What Matters in an Internship: Reconceptualizing the NGO Sector

3photoofDharamsala
Dharamsala, India, where I worked with
the Tibetan Women's Association When I tell friends and relatives that I interned at an NGO last summer, their reactions are mixed. Sometimes it's feigned interest, a smile and an "oh, that's nice!" Other times it's confusion, with the inevitable question: "So what do NGOs, like, do?" On occasion it's excitement, mostly from those who have interned at NGOs in the past. Mostly, however, it's confusion, as if they don't know what to make of it. Last summer was my third time interning at an NGO, so this is a response I've encountered a lot.

In the summer of 2013, I worked at the Tibetan Women's Association, an organization based in Dharamsala, India that advocates for women's rights within Tibet and the Tibetan community abroad. In the summer of 2014, I interned at Refugees International Japan, an organization based in Tokyo that is primarily concerned with refugee camps and raising awareness about the numerous refugee groups that exist around the world. This past summer, I interned at Peace Boat, an NGO that's also based in Tokyo and is involved in environmental sustainability and abolishing nuclear weapons. These organizations all focus on promoting grassroots efforts and working with--rather than over--the local community so it does not become dependent on outside aid, and this is one of the areas that I'm most excited about. But sometimes it's hard not to let people's reactions dampen some of that excitement.

Instead of just feeling offended, though, I try to engage with people who are less than enthusiastic to figure out where their reaction is stemming from. Through the conversations I've had, I've realized the most common assumption is that NGOs consist of inspired, ideologically-aligned but not top-notch people working mostly in vain to right some humanitarian or societal wrong. Though people who believe this often are thinking of specific experiences they've had or NGOs they've heard about, their evaluation at times comes across as a general denunciation of the efficacy of the NGO sector.

I disagree with this characterization of NGOs. Most organizations, whether NGOs or not, will have problems related to things like staffing and financing. But issues like these do not leave organizations unable to fulfill their missions. The Tibetan Women's Association empowers Tibetan women and gives them the tools to stand up for their rights. Refugees International Japan provides vocational training to impoverished refugees and aids their settlement camps. Peace Boat pursues environmentally sustainable energy sources and spreads the stories of atomic bomb survivors advocating for worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.

Some of the problems NGOs face are directly related to the NGO sector's image. The perception of NGOs as well-intentioned but ineffective is widespread, and it manifests in things like a lack of donations. Many NGOs are limited by insufficient funds, which means, for example, that they often don't have the most recent technology and software to increase their capabilities.

Limited funds also result in people being less interested in participating. Because internships at many NGOs are unpaid due to general lack of funds, there is less incentive to apply for the internships. This prevents many potential interns from joining these organizations, especially college students or recent graduates, who sometimes cannot afford to support themselves without a paid job or internship. This is a shame because they would provide intelligence, awareness, and technological skills that would be extremely valuable.

These conditions have created a vicious cycle. Because there are limited funds and resources, NGOs are limited in some of their capabilities. Because NGOs are limited in some of their capabilities, they are often unfairly written off as not being worthwhile. Their resources and efficacy then dwindle further as fewer people are inclined to donate to NGOs and fewer people see working for an NGO as a viable option.

I believe there are many smart, hardworking, ambitious students who will be much more willing to do NGO work if the NGO sector is reconceptualized. In order to attract such individuals, and retain those who are already involved, the public image of NGOs must be changed. As someone who has seen the huge impact that NGOs can have, I aim to support this reconceptualization and find concrete ways to help expand and develop the NGO sector.