Guest Post: Tips For Preparing For An Internship

Brittany Miner is a writer for which I didn’t know existed when I started interning but wish I had. I particularly like the final paragraph – good knowledge. See this related discussion on AidSource for more.

Working as an intern is often a great way to get your foot in the door of the industry you’re passionate about. Not only can you make connections, you can get a feel for how your industry works and gain valuable knowledge than can last a lifetime. In order to optimize your time as an intern, it’s important to adequately prepare yourself, which can usually be done by following several tips.

Perhaps the most important thing to do is learn about your industry as much as possible. For example, if you will be interning for a non-profit or charity, you should conduct some preliminary research into its history, practices and ethical guidelines. You should also check out what some of the current trends are and who the leaders are within your industry. Doing so should make the transition process easier and you will have the necessary background to be successful.

Another way to prepare is to build up your online presence. Due to the power and wide usage of social media websites, it’s helpful to establish yourself on websites like LinkedIn and Facebook. This includes filling out a complete profile and avoiding any content that could give you a bad image. For example, putting partying pictures on your Facebook account could give your superiors a negative image of you. Instead, you should make your social media accounts as professional as possible and demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable of your industry.

If possible, you should also try to network with relevant people beforehand and try to establish relationships. This can be done online through social media or by interacting with superiors with whom you will be interning under during your stint. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but simply getting some type of correspondence before you begin is ideal. Doing so should make it easy when you’re starting out and can give you a leading edge if there are other interns.

Along with this, it’s important to know what type of clothing you will be expected to wear during your internship. For example, some companies may by casual and only require a button up shirt and khakis. Others may have more strict clothing etiquette and require formal wear like a suit and tie. Since first impressions are crucial, being properly dressed should help you fit in and build rapport with others. In addition, you should have some specific goals in mind before you begin your internship.

To get the most out of your time, you should make it a point to learn and get the experience it takes to make it at the next level. For example, you may want to learn the financial aspects of your industry or become highly knowledgeable in a particular area. Once you start your position, you should strive to reach all these goals and monitor your progress.

Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

Image from: NYU Development Research Institute blog

The ridiculousness of ‘aid’ in Hollywood shouldn’t be replicated in the real world (or, as in this example, vice versa).

The Development Blogosphere was abuzz a few weeks back when this very well written blog post started getting a bunch of attention. This was a post about ‘the aid bitchslap’ or, as SEAWL put it, “the strange, ugly and enlightening time of moving from idealism to realism.”

It spurred a fair amount of hand wringing and debate over the whys and wherefores of the aid sector in general, with particular reference to US policy decisions – check out the Reddit discussion on the post. I have to admit, I found myself underwhelmed. It reminded me of a post on Aidsource a few months before in which a student who ‘figures out aid is messed up’ was met with a firm rebuttal. Here’s a telling extract:

There are two widely known, but rarely spoken (and never written down until now, so far as I know) rules in the full-time practicing professional humanitarian world that I inhabit:

1) Aid is messed up. Everyone knows it. It’s not a surprise. Seriously – everyone knows it. That aid is messed up may be just the latest soda-machine-crisis for Karen [the writer of this blog post], but it is old, old news in the aid real world. You don’t impress us by telling us what we already know.

2) You have to earn the right to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not actually “been there”, whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with making impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle-farmer in an NGO HQ.

Now, the first point is why I was underwhelmed by this story of heartbreak from Haiti. You’re entering a flawed field which plenty of people think is pretty much morally bankrupt anyway – you should have done your research before you went and the failure of your project might not have been so demoralizing. Not that I want to seem too cynical or dismissive about this post: he seems like a genuine and thoughtful guy and I hope he continues to want to help people.

Point 2 highlights why the reaction to this post in the blogosphere got on my nerves – it’s the double standards of it all. Because Quinn figured out Part 1 while ‘in the field’, it’s more legitimate because he’s earned it by getting his hands dirty. This is ridiculous. In fact, his having spent two years on a project he feels like is a failure is MUCH worse than figuring out that aid has problems while still at University or while doing some low-impact internship like Karen. His learning was linked to a bunch of money being spent on ‘helping’ people that didn’t work. Even worse, at least in his estimation, the project went some way to worsening relations between humanitarian groups and Haitians.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not think this is Quinn’s fault. Everyone ends up in a crappy project or organisation in this field, it happens and people do learn from those experiences. I also think that the more people who haven’t ‘been there’ who realise this kind of work is messed up are just as worthy of praise than people like Quinn. First of all, it could save potentially damaging community good will towards other, more successful projects. Second, if less people are willing to work their arses off trying to do these projects and, therefore, less of those projects.

