December 16, 2022

Internships and inclusivity: increasing access for young people

BRAC project photo

By Nancy Festus

As Helen Turner had realised, the development sector in the UK faces an issue with inclusiveness and accessibility. Paid internships are a good way of changing this, so they should be more commonplace and accessible. 

This summer BRAC’s UK office hired me as the first Helen Turner International Development Intern. Helen was the Grants Officer for BRAC UK in 2019 when she sadly passed away during a project visit in Nepal. She was very passionate about development work and had wanted to help sector entry become more inclusive. Together with her family, BRAC set up their first paid internship programme to remember Helen’s contributions. In the development sector, internship opportunities are rare and mostly unpaid, making this a significant move towards addressing lack of equal access. Having now experienced the benefits an internship can bring, I understand the importance of Helen’s vision and believe internships need to be more accessible and commonplace. 

Issues of inclusivity are prevalent across the UK NGO sector. A 2021 Bond report found that 89% of employees felt their international development charity was not truly committed to diversity, equality and inclusion. Although ethnic minority representation increased in the wider economy between 2020 to 2021, it actually dropped by 7% in the charity sector. This reflects a contradiction between the sector’s stated mission, of promoting social development, and actual organisational practices. I would say in part the problem is lack of access to join. Ethnic minorities make up the largest proportion of people from lower income backgrounds, so often can’t do the unpaid voluntary work required to gain sector experience. Therefore, the sector is dominated by white middle class individuals. As a second-generation immigrant coming from a low-income household, the sector’s inaccessibility was a problem I also faced. I am passionate about development work, but as I came across mostly voluntary roles when looking for internships, I could not apply as I needed paid jobs to help me financially at university. This is a barrier a lot of young people face, a problem Helen Turner recognised, and why she advocated strongly for the sector to become more inclusive. 

Additionally, internships are important because of their practical skills development. To ensure I got the most out of my time at BRAC UK, the internship was designed to give an in-depth overview. During the 10 week internship I spent a week working with each team and then in the last weeks, built my own timetable to focus on areas I found most interesting. I was able to gain experience in donor research and outreach, project budgeting, proposal writing, reporting and due diligence. This has given me a good foundation that should help me better access the sector once I graduate. 

Moreover, working with BRAC helped me adopt a new way of thinking about development. Charity adverts in Europe often infantilize those living through poverty in the global south and suggest that development can only be achieved if it is European led. Though I began to realise that this was not creating sustainable development, I was unsure of how else to address global problems such as poverty. Through my time with BRAC I understand now that development work needs to be more multifaceted and people-led to be sustainable. The founder of BRAC, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, set up BRAC in Bangladesh to support and increase people’s agency to improve their own lives. This was a very innovative way of looking at development work, which many charities still do not do today. I believe that diversity in the NGO sector encourages new ways of thinking and working, as embodied by Sir Abed’s approach. 

Finally, I think it is important to mention how my internship fits into my personal journey. Firstly, the internship has been excellent for developing my confidence. At the beginning of the internship I completely doubted that I would have the skills to work in the development sector. However, I realise now that whilst development work is very big and far reaching it is not as daunting as I had imagined – which I would not have realised without the internship. Secondly, this internship has strengthened my passion for development work. I now have a better idea of what I am trying to work toward and why it matters so much. Ultimately, the internship has given me a clearer structure for both my personal and professional goals and the confidence to go through with them. Helen’s vision of an inclusive and accessible development sector is not only entirely possible, but something we should strive towards to continue empowering young people like myself.