Saving Canada’s international youth internship program

In 1997, a public servant named Elizabeth Racicot was tasked with developing a new federal program to help university graduates prepare for careers in international development.

The idea was simple. The Canadian government would partner with non-profit organizations and universities across the country to offer young Canadians (aged 19 to 30) work experience through hundreds of internships in developing countries. The hope was that with training and hands-on experience, underemployed graduates would have a chance to transition into meaningful careers—and perhaps even help advance Canada’s development goals in the process.

Deadlines and budgets were tight, but within a few months the program was up and running. Seventeen years later, the former Canadian International Development Agency has sent more than 7,000 young Canadians into work placement programs in more than 65 countries through the International Youth Internship Program.

For her efforts, Racicot was presented with one of the highest honours a civil servant can receive, the Head of the Public Service Award.

But things have changed. CIDA is no more, and now the program is in trouble too.

Last August, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation got word from a credible government source that the internship program is heading for the chopping block in March. Despite pressures from partner organizations, the government has refused to comment on its future. If the rumours are true, the program’s funding will be pulled by the end of the month. Not only does this put those hoping to start a career in development at a disadvantage, it is a major setback for Canada and its influence in the developing world.

Why end it? From the beginning, the program received positive reviews. It is popular among non-profit organizations and post-secondary grads, many of whom would go on to make valuable contributions in the communities they worked in.

From a cost perspective, the program is lean. Partner organizations like Oxfam-Quebec, Cuso International and Mines Action Canada are responsible for handling administrative burdens including interviews, training and logistics. A maximum of $15,000 is allocated for each six- to 12-month placement, meant to cover admin, training, travel, health insurance, living expenses and accommodations.

Most importantly, it did what it set out to do: the vast majority (71 per cent) are successful in finding full-time employment.

I was one of them. In 2008, I spent six months working with landmine survivors in Uganda. New to the country and culture, my boss Margaret (herself a survivor) showed me the ropes.

Together, we met with disability groups, lobbied government officials, opened the organization’s first office, and co-ordinated logistics and civil society participation at a major United Nations conference on humanitarian disarmament.

Just a few months earlier I had been writing my final exams at McGill University, and here I was gaining unparalleled life and work experience in the field.

You also see things and hear stories you never forget. From Nakivale, one of the oldest refugee camps in Africa that 64,000 call home to this day; to the lush, green hills of Rwanda where 20 years ago hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives; to the internally displaced person camps of northern Uganda, where many still bear the scars of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Against all odds, you witness incredible resilience and strength in the places where humanity has failed. These images stay with you, and you become a lifelong ambassador, not only for the region, but for development and humanitarian aid in general.

My experience is far from unique. But there are fewer and fewer opportunities like these for young Canadians to travel, gain valuable work experience and engage with the developing world.

Underemployed graduates working in coffee shops know the paradox all too well. Cash-strapped non-governmental organizations are unwilling to hire graduates without experience, and graduates are unable to gain experience without those jobs. These internships go a long way to address this gap.

Some have argued that the program is unnecessary, and that graduates should simply dig into their savings and seek unpaid internships. But given the costs that come with transcontinental flights and living six to 12 months without an income (not to mention hefty student loans), this is an option few young Canadians can afford. As a result, unpaid internships are a luxury available only to the affluent.

Others criticize the entire concept. “If I had to choose between helping someone become a plumber or helping someone work abroad, I’d take the plumber,” one editor told me. An important trade, to be sure, but it’s important not to lose focus of the larger picture. Graduates of the program have gone on to represent Canada on the world stage: taking leading roles at the United Nations, the World Bank, the department of foreign affairs and a wide range of academic, governmental and non-profit organizations overseas and here at home. By cutting back on these investments and opportunities, we risk diminishing our voice—Canada’s voice—in these global institutions and around the world.

In his budget address last month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stressed that “young graduates often lack opportunities to gain the workplace experience and skills necessary to find and retain jobs,” leaving far too many unemployed or underemployed. He’s right. This outcome serves no one.

Today, the program’s fate rests in the hands of International Development Minister Christian Paradis. Axing the program would be shortsighted, harming prospects for young Canadians and Canada’s influence in the world. Mr. Paradis should heed his colleague’s words, put the rumours to rest, and make a public commitment toward the program’s renewal.

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Originally published in Embassy Magazine.

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