A lot of aid is bad and broken – knowing this as an industry is pointless if it allows new people access to that knowledge only by repeating mistakes. That just means everyone has to go through the time/money-wasting, demoralising experience that Quinn did – and for what? So you’ve earned your stripes? So you can talk in dark, measured tones about your rock solid field cred?

Give me a break. Aid is macho and ridiculous enough in Hollywood, nobody needs that infiltrating the real world.

Telling Positive Stories – The backlash

Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

Shameless Plugs

This is a two part update drawing your attention to some of the sources that I steal from often use as inspiration while writing my own posts.

Part 1

As well as keeping up to date on current affairs from all the usual places, there’s an extensive development blogosphere that I read and repost almost every day. A lot of these things can be extremely academic and excessively jargon-ised – it’s the curse of the industry – and, as such, are things I can’t get excited about. For the entry level development wannabe, what you really want is a way of engaging in the interesting debates of the industry through the narratives of the people involved.

Cast your eyes to the right of your screens (unless you’re reading this on a crackberry/other inferior web-ready mobile device, in which case I feel your pain) and you will see, nestled under the schedule, some newly minted lists.

  • Proper Development Blogs – Development blogs run by people who a) know what they’re talking about and b) try their best not to bore us ‘norms’. Several of these are well known and you’ll see them linked to on lots of development sites. As a natural contrarian, I really wanted not to like them so the inclusion of them here indicates how good they are.
  • Friends & Allies – Blogs and websites run by people I know, either over the interwebs or in actual real life. I occasionally contribute pieces to some of these.
  • Jobs – Places to look for development jobs and advice on how to get them
  • Miscellany – There is a world outside of development and politics. (Sometimes, it will feel like there isn’t.) I have increasingly become more and more interested in things like design and fonts – playing around with WordPress default settings will do that. These links are my distractions.

I will update this lists as and when I find more interesting links or if one of them goes under or becomes less than excellent.

Special mention goes to AidSource, which brings me to Part 2 of this post…

AidSource launches today!

The more awake of you will have noticed a shiny new badge has been added to my sidebar – yes, I know it isn’t the right width but I haven’t had a chance to make a new one yet. AidSource is here, it is open and it is free. I’ve been mentioning it my last few posts because it’s been a thoroughly useful source for interesting questions and answers surround the world or development. Seriously, if you want to know about development and those long lists on my sidebar seem like far too much reading/work, choose AidSource to be the way you dip your toe.

Sign up here

Follow them on Twitter

Like them on Facebook

Should Aid Workers Unionise?


The way of the future?

Sometimes spending half your life online can be very depressing. You’re inundated with content from millions of sources some of which is brimming with insight, originality and wit. Inevitably, however, most of what you see is inane nonsense, repetitious news stories or tired memes.

It is with great delight and surprise that, every so often, someone will ask a question or post an article that sparks deep in the cynical, over stimulated recesses of your brain which genuinely blindsides you. One of these came to my attention earlier today,

I was wondering if anyone had started a post on the need for an aid workers trade union. Anyone interested? We are one of the least regulated parts of labour world wide – which is kind of ironic when you think how much time aid workers spend (or a supposed to spend) on working for rights. Has anyone heard of initiatives on this? In particular for issues like health insurance and travel insurance and collective deals etc?

(Click here for the full post on Aidsource)

I had never thought about this before. I don’t know whether this reflects more badly on the political culture of my generation or rather more personal failings; regardless, I find the prospect intriguing.

I have written before about the issues surrounding unpaid internships, a practice that is very prevalent in international development. There are other people who have been campaigning on this issue – I recently came across Interns Anonymous, a great platform for discussing such issues built for the people facing them – with a relatively high level of profile in recent months. The Guardian have taken up this issue more than most large newspapers, inviting people to send in their experiences (anonymously) as well as highlighting the possible legal ramifications of the practice in an article late last year.

While many are sympathetic with the problems of entry-level (or rather, sub entry-level) workers in development, personally, I’ve found that most people higher up in the food chain tend not go much further. Almost all of them had to go through the same process – as they often point out – and, now they’re past the years of unpaid work phase, regard it as a sort of right of passage.

This may seem a little heartless but it might come down to the fact that, even though they might have progressed several stages along their career paths, the stability of their jobs and incomes probably hasn’t increased that much from their days as volunteers – particularly not in relation to their peers who chose to pursue jobs in more established fields.

