Internships – Socially Exclusive?

While in graduate school I constructed a ‘project’ using the logical framework analysis, a management tool used by DFID in the UK. We could choose any basis for a project, provided we laid out our log frame and showed our thought process, indicators, assumptions etc. in the appendix. My project examined social exclusion, looking at educational opportunities for orphans and vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa (specifically in a small area in Uganda, but no need to get into the details here).

Now, during the time that I was doing that project, I probably could have defined/explained social exclusion pretty well. Now, however, it’s a bit of a different story. The concept is fairly recent and a bit hard to define since there are inherently subjective elements. While the focus isn’t solely on income poverty (there are many other elements, e.g. cultural, institutional, political, etc. that also factor in), I think income poverty has a pretty large impact on individuals’ opportunities in the present which naturally impact their opportunities in the future.

A prime example that continues to upset me: internships.

Oh, the holy internship. After my time at LSE, I realized how many valuable internships people had undertaken — summers at the White House; spending a few months in sub-Saharan Africa working on projects; overseas work with the UN. I definitely found myself a little out of the loop. See, the problem with these internships can be perfectly summed up in the ad that was posted by the International Crisis Group in their search for a summer intern:

Horn of Africa Intern
The International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project is looking for an intern to work in the organisation’s Nairobi office for a period of six months from 1 June 2012.

[Commentary: At this point, they’ve got me… I’m intrigued and I’m qualified.
This could be my dream internship.]

Applicants will be based in Nairobi, Kenya, and must be available to work full time for six months. This is an unpaid internship. Unfortunately, we do not cover visa, travel, accommodation, living and medical costs.

Oh, well geez! Why wouldn’t I take an internship that’s unpaid and doesn’t cover any costs at all? Pretty sure that I can tell you why I am excluded from this, along with a number of other motivated, intelligent graduates looking to get their foot in the door: I’m in my mid-twenties, I support myself and I don’t have parents that I can dole out loads of cash to support me while I’m working abroad. I’ll be honest, I do understand the unpaid labor component, but that fact that not even housing or food are covered make it difficult for the average person to afford. So, who does apply for this opportunity? Well, likely the qualified people whose parents can afford to send them away to pursue their dreams.


We can assume that the majority of these kids come from families that have the financial means. And, based on data showing the correlation between income and education, we can assume that their parents likely have an education that matches that income (at least a bachelors, though I don’t think I’d be far off in assuming that most have Masters and professional degrees). These internships then help perpetuate that. The family that is already well-educated and financially stable provides their child with the opportunity to participate in a valuable internship that, in turn, helps them get that job that we’re all fighting for.

Now, I should be clear of two things. First, I recognize that there are individuals that don’t fall into this category. I don’t mean to generalize as I realize there are parents that aren’t in great financial standing who sacrificed a lot to provide these opportunities (internships, study abroad, etc.) for their children. For the purpose of expounding upon my thoughts here, I have to generalize a bit. Second, I should note that this isn’t meant to be targeted at the International Crisis Group in the slightest. I just happened across their internship ad (that I desperately wanted to apply for) and found myself upset, yet again, about these opportunities that exclude so many qualified individuals. How can we really help people gain the experience that they need if money is such a key factor?

From personal experience, I have found that many older professionals (and some involved with the nonprofits that I’m looking to join) will encourage me to take an internship to get my foot in the door. At 25. With a 6+ years of professional work experience. Plus a Masters degree from a pretty well-recognized institution. How does a 25-year-old living in San Francisco quit ones’ job to take an unpaid internship? I guess the solution would have been to have undertaken that internship while I was an undergraduate student, but that would have required my parents to pay for that; something that would have not been an option in my situation. So, we’re stuck at a crossroads and invariably, someone (possibly younger than myself) with less education with an internship at the UN under his/her belt takes the spot I’ve applied for. Well, sh*t. What’s a girl to do?

Anyone else have thoughts on this?
I’d love to hear from people on both sides of the spectrum — does anyone else find internships a bit exclusionary?

As a side note, I find this issue upsetting not because of my personal experience alone, but rather because it’s an issue that affects and limits a number of individuals in countries around the world. I can’t imagine that this situation does much for income inequality… waiting to see that Gini coefficient rise!

  • Ashima

    Hey Shannon!
    You have put down exactly what I was feeling when I saw people taking these UN internships after Master’s. Someone was going to Geneva, some to NY, some to far off exotic places.. with no stipend, no housing, no allowance whatsoever. I used to ask myself then how can they survive on no money? that too on foreign soil where you don’t know anyone! No matter how much I wanted to apply for those, I knew they weren’t for me.
    And even more I was convinced that I do not want to work for free for an organisation that ‘can’ afford to pay me!
    I truly believe in voluntary services, but only where it is appreciated and not exploited.