Archive for July, 2011

BRAC Internships in Bangladesh

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.

Street scene in Dhaka

 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.

Dhaka cityscape

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.

Living to be the next ‘in-turn’

I don’t like the word ‘Intern’; I’d prefer to call us something along the lines of ‘Company Observers’ or ‘Spectators of Workplaces,’ for that better describes what we do.

We come in, meet the team, receive a desk and sometimes even a phone number and email address by which we are contactable.

We drink the company coffee, learn by example and if we’re really lucky, we actually contribute rather than merely examine the colour scheme of the office, or the efficiency of their recycling procedures.

The word ‘Intern’ suggests to me that we ‘in turn’ might… make the coffee, get a by-line, be offered a job…? I suppose I should acknowledge the fact ‘intern’ doesn’t stem from the combining of the two above words. Such is life.

As an Intern, you never actually admit to your powerlessness. On speaking to clients or companies over the phone, you confidently lead them into a false sense of security. “My name’s Laura and I work at the ‘insert your company here’”.

Again, you live and breathe as though you were a tax paying, benefits accruing, hard-working, company employee.

It doesn’t matter that, in fact, the only thing you share with your ‘colleagues’ is the fact that you buy your lunch at Waitrose; they use their neat salary, you use your £5 lunch allowance, keen to maintain appearances of grandeur and secretly determined to spend every penny of your essentially free lunch.

When you do get a by-line, it stares back at you from the page, as incredulous as to how it got there as you are.

No matter, it is there for the world (or in some cases a slightly smaller percentile) to see, absorb and ultimately judge. It’s slightly like hanging your undies on the washing line on the day your brother invites all his friends over for a beer and BBQ.

Building up a portfolio of work is, I think, the same as compiling a photo album.

It’s self-absorbing, ego-boosting (like having a great tan line in that photo) and it is that all important proof that you have not simply wiled away the summer watching re-runs of Dawson’s Creek and Hollyoaks.

It’s something to look back on in years to come and show the family. “Here’s what I did that summer after I graduated,” says an older, and more wrinkled you flicking through pages of neat prose and copy.

Hours and hours and hundreds more hours of unpaid work. “That’s great Granny. Can I go on my skateboard now?” Perhaps not quite the reaction you were after.

What should be done about internships? Let’s talk…

Guardian Careers held an online chat with us as one of the ‘experts’, it was really interesting and I recommend you take a look at everyone’s comments. As usual some really negative and really positive accounts of internships and some in between. The main problem we have with unpaid internships continues to be that they are closed off to people who don’t come from rich backgrounds and who therefore can’t afford to live in London, Manchester, Cardiff or wherever for months on end with no wage. This has not changed and won’t until people who deserve a wage are getting paid a wage.

HOWEVER, we’ve been thinking in a different way about this lately and I wonder what you think- alongside representing all of the bad stuff about internships (which we love doing), we’re also keen to emphasise what you people can do to avoid the internship catch-22 situation- how you can think about the job search in a different way and take control of your own prospects. For example, Alex (IA co-founder) applied to his current really great graduate scheme job on the strength of the work he has done setting up and promoting Interns Anonymous. Other people we’ve been in touch with, have started up their small businesses after becoming exhausted and bankrupted by the internship treadmill. And someone else has set up her own mini-charity because she was fed up with interning as an office assistant- so she now works in an office for a wage and does what she wants to do out of hours.

We’d really like to get interns and graduates together- in person!- to think about different ways to find jobs, different ways to make money, different ways to get experience- which is why we’re in the early stages of thinking about a series of get togethers, which will feature an interesting speaker, hopefully free booze and a really sociable environment- so that you can talk to each other, come up with ideas and find out about opportunities that are not internships. Although we’re hoping to find sponsorship the events will probably have to cost something to cover venue hire, possible speakers’ fee- we’d like to gauge interest so please do let us know what you think.

Thoughts on a postcard or in the comments box please-and have a look at the Guardian comments and debates here.

Bright ideas welcome...

Interns save dog from drowning!

I love google alerts sometimes. Here is a lovely story about some brave American interns in a national park who saved a dog which had got lost following severe storms. If you or anyone you know has lost a dog in I think the Indiana area then you could be in luck!

Answers to the name 'River'

Interns in finance are HARDCORE

See here for some great stories from the world of finance. Who says British youth don’t want to work hard? When was the last time you stayed in the office till 2am or took a 5 minute nap in the toilet cubicle? I believe most internships in finance pay pretty well but I was just wondering what it worked out as per hour…if I arrive at the office at 8am and leave at 2am, that’s 18 frickin hours. That’s hella hard work. I salute thee interns of the finance world! Here’s hoping you don’t lead us into another recession…(winky emoticon)

This is an incredible picture, it makes me want to buy the washing powder that these guys use

Can you fill me in?

OK so we haven’t published many posts recently but just like Greg Knight, we do work for you.  First of all I’d like to introduce you to some new additions to the Interns Anonymous TEAM, who will shortly appear on our ‘about’ page, if all goes to plan.

This is Joe, he is a maths teacher who used to be an intern and in his spare time (teachers don’t normally have spare time) he likes to read about contract law and National Minimum Wage legislation. One day he will rule the world through his extensive knowledge of all of employment law.

This is Kim, she is working in the Department of Health after having done some interning and also not being able to afford interning (and feeling angry about interning). Joe and Kim have come with us to meetings, generally helped strategise and frankly been crazily well informed. Hurrah! (p.s. I promise they aren’t unpaid interns…)

Second of all I’ll give you a short run down of the meetings we went to at BIS and Nick Clegg’s policy unit. At BIS we were discussing guidance for employers re: NMW legislation, so what should the government say to employers who are thinking about taking on an intern and wondering whether or not they should pay them? The civil servants we talked to were very receptive to our opinions but on the other hand budget restrictions and cuts to the NMW staff make it difficult to see how any impact is going to be made by the updated guidance. We’ll see.

At Nick Clegg’s (alas sans Clegg) we went to a ‘round table discussion’, except it was in a small airless room in the Cabinet Office around a rectangular table. This was very interesting and we were glad to be asked- there were all sorts there (unions, interny people, employers’ representatives) and encouragingly we all agreed on a lot of points. The slight elephant in the room (at least for me) was the disconnect between professed policy aims and the message from politicians. One example of this is the lack of political will regards changing the internship situation in Westminster (i.e. that most internships are unpaid and therefore the preserve of those from wealthy backgrounds)- a sense that it was impossible to urge MPs to get their own house in order- it’s these kinds of contradictions which make talking about internships frustrating a lot of the time.

In other news, Intern Aware  have been doing stirling work- this story about Lyn Brown  would be a classic if it wasn’t so depressing. When will they learn, the blighters!

Becky from Internocracy apparently trounced Inspiring Interns at a debate on the ethics of unpaid internships at the Frontline Club

And finally, here is an interesting article from an intern about, well, internships- and some recent controversies. Please keep writing in with your internship stories, good, bad and ugly and we’ll keep you filled in…

Interns Anonymous

We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment. Most importantly, we want this site to be a place where YOU can tell us your story.


Interns Anonymous accept no responsibility for the contents of the blog, comments or any other content on this site that is posted or provided by third parties. This website is designed to act as a forum for interns to share experiences and opinions about their work, therefore, we will not censor opinions we do not agree with. The opinions stated in blog contributions do not represent those of Interns Anonymous. We disclaim all liability for such content to the fullest extent permitted by law. If you have any queries please email us.

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