Unpaid internships in development

Nearly everyone I know who works in development started off as an unpaid intern, myself included.  Sometimes there was a stipend or housing provided, but I definitely dipped into my savings, and couldn’t have done it at all if I’d had to pay off student loans.  (The next post in this series will discuss gaining experience when you have loans or other substantial financial responsibilities to consider.)  In this post, I’ll speak about different ways of gaining experience through internships; how to find internships; and coping with the financial challenge of unpaid positions.

Before looking for an internship outside your home country, it may be useful to search for smaller development organizations in your current area and reach out to them about internships.  As mentioned in the last post, there’s often significant competition for international internships, and domestic positions can be easier to find, especially with smaller NGOs.  Within the US, all major cities have smaller NGOs headquartered there, and I suspect it’s similar in other Northern countries.  If you’re currently employed, a part-time internship with a local organization will allow you to explore a new field without giving up your salary.  And if your interests change as a result of the internship, the barriers to exit are much lower than if you’d accepted a year-long position in another country.

Assuming you’ve developed some transferable skills, learned about the history of the region where you’d like to work, and potentially explored the sector that interests you through a domestic internship, working abroad is a logical step.  Your goals for the internship should be, in descending order, to learn more about the sector you’re working in (say public health); improve your language skills (if you’re not working in your first language); learn more about the country you’re working in (which is usually dependent on your language skills); and try to keep building other useful skills. Note that three of these four goals involve learning (about the sector, the language and the country), only one involves improving your technical abilities, and none of them involve directly helping anyone.  As an entry-level worker in an unpaid position, you are not actually improving anyone’s quality of life, unless you count the impact of buying goods and services in the local market.  You are learning about what you’d like to do with your career, and learning about the skills you need to eventually work for an organization which may assist people.  Hopefully, you’re also learning that the people you meet are living their own complex lives in ways which aren’t uniquely aimed at the goal of “achieving development.”

With the goal of learning in mind, it’s important to target your applications carefully.  (An upcoming post will discuss how to write an effective CV and cover letter for these positions.)  It may seem tempting to apply to every position you come across, but volunteering at an orphanage in Delhi won’t be a very useful career move if you’re truly interested in improving public health in rural Peru.  Check out sites like Idealist, or search for terms like “public health internship [peru/latin america/etc].”  Local non-profits often don’t post internship opportunities online, but may consider having unpaid interns on if you email them.  Search for “ngo directory [country]” and reach out to those in your chosen sector.  If you know anyone who’s worked in the sector or region which interests you, ask them if they have any advice for your internship search.

If you’ve received an offer for a position, you should ask for a written description of the work that you’ll be doing, and get an estimate of the overall costs of the internship before accepting.  The written description is important because, paradoxically, unpaid internships are still costly for the employer.  A current employee needs to supervise the intern, answer their questions, give them access to resources, and evaluate their work.  A good employer should be able to give you a written description of who you’ll be working with, which projects you’ll be be on, what resources will be provided for you (housing/a seat in the office/access to a medical lab/etc.), and what outputs are expected of you.  If they can’t answer these questions, or say that “you’ll design your own project,” you should think carefully about accepting the position unless you have a very clear idea of a project you’d like to implement.  You may end up twiddling your thumbs for three months.

It’s also important to ask the employer about stipends, housing, and other costs which may be covered.  In major cities in most low income countries, employer-provided housing can be cheaper than the open market.  The employer may also help you rent a room in someone’s home, which is typically less expensive than having a private apartment.  You should also ask for an estimate of living expenses in the area more generally.  It’s typically not possible to find other paid employment (e.g. in retail) if you’re working outside your own country and haven’t got a work visa on arrival, so it’s important to have an accurate estimate of your total expenses before committing to the position.

Finally, there are also a few paid internships out there.  The most reputable programs I’m aware of are the Princeton in Africa, Asia and Latin America fellowships (to which non-Princetonians are welcome to apply).  Searching for “paid international internships” suggests that more exist, but they’re rare beasts, and they shouldn’t be the cornerstone of your strategy for gaining professional experience in a developing country.

4 thoughts on “Unpaid internships in development

  1. Hi Rachel, very relevant series of posts. As I read them, I couldn’t help but wonder why paid entry-level roles are so scarce in the development sector. Some possible reasons will be appreciated.


    1. Hi Madhumitha,

      That’s a great question. I think the main issue is simply that NGOs aren’t like retailers. They don’t need lots of entry-level people to provide services directly to clients; they need relatively more people with skills like financial management or the ability to design agricultural extension programs. So, structurally, there just aren’t as many positions at the entry level, doing jobs which don’t require a specialized skill set.

      Since the supply of people who would like to work in development is greater than demand for entry-level workers, NGOs can impose large requirements on potential workers (like already having language skills, management experience, time spent in developing countries, etc.) and end up with a pool of higher-skilled entry level workers whom they don’t have to train. These people end up doing relatively sophisticated tasks which are probably above what a strict definition of “entry level” would entail. From an NGO’s perspective, it’s a pretty good deal, since they’re not hiring genuinely entry-level people and paying for training.


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