Alex Burns is a second-year international development student focusing on gender, governance and conflict management.

The IDEV Summer Internship Series highlights the experiences of IDEV students participating in internships this past summer. Each year, IDEV students intern with various development organizations around the world. These internships are generously funded by SAIS donors, and offer valuable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience between their first and second years at SAIS.

Perspectives: Where did you intern this summer?

AB: Over the summer, I served as the Peace, Security and Humanitarian Action Intern with the UN Women Malawi Country Office. I supported the Cyclone Idai humanitarian response by designing the procurement and distribution plan for gender protection supplies, which prevent gender-based violence (GBV) in relocation sites for internally displaced people.

Perspectives: How did you find this internship, and what was the hiring process?

AB: I found the internship through a long-standing partnership between UN Women and the SAIS IDEV department. Applications were accepted by the SAIS IDEV committee in the Fall and then candidates were shortlisted for UN Women’s review. Shortly after, I was interviewed by the UN Women Malawi Country Office and offered the position.

Perspectives: What were your primary responsibilities? Describe the projects you worked on.

AB: After successfully liaising between various stakeholders such as representatives from the local government and the Department of Disaster Management, as well as mapping out the distribution agenda, I was invited to participate in the handing-off ceremonies and the dissemination of materials across the affected areas. Participation in the mission allowed me to undertake in direct fact-finding with beneficiary women for drafting of the mission report and lessons learned. These documents serve as reporting mechanisms for donors, advocacy material for the UN and tools for improved implementation in future responses. 

In my role I also contributed to the formulation of the country’s National Action Plan (NAP) for Resolution 1325, which acknowledges the disproportionate and unique impact of conflict on women and girls. The NAP focuses on increasing women’s participation in decision making in order to prevent and resolve conflicts around the country as well as combat GBV. I led the development of a monitoring task force and validation workshop by engaging and liaising between civil society organizations and key stakeholders such as the Ministry of Gender. This responsibility enabled me to participate in the process of ensuring that Malawi’s NAP is cohesive across all levels of society.

Perspectives: Was there previous coursework or work experience that you found especially useful during the internship or the application process?

AB: While there are no specific courses on Women, Peace and Security at SAIS, I have tried to focus my coursework on the thematic area. For instance, in the Spring I took Humanitarianism, Aid and Politics and chose to focus my term paper on the effects of humanitarian aid on women and girls in the Mozambican Civil War. Similarly, for the Gender Inequality and Development course, my term paper focused on the role of women’s civil society groups on peace processes in the Colombian FARC conflict. These efforts allowed me to enter UN Women with a strong foundation and knowledge base, which facilitated my transition into the internships.

Perspectives: What were some of your key takeaways from this internship for your academic and professional interests?

AB: My internship allowed me to gain critical knowledge on the UN system, particularly in the context of a country office which operates closely with beneficiaries and implementing partners. I was able to participate in field missions and projects which aligned to my target career and will be critical in my job search over the next year. Moreover, I gained extremely valuable practical knowledge on the Women, Peace and Security field as well as the gender and humanitarian nexus. I was able to refine my skills in stakeholder engagement, project planning and implementation and policy research and analysis.

Perspectives: What should future SAIS students interested in this internship know?

AB: There were challenges along the way that future interns should consider. First, I came to SAIS with over five years of professional experience, including roles in which I managed my own projects and teams. Therefore, it was quite challenging to be an intern after years in leadership roles, particularly in the UN system which is quite hierarchical. Second, I found that my team was overburdened with work and, given the limited time of summer internships, it was difficult for them to delegate work and provide guidance on my responsibilities. This internship is thus not necessarily for everyone. It is best suited for individuals who are comfortable making their own work plans, pitching their supervisors about tasks and deliverables, and continuously reaching out to supervisors for more work. Lastly, the UN and especially UN Women is quite bureaucratic so the position required significant adaption from me coming from a background in private and civil society organizations.

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