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By Dr. Willy Oppenheim an educator, an educational researcher, and the Founder and Director of Omprakash (full bio below)
If you are looking for a social impact internship abroad, especially in a so-called ‘developing world’ context, it is highly likely that three things are true. First, you’ve encountered numerous middleman organizations offering to help you find opportunities abroad. Second, most or all of these organizations claim to orient their work around lofty principles like ‘ethical partnerships,’ ‘reciprocity,’ ‘responsible global engagement,’ ‘respecting other cultures,’ and ‘empowering local communities.’ And third, most or all of these organizations share roughly the same business model: in exchange for a fee, they will ‘place’ you with a host organization or host project in a foreign country. (Don’t believe me? Just Google ‘intern abroad’ and see what you find.)
In this blog post, I want to suggest that this ‘placement’ model — the dominant paradigm throughout the booming industry of international volunteering and internships — significantly constrains the possibilities for ethical, mutually-empowering global engagement. I argue that the placement paradigm creates problematic incentives and sets up relationships which are unequal and paternalistic from the moment of their inception. I also argue that conversations about ‘ethical’ programming are ignoring the elephant in the room if they don’t address practical questions about the specific processes through which interns connect with their host organizations, and that there’s a reason most organizations don’t want to discuss this topic: their business models are at odds with their own aspirations towards egalitarian global partnerships.
Let’s begin by examining the term ‘placement’ itself. ‘Do you have placements in Country X?’ ‘My placement starts on July 1st.’ ‘We offer placements with vetted organizations in 10 countries.’ The term is so ubiquitous within this space that one might easily assume there is no alternative; this is just how it works: if you want to intern abroad, you get ‘placed’ with a host organization. Yet why should this be the case? Why do we assume that if you want an internship in New York or Geneva, you probably need to apply and interview for a position, but if you want an internship in Kathmandu or Accra, you can just pay a middleman for a placement? The very notion of being ‘placed’ implies a passive intern and a passive host; only the middleman exercises autonomy and power in this process. The middleman organization might espouse principles of ‘ethical partnerships’ and ‘respecting local communities,’ but it is hard to reconcile these ideals with a core model in which host organizations or communities are effectively denied the opportunity to recruit and select their own interns.
My contention is that this common program model creates relationships and incentive structures which are disempowering to interns and their hosts. Middlemen organizations selling placements are naturally incentivized to ‘place’ interns regardless of their fitness for a given position. They are disincentivized from allowing individuals and organizations to connect directly and bypass their own placement process. Thus, in the same way that Airbnb restricts contact between hosts and guests until the guest has paid for a booking, middlemen organizations often mask the details of the host organization to prevent this sort of direct dialogue. Consequently, rather than applying for specific positions at specific organizations, prospective interns often find themselves choosing between generic descriptors of various placements available — Global Health Internship in Country X, Microfinance Internship in Country Y — and purchasing a pre-packaged experience before even speaking with the person or people who will be supervising them on-site.
In one sense, then, my critique is most applicable to middlemen organizations that sell placements with third-party hosts and deliberately constrain dialogue between prospective interns and hosts until the intern has arrived in-country. However, my deeper concerns persist even when the organization selling the placement is directly connected to the project on the ground. Sometimes local stakeholders sell placements within their own organizations, or transnational middlemen organizations actually run projects in-country and employ local people. Organizations such as these often tout their close relationships with ‘the local community’ as evidence that their placements are ethical, empowering, and sustainable. But in either case, the core problem is about the commodification of ‘doing good’ and the problematic incentives that emerge from this commodification. These incentives can lead to situations where interns feel as though they are not actually needed or that they are unprepared to fulfill the expectations of their host organization. And even in cases where interns have a positive learning experience and/or make a positive impact, my basic concern remains the same: the placement model sets up a patron-client relationship which is fundamentally shaped by someone’s drive to make money rather than by any sort of authentic partnership in which specific assets are matched with specific needs.
One hypothetical defense of the placement paradigm is that barriers of language or technology prevent direct communication between potential interns and potential hosts. My own experience working in this sector for the past thirteen years has proven this hypothesis to be wrong, and I surmise that it retains its salience only because of the embedded paternalistic assumption that potential host organizations exist on the other side of an impassable chasm between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries.
