You might be wondering if international development internships are really what you’re looking for. Does your chosen field or focus fall under the larger umbrella term “international development?” What is international development, anyway?
Well, It’s the catch-all term for the efforts to improve human well-being by reducing poverty and inequality, and improving opportunities in areas like education, better health, and employment. International development is meant to be long term, sustainable, and ongoing, as opposed to urgent emergency or humanitarian aid, such as disaster response, which is focused on quick, life-saving measures. It’s a field with diverse internship opportunities and positions all over the world!
International development careers are as diverse as the people who work in the field. Those working in the field are usually focused on one issue, area, or discipline – they are economists who study the best way forward for economic growth or they’re public health professionals tackling stunted growth in children. Maybe they are focused on agriculture or gender equality, or even better governance. They could be researchers, data analysts, program managers, or consultants. They might be trained in quantitative epidemiological data gathering or they might be anthropologists. They could be tech entrepreneurs working on open data apps to improve access to markets.
Some development practitioners spend much of their international development careers working “in the field,” stationed at posts in countries as diverse as Ghana, Cambodia, or Nicaragua. Some work in headquarters in London or Washington D.C., and focus on fundraising or political advocacy.
As you begin researching international development internship programs, you’ll find there are a lot of considerations to make. While looking into unpaid vs. paid internships, fair labor practices abroad, and searching for ethical, sustainable internship programs, of course you’ll also be thinking about locations.
Where in the world do you want to go to learn some hardknock professional skills about international development? Some top countries for international development internships include:
Like many countries, Peru has luxurious apartment buildings in city centers, and villages in the mountains where extreme poverty is common. Income inequality runs rampant, and the informal economy has moved to fill in the cracks. There is a lot of opportunity for growth in this nation, with a new president and an international development success story of tackling malnourishment. The country also has a history of community led development movements, which could teach you a lot about local development! International development internships in human rights and microfinance could be a great opportunity. Be wary of “tourist trap internships” in the Sacred Valley – need for development work is likely higher elsewhere in the country.
India is a vast and diverse country with the fastest growing large economy in the world! But that doesn’t mean poverty is eliminated – income inequality abounds and the rural and urban divide is vast. India is still tackling numerous social problems, such as transparent governance and access to sanitation facilities. There are specifically a lot of opportunities for public health internships in India. Learn about India’s fascinating history, languages from many regions, and sharpen your skills in public health to jumpstart your international development career.
3. The United States
Tricked you! You thought this was just going to be a list of developing countries. Guess what? A lot of international development financing and expertise comes out of the United States, especially in the hub of Washington, D.C. where the big multilateral development banks, headquarters for many NGOs, think tanks, and, of course, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reside.
The international development field in D.C. is in constant argument about what works and what doesn’t, so it’s a great place (if a bit of a trial by fire) to learn about the field as a whole. Do the big banks hold too much power over small countries? Are they funding corrupt governments? Is the USAID being efficient?
Of course, getting experience in a developing country is a MUST for international development work— but, so is knowing how all of the funding and policy gets created (and whether you agree with it or not). International development internships in D.C. abound, and it’s a great city in which to work, learn, and play.
From a past shaped by conflict to economic growth and a very young population, Cambodia has faced a lot of change in the last few decades. Unemployment is an issue for much of this young population and the country still depends on foreign assistance. NGOs work to support people’s rights, end gender based violence, and prepare for the effects of climate change. You could join the work as a human rights intern, and also see the gorgeous architecture and landscape that has made this small country such a big destination!
Ghana is known as a sort of “poster child” in the international development world, which means you could learn many lessons in this West African country about what works in development abroad. But, income inequality and poverty still exists, and agriculture, which employs much of the country, is (in particular) a field where NGOs are focusing their efforts. Check out internships in international development in Ghana to learn more about how the country has achieved so much. You could also join in the “jollof rice wars” on the side of Ghana, unless you travel around and defect to Nigeria!
6. The UK
Oh, gotcha again! International development internships in London are abuzz, and the UK also has some of the best international development master’s programs in the world (shout out to my alma mater, London School of Economics!). The famous NGO, Oxfam, began in Oxford and the renowned Institute for Development Studies is in Brighton. From small nonprofits to large NGO’s, there are plenty of organizations that could use the help of a development intern. While you’re there, you could check out some graduate programs if you’re considering a masters in international development!
International development internships in the UK, again, will expose you to the “other side” of the work that happens in conjunction with the work done on the ground in developing countries.
Nicaragua is a nation that went through unrest and upheaval during the 1980’s and has consistently faced natural disasters. It’s also a gorgeous nation that is quickly becoming a tourist hotspot, with hiking, snorkeling, and lovely city centers to explore. Local NGOs abound and you could support them by interning in areas as diverse as gender equality and renewable energy. Nicaragua’s history of social and political revolution can also teach you much about international development in the context of political movements.
Liberia has recently had all of its travel restrictions lifted, after experiencing a violent civil war and an outbreak of Ebola. Liberia is a somber example of post-conflict rebuilding and disease control – and if you’re interested in researching these fields, it could be a good fit for your international development internship program, or humanitarian response work. Liberia is not the place for new travelers, however; a development internship in Liberia might be a better fit for someone with post-masters degree or a few stints in other countries under their belt, as you’ll need some skills and experience to bring to the table. Development work in areas such as livelihoods, education, and public health are of vital importance for Liberia as it rebuilds.
Australia is another country that with a strong international development sector. As the economic global landscape changes, international development internships in Australia have changed as well, with more focus on bringing innovative help and tapping into the private sector— mostly in the Indo-Pacific region. Like in the U.S. and the U.K., international development internships in Australia could give you an opportunity to see the fundraising, policy, and advocacy side of development.
Good intentions alone are not enough.
Anyone going into the field of international development should have these three things in common:
- A strong belief in the importance of improving the human condition everywhere
- Hard skills that are needed
- Willingness to learn about the region they work in.
Even with these hugely diverse set of roles, international development is a notoriously difficult field to break into. You need technical skills, like statistics, medical training, or accounting, along with soft skills, like cross cultural communication, people management, AND language abilities.
Like many careers, getting an international development internship is considered a normal first step into the field. In international development, interning abroad is the norm. Many international development internships are unpaid; unpaid internships have become quite controversial lately as they take the place of entry level jobs, and nowhere is that more true than in international development. One has to be pretty well off to afford doing an unpaid internship – in a field that is supposed to reduce inequality, how can international development possibly defend setting up a system that discriminates against those with fewer resources?
This came into the news in a big way a few years ago with the United Nations, when an intern was sleeping outside in a tent to be able to afford his unpaid internship. In the debate between paid vs unpaid internships— whether you stand in solidarity against unpaid internships or you feel that they are a fair bargain for what you receive— make sure you know what you’re getting into with your international development internship program. If it’s unpaid, ask whether or not there are opportunities for lower income candidates to have a chance at the position.
Like always when it comes to NGO and development work, make sure any work you are doing is supported and requested by the local community, ethically planned and managed, and will benefit the community.
Hightail it abroad.
The above list are handy tips for your international development internship abroad, but don’t consider it entirely exhaustive. There are plenty of other countries that would round out this list. Use all the resources at your disposal (hint hint: MyGoAbroad) to find an international internship in development that is a good fit for you! The opportunity to figure out what international development is has never been so intensive – or impactful. Research well, ask lots of questions, and go forth and learn!