Why paid internships matter for foreign policy careers

Why paid internships matter for foreign policy careers
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In February, Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroDemocrats ask Biden to reverse employee policy on past marijuana use The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's next act: Massive infrastructure plan with tax hikes Blinken to appear before Foreign Affairs Committee MORE (D-Texas) reintroduced House legislation requiring the State Department to pay its interns — this week Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottShocking killing renews tensions over police Democrat: 'Registration, engagement' are keys to toppling Sen. Tim Scott in South Carolina Passage of FASTER Act is critical for food allergy community MORE (R-SC) introduced a Senate companion bill requiring the same. U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations should follow their lead.

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the national and international protests it produced in the spring and summer of 2020, serious questions emerged about its implications for U.S. domestic and foreign policy.  

This included long-standing debates about diversity or the lack thereof in the U.S. diplomatic corps, as well as the broader foreign policy and national security sector. It also led to a stream of powerful statements of solidarity from many U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations, recognizing the damaging impacts of racial injustice and committing to address them internally and externally.


While the statements were welcomed and affirming first steps, many international NGOs continue to struggle with how to move from words to action in their efforts for increased equity. The foreign policy minded are often inclined to look outwards for solutions, conducting complex analyses and devising sophisticated theories of change. This tendency has led to a series of high-level panels, internal white papers and discussions centered on ‘decolonizing aid.’ While each of these have their place, they should not overshadow the simple, unglamorous and concrete steps necessary to remove barriers to access in foreign affairs careers for low income communities of color. 

Paying interns for their labor is one such step.

Though Rep. Castro’s Department of State Student Internship Program Act is targeted to a specific U.S. government agency and focused on diplomacy, its powerful and clear logic is also relevant to a range of foreign policy careers.

As Rep. Castro noted in a recent tweet “You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to pursue a career in diplomacy”.  

Hearing such a plain truth from a member of congress resonates deeply for me. As a Black kid from the inner-city, I struggled desperately in unpaid internships, often washing my clothes in dishwashing liquid and shopping for groceries with coins. Having moved from Nashville, Tenn., to New York City after college, I faced the daunting challenge of a drastic cost of living increase, the prospect of working multiple odd jobs alongside my internships, managing the burden of student loans and explaining it all to family members who did not understand the sacrifice and were deeply opposed to the idea of working for free on both pragmatic and historical grounds.


I was fortunate to find my way eventually, but so many other talented and deserving young people were not.  

This has direct implications for diversity, equity and inclusion in foreign affairs careers. Since economic barriers to access are by default racial barriers to access, the persistence of unpaid internships diminishes diversity in the sector at the point of entry. Black, Latinx and Native people experience higher rates of poverty in the U.S., and Black Americans specifically carry higher rates of student loan debt and have more difficulty in managing it.     

As a result, far fewer in these communities are able to sustain themselves in unpaid internships, and thus lose the job opportunities and career networks that they often provide. The foreign policy community cannot continue to ignore inequities in early career opportunities and then  profess confusion at similar inequities in our senior ranks.  

In addition to the reliance on unpaid internships, many international NGOs insist that they are unable to routinely identify and recruit diverse candidate pools for their jobs and internships. This assertion at best belies a sense of complacency and at worst rests on the conscious or unconscious belief that there is a dearth of talented and qualified people from communities of color.

To help remedy this, international NGOs could seek to partner and recruit with any of the 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S., as well as the 314 member Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

There are also deep wells of talent to be found in professional organizations that either include or provide mentorship to diverse groups of young professionals. Many of which were founded with the express purpose providing a pipeline of talent to foreign affairs agencies and institutions. They include Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security, the Leadership Council of Women in National Security, the International Career Advancement Program, the Diversity in National Security Network, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for International Affairs at Howard University and Black Professional in International Affairs.

As we seek collectively to address the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion in foreign affairs careers, paid internships and increased partnership can be critical first steps.    

International NGOs that found themselves on human dignity, increased agency and access and support for livelihoods should be at the forefront of ending the practice of hosting unpaid internships and take their rightful place as an entry point for increasingly diverse Americans to enter foreign affairs careers.  

Travis L. Adkins is a lecturer of African and Security Studies at Georgetown University.