Another hypothetical justification is that host organizations are too busy to screen volunteers, and thus that middlemen are performing a valuable service by doing this work themselves. I find this defense to be highly suspect, especially considering that most middlemen are not doing any heavy lifting by virtually guaranteeing a position to anyone who pays the required fees. Host organizations might buy into this narrative and consent to the placement paradigm without objection, but it is disingenuous to frame such consent as a wholehearted endorsement of the paradigm if the middleman has not presented any alternative options.
Another justification is that middlemen share revenues with host organizations, and thus selling placements can help make host organizations more sustainable. I certainly understand the need for sustainable revenue, but I worry about mission drift: if a local school or health clinic or activist group can only sustain itself by selling an experience to foreign interns, then at what point does this programming become a distraction and a drain on key resources? I have no objection to educational tourism per se — in fact, I think it can be a powerful force for change, especially if it utilizes radical pedagogy and helps funnel resources towards marginalized sectors of local economies — but tourist experiences should be marketed and sold as such, not dressed up in the language of ‘social impact internships’ or ‘ethical partnerships.’ Put differently: when middlemen argue that their programs are ‘ethical’ because they share revenues with local organizations, or because they employ a lot of local people, this is a limited and transactional view of ‘ethical’ which conveniently ignores the power structures, incentives, and messaging that are baked into certain kinds of relationships.
So, what should you do if you are looking for an ethical internship abroad? My basic argument here is actually quite simple: look for opportunities where you are applying for specific positions within specific organizations. Insist on speaking with a representative of the organization on the ground. Assume that you will need to have an interview and you might not be selected for the position — and be very suspicious if the position is guaranteed to you after you pay a fee. Seek out organizations that are locally-led and that primarily function to address specific social problems on an ongoing basis. Avoid organizations that appear to exist only for the sake of providing placements to foreigners. And at all times, ask yourself whose interests are driving your experience.
What is most remarkable is how rarely these points and questions are addressed within broader conversations about ‘best practices’ for finding international internships or establishing ethical global partnerships. GoAbroad offers ‘9 Tips for Finding an Internship Abroad in Summer 2017,’ but says nothing about how such internships should actually be arranged. GoOverseas highlights ‘5 Ways to Tell if Your [Host] Organization is Legit or Not,’ but does not encourage readers to question whether it is ‘legit’ for opportunities to be bought and sold like vacation packages, nor what incentives emerge through such commodification. (Incidentally, this post by GoOverseas does emphasize the importance of ‘direct contact with hosts,’ but then immediately excuses the ‘program providers’ — aka middlemen selling programs via GoOverseas — whose business models preclude such direct contact.) Eric Hartman helpfully outlines ‘7 Red Flags’ when considering international programs, and rightfully critiques organizations for “chasing sales to a much greater extent than they are actually pursuing cooperative development,” but his list of red flags does not call out the placement paradigm as part of the problem. Elsewhere, Hartman has advocated for principles of Fair Trade Learning, and this is a useful framework for avoiding exploitative practices, but it still falls short of questioning (or imagining alternatives to) the dominant model in which interns, volunteers, or service-learners are ‘placed’ by a middleman. Scholars at the University of Washington have forcefully critiqued how the term ‘global partnership’ has become a vacuous buzzword, but their critique does not explicitly grapple with what I contend is the most important question: how are relationships between individuals and host organizations actually arranged and structured, and on whose terms?
When Thomas Kuhn coined the term ‘paradigm shift,’ he wasn’t talking about new ways to solve a given problem; he was talking about entirely new ways of identifying and defining the problem itself. This is difficult precisely because our embeddedness within a given paradigm makes it difficult to imagine any alternatives — in much the same way that a fish doesn’t notice the water. The time has come for us to take a closer look at the placement paradigm, to reject the assumption that there is no alternative, and to pursue other possibilities.
Dr. Willy Oppenheim is an educator, an educational researcher, and the Founder and Director of Omprakash (www.omprakash.org), an organization devoted to changing the dominant paradigm of interning and volunteering abroad to make it more ethical, affordable, and educational. Willy earned his doctorate in Education as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. In addition to his leadership of Omprakash, Willy teaches intermittently at the University of Washington, Seattle University, and the National Outdoor Leadership School. His other interests include climbing, skiing, running, guitar, bread, poetry, and caring for his small but mighty family of succulent plants.