I am currently coming to the end of a 6 week ‘general’ internship with the Bangladeshi international development organisation BRAC and consequently feel qualified to offer some insights into the phenomenon of internships at home and abroad.
The first two weeks of the programme were essentially an orientation in the Dhaka headquarters, followed by three weeks of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh, before two more weeks in the capital.
I should add that in this case I was participating in the first cycle of the internship programmes and as such probably felt the effects of a few ‘teething problems’ that subsequent interns might not have experienced. I graduated from University of Sheffield (BA East Asian Studies) in July 2008 and University of Manchester (MA International Development: Social Policy and Social Development) in September 2010.
I deliberated long and hard about whether or not to undertake a 6 week internship with an NGO on the other side of the world. In this case, interns were required to meet all their own accommodation, living and transport costs (including flights) and I estimate that this experience has set me back around £1000-£1200 in total i.e. a maxed-out overdraft. I was aware of these costs prior to making my application and considered this an expensive yet valuable addition to my CV. As per the application guidelines, I nominated a specific department within which I wanted to be placed for the duration of the 6 weeks (advocacy and social development). So far, so good.
Upon arrival at BRAC HQ in Dhaka the 21 interns eagerly collected their intern packs (security passes embellished with INTERN in big and important looking letters, a map of the city, a list of about a thousand emergency contact numbers…) We then learnt that there had been a slight change of plan. Owing to the unprecedented number of candidates that had been accepted onto this cycle, it would not be possible for everyone to tailor their internship to their specific chosen theme. The various interests and priorities of 21 individuals were to be covered by a broader ‘general’ programme whereby everyone, in theory, got to learn a little bit about each department’s work.
However, the “9 to 5” working schedule that we had all been told to expect never materialised and it became clear that BRAC hadn’t organised anywhere near enough to keep 21 motivated, energetic and frequently impressively qualified young people occupied. After sitting through a posterior-numbing week of interminable departmental presentations (whose content we could have probably learnt by reading the Annual Report ourselves) the question of expected outputs from the fieldwork component of the internship arose.
Myself and most others had expected to be involved in researching and producing serious ‘academic’ reports for presentation to department heads and had travelled to Bangladesh armed with laptops and armfuls of books to help us with our work. I refreshed my memory regarding the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methodologies in development research, ready to put my postgraduate skills into practical use. Disappointingly, when the question of written reports and data collection arose, the internship co-ordinators seemed uninterested in getting us to do anything more than photograph, film and case-study the life out of anything that moved, all part of the giant refurbishment of the BRAC website. I tried to suppress the feeling that the internship programme represents a remarkably convenient way for the organisation to get unpaid foreigners to take on some of the organisation’s least glamorous tasks, all under the banner of having a ‘unique cultural experience’. After all, which up and coming member of the BRAC communications department wants to spend their evenings in a basic training and resources centre in an unfashionable rural backwater discussing hardcore poor latrines with the poverty-stricken masses when there is a new air-conditioned coffee shop to be discovered in the capital? The interns will do it – they like that sort of thing, it’s cultural.
The fieldwork component was similarly disappointing. Although we had been given printouts denoting a packed timetable of activities, we soon realised that there was a lot of ‘padding’ and we were frequently left with hours to kill as the day’s work ended early. When we did undertake visits to rural projects, we usually felt as though we were disrupting daily life as the entire village turned out to stare at us and scheduled meetings ground to a halt. We were certainly taking from them – taking photos left, right and centre – but what were they getting from us? Without projects to work on, we became listless and bored. The option of quitting the internship early to fly home began to be mooted amongst the interns.
The growing feeling of ‘why are we here?’ (apart from to ogle poor people) led us to conclude that we had unwittingly become ‘poverty tourists’ or participants in a grotesque ‘NGO safari’. Surely the original point of an internship was to allow a potentially viable candidate for employment within an organisation to ‘test the waters’ and impress those whose job they may one day occupy. In an organisation like BRAC which does not employ foreigners in its Bangladesh offices, all that an intern can stand to gain is an exposure to the workings of the organisation rather than a chance to get a job. Show and tell, if you like.
Upon returning to Dhaka, 5 of the original 21 interns decided to cut their losses and head home, changing flights to leave earlier than planned. The communications department hastily thought up four mini-projects to which individuals were then randomly assigned, whether or not these related at all to one’s area of interest or expertise. I do not consider the creation of a ‘visual mind map of the BRAC approach’ for example to be a sufficiently challenging task for postgraduate and PHD-level students. Consequently, myself and a few disillusioned others can now be found haunting Dhaka’s coffee shops, biding our time before we are able to fly home and sharing our experiences with Interns Anonymous so that others may avoid making similar expensive and disheartening mistakes.
Of course my experience hasn’t been entirely negative. I have been able to explore this country thanks to my participation on this internship programme and I have met a wonderful group of similarly-minded people who I will remain friends with for a long time. In an interview I can probably spin several positives out of this negative experience. However, in terms of gaining new skills or consolidating existing ones, I can honestly say I have achieved zero. A disastrous mismatch between interns’ expectations and the organisation’s ability to meet them has created profound dissatisfaction on this internship programme. What was promised was sadly never delivered and I would urge potential interns to thoroughly investigate the pedigree of a programme before making a commitment and, ideally, get in contact with some previous interns to hear the real story.