Chris Blattman

Bleg: Summer internships

It’s that time of year when students come to my office and ask about summer internships in Africa. Lately I’ve advised them to try to work in a government ministry, central bank, or African-owned company. I suspect no one ever contacts these places, and that the experience is a useful one. Even if it’s bad it’s good.

Perhaps others have better advice. Please comment away. Advice you give your students? A story on how you got your own summer job?

One thing is for sure, this kind of internship strains my patience. $10,000 for 10 weeks of work delivering laptops? (1) That’s 100 laptops right there; (2) $10,000 goes a LONG way in Rwanda; and (3) this strikes me as a job an African would benefit from doing.

If you want really horrible ideas, I can’t even bear to write about this.

11 Responses

  1. There are truckloads of these useless projects in the Netherlands too. Development organisations are like political parties.

  2. Heck,the kids I lead barely know Africa isn’t a country, let alone details of the conflict.

    Maybe you could run a Survey of Wealth Affected Youth?

  3. Invisible Children is a joke. IC has even suggested that we KIDNAP OURSELVES in April, as a pathetic, misguided, useless campaign against child soldiering. I'm just wondering how one kidnaps oneselves. Should I handcuff myself to my bed in some sick bout of S&M?

  4. Why the hating on Invisible Children?
    They’ve rebuilt schools in Gulu, started employing lots of Ugandan staff and are getting selfish American kids to care about others.

    A lot of blogs i’ve seen vastly overestimate the knowledge young people have of the situation in Nth Uganda and Congo. When you are working in the field it’s hard to imagine not everybody knows.

    At the heart of IC is a desire to tell a story and help. What do you suggest they do instead?

  5. The position is not to distribute laptops but to set up networks and computing infrastructure to support the laptops – something which requires significant knowledge. Deployment problems and the utter lack of a plan for how to actually deploy the laptops is what has most held up the OLPC project in the past (their head of security was sent to Peru to set up a network because higher up people realized that it would require significant skills and preparation and that they had not yet trained anyone ) so I am happy to see that they are making some progress.

    I agree that it would be preferable to have local people perform the installation and maintenance but so far most of the projects have been run by volunteer expats (generally Computer Scientists) who volunteered to go back to their home country to help set up the machines, e.g. Nepal: instead of people on the ground. I agree that OLPC should try harder to find local talent but I don’t think that this position is something to be upset about.

    One can always say that money used for staffing could be used to buy more of something else (computers, medicine, food, …) but there is also value to expertise, especially in the long run. We could pay for more things that directly help by paying fewer researchers to study poverty or fewer people to develop drugs but this would likely hurt in the future (though some reductions would probably be reasonable). This position might not necessarily be as knowledge intensive as that of a researcher but students with comparable knowledge would still make twice that in an internship industry. Furthermore the call for interns actually asks students to significant planning and think about who will continue their work once they are gone and might make them more likely to participate and/or support such work in the future. I think this is a great opportunity to get engineering students interested in international development.

    I think that plenty of qualified people could be found for a reduced rate but I am personally happy to see that non profits are more willing to compete with for-profit companies for top talent. I’ve been following this recent discussion about non-profit compensation with great interest:

  6. Great suggestions, Chris. I worked for a local microfinance institution in Kenya as an undergrad. It was eye-opening. I got the job through a study abroad program, but places like that would love to take on free interns if students would just write and ask. For what it’s worth, they seemed to be happy with my work. I did assessments and put together summary documents that were used in grant applications. Not sure the same is true at a government ministry, but small local NGO’s can use the free labor and Excel skills that competent undergraduates can offer.

    It’s too late to apply for these now, but I always encourage my students to apply for embassy internships with the State Department (Nov. 1 deadline). Most U.S. missions to African states are so understaffed that they need their interns to do real work, especially in the summer, which is high turnover time. I had a wild experience as an undergrad in a central African embassy – I learned how to evaluate education programs on the fly by being given an assignment and no direction, was introduced as “Madeline Albright’s representative” on national radio (oops), and definitely got a clearer understanding of how aid policy actually works in the real world. Some of those skills I actually still use in my work now.

    DEK, awareness-raising is only helpful if it actually results in change for the people affected by a crisis, which, in Africa, almost never happens. The Invisible Children movement has been a self-centered disaster from the beginning. Abduct yourself? Please. How does that actually help a Ugandan child?

  7. i’m with matthew colin above. the benefits to the student are great – it can be a real eye opener. But to the host institution? That is doubtful and I wonder would they thank you for sending your students their way. Not a reflection on your students as such, just on the likely impact they’ll have. Take, take, take.

  8. What is so bad about the awareness event/website regarding the Ugandan humanitarian question? Its a nice website. Seems like the situation could use some global awareness.


  9. As a recently finished ODI Fellow, I’m not entirely sure foreign internships are in high demand by government ministries. They wouldn’t mind long term work, but how much are you going to accomplish in a Ministry of Finance in just a few months? It would be a great learning experience, but not all that beneficial for the host government….

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