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.