Eastern promise: interning abroad can be a better option

I just want to share my internship/job experience working for NGOs in the Middle East…I know this is quite a specific field, but my story has some relevance to many of the issues you are discussing.  I have a vague ambition to work in International Human Rights, specifically with regards to the Middle East, and decided to take a year out of my degree and come to Cairo for a year to get some work experience.

Here, I had the rather shocking experience of, after a month, getting a salary from my current NGO, who insisted if I was working I had to be paid.  Soon later, I got a contract, as I asked for job security so I could plan my year properly. As you could guess, many NGOs in the developing world struggle with funding and have nothing like the resources available to private sector companies back in London.  (The coordinator for my organization hasn’t been able to give himself a salary for the past couple of months, making do with money from other consultancy work he does.) Yet many organizations here still manage to pay their interns/and or hire fresh graduates.  I have other graduate friends who are working or interning with NGOs in the region, who are even provided with accomodation. (My journalist friends, interested in foreign affairs, have had similar experiences here, being paid for their work and interning in English language newspapers, and due to the comparative lack of competition in Cairo, they have had work about the city published in national newspapers in London.)

In contrast, I have many friends back in London who have degrees, and masters.  They have been interning for human rights groups, think tanks and NGOs for months without pay, working in bars to sustain a living.  To those friends, and others who want to work in international development, I’d say brave the unknown and leave London and get experience on the ground for a few years.  You’ll find you’re presence is much appreciated, and it often shows in pay, actual job titles and respect.

I’d also say to those who want to work in international development, not to look for jobs on the internet from home, but to save up money for flights, take a risk and go out there.  Native English speakers are always in demand, and particulary in unstable countries where a lot of foreigners leave, internships often lead to job offers.  My organization and all my other NGO worker friends say they never look at applications coming from outside Egypt, due to a) the hassle of organizing interviews and b) the very real possibility that although an applicant might like the idea of working in the Middle East, in reality many people find the life difficult and quickly leave.  It is also crazy to take internships in developing countries that you practically have to pay for, i.e. volunteer tourism.  Again, I stress, if you actually get out there, there are many many organizations who would love to have someone work for free for them.  There is simply not the same internship culture to compete with.  I have now been offered a permanent job, but it is with regret, I will have to return to England to study…and continue my work experience unpaid, doing things that after a year of an intense job, I feel slightly overqualified for.

I just find it insane that most local NGOs here at least pay stipends to their interns, but back in London, organizations apparently can’t afford to.  Yes, there is a difference in living expenses; my £350 a month allows me to get by in Cairo, but even that amount would be better than nothing in England. I guess benefits to interns in other parts of the world comes from a society which finds the thought of unpaid work pretty confusing. And I think this is mentality we should re-adopt.

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16 Responses to “Eastern promise: interning abroad can be a better option”

  1. 1 rowanemslieintern 03/31/2012 at 8:07 pm

    Do you have a second language or just English?

  2. 3 Alex 03/31/2012 at 11:47 pm

    I’m intrigued. I desperately hate this country after no employment prospects and an annoying home life. I can speak a bit of Egyptian Arabic and also have some experience of working in a charity.

    So just to clarify, you’re saying ‘without making any employment arrangements, just fly out there and go it alone’?

  3. 5 jasmine 04/30/2012 at 12:42 am

    This sounds encouraging. I have been thinking of applying for internships with NGOS in developing nations. I am m
    yself from India, studying her masters in Law in UK. I would like to experience some different parts of the world before indulging back in social sector in india.

  4. 6 becky 06/10/2012 at 4:47 pm

    Hi Imogen would you mind giving the name of the NGO you’re working for in Egypt and any similar you know of in the international development and relations field, it would be hugely appreciate Thankyou
    best wishes becky

  5. 7 emma 06/12/2012 at 2:59 pm

    I agree with Jasmine that foreign NGOs sound like a great opportunity, but I do think another language is very important for graduate jobs abroad – although perhaps it is a good opportunity to learn a new language too!

  6. 8 Imogen Lambert 08/30/2012 at 2:25 pm

    Ah I forgot to say, to those who are interested in Egypt, join Cairoscholars mailing list, by emailing saali@mail.utexas.edu. There are lots of jobs/intern opportunities sent, and also rooms in shared flats, so you can see the cost of living expenses ect. I have a list of NGOs that do some work in English, sent your mail if you want them, (but I never got much of a reply until I actually went to their offices in Cairo).

  7. 9 Fee Schreier 01/31/2013 at 10:10 pm

    Hey, while searching for a paid internship position in Cairo I stumbled over your post. Do you have any recommendation for an organization you know off that pays their interns? I studied human rights and humanitarian law and I will graduate in April. My boyfriend got an internship with the German development service GIZ and I would really like to join him as I did my bachelor in Arabic studies and I am keen to improve my language skills and gain working experience in the human rights field. But looking for weeks now I couldnt find anything that would at least offer a little salary. I completely understand that it isnt easy to pay interns for human rights organizations in Egypt, but as I just came back from an unpaid internship in Trinidad and Tobago it is kind of impossible to finance everything by myself..
    So I am glad you wrote that post, it gives me some hope and proves what I learned in many other parts of the world. However I would be very happy for some tips as going there and looking for a job is a time problem for me at the moment.

    Best, F.

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  13. 15 jessi walker 04/11/2013 at 12:10 pm

    Hello, I speak fluent Egyptian Arabic after living there for two years pre-revolution. I came back to London to get a degree (as a mature student) and have since married an Egyptian who post masters has had to move back to Egypt. I was wondering if you could give any guidance about NGO or CSO’s that provide internships in Cairo as I would very much like to gain some experience before embarking on a masters programme in a couple of years.

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