming experts at being the least important, least interesting people in the room.

It’s hard not to get dejected when you’re introducing yourself to some civil society big-wig, and stating your name and job title is directly followed with “oh,” and the other person’s interest in talking to you visibly plummeting. Especially when they go on to unsubtly excuse themselves and slink off to talk to the UN executive or important local politician at the other side of the room.

However, these situations can also be fantastic opportunities for networking, learning and meeting some genuinely fascinating people. After all, as a person starting out at the bottom rungs of the development ladder, getting a chance to meet some people who can help you climb it is definitely worth the time spent feeling awkward and small while holding a glass of wine. So with that in mind, here are some tips I’ve discovered for navigating those situations when you’re the least important person in the room:

Watch what the people around you are doing and copy them

You don’t want to be the only person asking the waiter for wine if everyone else is on soda water. Nobody else is going to care what you’re drinking, but it will make you feel more awkward and self-conscious than necessary.

The benefit of being the least important person around is that most of the time, hardly anyone is paying attention to you. This gives you a perfect opportunity to learn by observing the people who have been in the game for years. A diplomatic reception or civil society workshop is a pretty different setting to a university party, and you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to behave in these contexts.

Everyone else is more interesting than you, and they want to talk about themselves

You may not be very interesting (yet), but chances are most of the people you’re meeting are – and they probably know it. Development types are often very happy to talk about themselves and their work to a wide-eyed intern who asks intelligent questions and seems genuinely impressed with what they have to say. Asking good questions and active listening are key, and knowing something about the person’s field is especially useful because it will enable you to say more than “oh, that sounds really cool” when they start explaining what their organisation does.

An anecdote: A few weeks back, I met the Director of a local climate change NGO at a reception, at the time only knowing his organisation and not his rank. I engaged him in a discussion about the integration of social and natural science in environmental work and the importance of smallholder agriculture (both personal areas of interest). He ended up inviting me to a workshop a week later, where I sat starry-eyed listening to people debating a climate change adaptation programme I’d be happy to start working for tomorrow – an opportunity I never would have gotten if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Do make sure you don’t monopolise a single person for too long, no matter how fascinating they are. The vast majority of the time, networking events are for mingling and circulating, not long in-depth debates. Better to take the person’s contact details and continue the conversation another time.

Don’t be too obvious about wanting a job from the person you’re talking to

The people I’ve found are the most dismissive when I say my job title are often my fellow bottom-rung hangers-on, who have come to these events purely for the purpose of career climbing. Not only is it annoying for the people you spurn, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone else if you spend your evening making beelines between every executive you can find, handing out business cards like SWEDOW. Just be subtle, and be aware that people who aren’t Directors can be equally as interesting to talk to, if not more.

If all else fails, find the other unimportant people and make friends

If you’ve tried to engage the big-wigs without luck, you can always just seek out any other interns that are there. Receptions often have free drinks, so why not create a party within a party and make some friends instead?


Networking: A guide for interns

Advice, Support

Self Loathing Development Interns

On a drive back to DC last week from my home town I took a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locales you might be expecting from this blog). Still wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while in Senegal, I used the opportunity to find a local barber.

After a few wise cracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long I was describing my work as a development intern, and that of the organization that employs me. Deeply interested, the barber prodded for more information. As he tamed my wild hair I gave him what information I could – really not all that much. Nonetheless what I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.

As he squeezed my hand he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip, and walked out.

The next time I looked in the mirror I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.

Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good.The disturbing truth is academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely, if not entirely, negative.

Very reputable research has asked if our nominal development efforts have made any advances in the “third world,” or even accused those efforts of having detrimental effects. A stunning example every practitioner should know is a 2008 study that found that used clothing donations (Ed: sometimes referred to as Stuff We Don’t Want – SWEDOW) caused a 50% reduction in employment in the textile industry throughout much of the continent of Africa.

Some scholars argue the development apparatus, with its “developed” and “undeveloped” labels, seems to depict not just a hierarchical view of the world but an oversimplified time-line leading away from poverty. This discourse crushes our collective imagination and stunts our capacity to adapt. Is there really only one route from poverty for all people?

Others argue global poverty is a result of the very model of liberal capitalism we are pushing on the “third world.” Capitalism demands inequality and some might suggest our efforts to expand markets (with agribusiness programs or tariff reductions) will only magnify the degree of disparity.

As development interns we need to be aware of these criticisms. When you are considering patting yourself on the back for your noble career choice (or having someone like my barber friend do it for you), remind yourself of these all too real critiques (and there are quite a few more I have been unable to cover here).

That is not to say I recommend leaving the development industry behind  – for all its flaws it still may be our best hope at combating global poverty. Nonetheless I am unable to provide a way to recognize these concerns and continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.

As such, I have taken to labelling myself, and my like-minded colleagues, self-loathing development interns .

Perhaps some older development practitioners have some insights they can provide. I have noticed an almost comically prevalent culture of self-resentment in the development community. It seems some of development fiercest critics on blogs and in academic journals are practitioners themselves.

How do you level this uneasy recognition of flaws into your professional identity?