Professionalising the humanitarian sector is a cause championed by some illustrious development bloggers (links at the end of this post) – as an introduction, read this post on Tales From The Hood who put forward the case for ‘Professional’ over ‘Amateur’ approaches rather well. It seems to me, like an excellent idea, but difficult to implement because there is no centralised organisational body within which the ‘professionalisers’ can agree on the most useful process to take us from here and now to a fully professionalised sector. Some sort of body that gets workers to collaborate and cooperate to ensure they can work effectively and are rewarded for that, something that protects its members from other actors who destabilise or weaken the sector.

Something, in short, quite a lot like a trade union?

(Thanks to Grace Bahng – who tweets here – whose post I pinched most of these links off…)


Social Innovation & Identity Crisis

In an unassuming side street off Brixton High Road, up two flights of stairs and through a drab little landing I found myself in a room filled with strangers. I was greeted and given stickers with various descriptions on them – ‘troublemaker’, ‘designer’, ‘citizen’, ‘geek’ – before being told to meet these new people, chat with them and assign them a role.

The feeling that most often comes to mind when I reflect on my visit to a Social Innovation Camp meeting is that of feeling disarmed. The location, the participants, the topics of discussion, the ideas, the way of approaching problem solving – everything about it took me a step away from my comfort zone, the various ruts of how and why I work.

The meeting I attended was a small, short ideas workshop focused on health issues regarding young people. Attending with me were: some of the staff at LIVE magazine, a lady working in young people’s health, masters students, volunteers at a environmental awareness project, and a GCSE (high school) student. It was a little cagey but we were thrown into tasks quickly to help us get past that. First, we were asked to write down problems we had faced related to health services on post-it notes which were then stuck on the wall for all to see.

Complaining about the NHS (yes, it’s free; no, we’re not communists) is a British national past time but what thing do you think is a problem that could be solved with some hardwork, innovative thinking and £10,000? What do we actually want to do to make it better?

As far as I understand it, the modus operandi of SI Camp goes something like this:

Tech keeps changing the world – from publishing to education to banking to friendship – so why isn’t it combating global poverty issues? Answer: because the techies in charge of innovation don’t have the requisite skills or approaches to be effective in social issues. Solution: ally those techies with people who can fill those gaps.

On a much larger scale, it seems to me that Millennium Villages work on a similar sort of premise – one that assumes that holism is key to useful innovation and, therefore, effective problem solving. Millennium Villages bring together a vastly disparate selection of NGOs/development professionals that attempt to solve the problems or difficulties facing a community, all at the same time – there is no focus on, say, infrastructure over rights based approaches or other such arguments.

Of course, this plan has had its detractors. In fact, the debate surrounding Millennium Villages, their results and their funding might well be the biggest development blogosphere catfight of 2012 (I voted for it in the ABBAs an hour before I wrote this) – click on ‘blogosphere catfight’ as it contains a lot of the relevant posts and arguments if you’re interested. I’ll leave the fight to others. As Bob Dylan almost sang, don’t criticise what you haven’t read enough about to understand.

Regardless of the validity of the Millennium Villages vision, it is an approach that references a wider issue in the world of global development – what exactly is it? Given that being a ‘development worker’ can mean anything from designing emergency medical provision to building roads to controlling knowledge management systems, it seems to me that almost no one really knows quite what the industry actually is.

Consequently, trying to measure or rank between different bits of this vaguely unknown bloc of work is a difficult thing to do.  A more recent development blog furore surrounded this very issue as the excellent Dave Algoso took umbrage with an article by Global Journal entitled ‘2012 Top 100 Best NGOs‘,

“Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked — but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the audience.”

An awful lot of hyperbole was unleashed on what was, frankly, an extremely limited attempt at ranking NGOs.

A discussion ensued on Aidsource (the humanitarian social network that’ll make you fall out of love with Facebook) in which Algoso posited the following,

“Criticizing Global Journal’s list made me wonder whether there might be some categories where you actually can make a principled, evidence-based, and methodologically sound comparison between organizations. It certainly couldn’t be a comparison of something overarching like “impact” (because how would you ever compare, say, World Vision and Search for Common Ground? they do such different things) but maybe on something more narrow, you could make a comparison.”

This problem – perhaps the impossibility – of internal comparisons within the industry led me back to the question of what exactly ‘international development’ was. I don’t even know if we should call it ‘international development’ – is it global development? Are they the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? I might be completely wrong here – I am not an expert by any means, merely someone trying to feel their way into the sector – but I’ve looked for an explanation or definition and have failed to find it. So this is aimed at the pros:

Is international development suffering from an identity crisis?

(Just to be clear – I don’t have an answer.)

Until the industry sorts out questions like these, organisations like SI Camp can fill some of the gaps. They are tackling problem solving in interesting, un-bureaucratic ways that invite input from a more diverse range of voices than usual. What’s more, being asked to work quickly and creatively on development-type issues is a far cry from the relatively dull, text bitch type work that takes up most of my time. In fact, the change in style of working was so refreshing that, even though health isn’t an area that I have had any experience in previously, I’m more than ready to jump into the next SI Camp event.

Interested? Click below.

The Development Gap

You won't get away

This creepy doll sums up how I feel about my parents house.

When I was 18 I was completely determined to get out of the town that I’d lived in all my life. This is a suburban town right on the south west corner of London. It has a glorious past – the first King of England, Athelston, was crowned here back in the early 10th century – but has faded into a faintly boring commuter town replete with suburban nightclubs and far too many dubious gastro pubs.

I wanted to get away. This was before I had become interested in global development or, for that matter, anything that might be associated with a job. When I was 6 I had decided that I wanted to be a novelist but even then I realised that this wasn’t a very likely career. I knew that, before the inevitable world tours, chat show appearances and Nobel prize, I’d probably have to do a real job first. What real job I might do was a line of thought I steadfastly ignored, despite my parents’ desire for me to go into corporate law and make some money. (Do not, even in passing, tell your parents you might, you guess, be interested in law, sort of – you’ll never hear the end of it.)

A gap year seemed sensible. I’d been in school for a long time and was liable to go back into it for another few years, taking a pause in the pursuit of academic excellence (no sniggering at the back) was a useful breather. At first I thought I might go down to the alps and work as a chalet rep, trading long work hours at minimum wage for an exciting, boozy lifestyle – perfect preparation for student life. However, it was a friend who suggested we go volunteer with a charity our school supported out in Uganda. It sounded like an adventure and, you never know, we might do some good while we’re at it. We went for six months but I stayed for a year.

Predictably, we almost certainly didn’t do much to help – untrained volunteers often don’t – but we did stick at it. We met the daily grind of frustration and problems without throwing in the towel which is almost certainly the most useful thing I’ve learned my very short career. We met hundreds of interesting, intelligent, committed people who wanted to try and help people for the rest of their lives. That was a revelation: I’d never thought of ‘charity’ work as an actual job before, just something people did on the side. This wasn’t because I thought it wasn’t important, quite the contrary, but because, probably, the most attention I’d ever paid to the third sector previously had been during Comic Relief – that certainly seemed part time and kind of dumb. Suddenly there was a whole new industry open to me, one that let its workers travel and learn and challenge themselves; it demanded creativity and commitment; and, maybe most importantly of all, it had a soul. I was hooked.

I switched courses and universities four months into that year out. I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through an English Literature degree anymore, I wanted to learn how I actually might go about helping people now that I’d realised a) I could do that and b) I didn’t actually know how to do that. I’m halfway through that degree – Social Sciences at the University of Bath – and impatient for more. I’ve written a couple of posts on Masters degrees for development before, which have garnered some fascinating responses, although I am still undecided on what I’ll do after I finish my undergrad.

I am a member of the Aidsource beta, a social network for aid/development workers to share and learn with like-minded people, which is run (at least in part) by J. Formerly of Tales From The Hood. Even though it’s in its early days I find myself going back there more and more as a hub for useful information and links to some very interesting development bloggers and thinkers. With such a lot of expertise I thought I could post my masters queries there to get some good feedback. I thank all those who have replied, particularly those who have told me to wait,

I think its perfectly possible to get a few years of experience under your belt, either through volunteering or working, until you need to go to grad school.

I will pop in and say if I’d actually entered the grad programs I got into right out of undergrad, I’d be miserable. Public Health hadn’t even crossed my mind yet – I was all poli sci and Middle East studies. Turns out health is my passion. I only waited a few years, but I am glad I did.

…it’s good to take that break and get that clarity. I’d strongly recommend it. But manage it – make sure you do come back and complete that MA.

So now I find myself contemplating another gap. My instant thought is that I want to get my degrees out of the way as soon as possible so I can sink my teeth into a job, really get to grips with it. But perhaps tempering that rush is a good thing, even if it means heading back to that little suburb in the bottom left corner of London for a little while longer.