Microfinance Internships Abroad
Story and photos by Matthew Guttentag
Although microfinance has been around since the 1970’s, its prominence as a tool in international development has skyrocketed over the past few. Microfinance’s unique structure of providing a true “hand-up rather than a hand-out” through dispensing small, low-interest loans creates a long-term poverty-reduction system which promises the sustainability that eludes most aid programs. As cynicism and pessimism towards traditional approaches to international aid increases, the microfinance industry has boomed worldwide.
The rapid expansion of microfinance throughout the globe presents an incredible opportunity for anyone interested in getting involved in this dynamic sector through an internship. At the crossroads between business and development, an internship in the microfinance industry provides an experience relevant to an exceptionally broad range of professions. And because of the truly global reach of the industry, microfinance internships are available in every region of the world.
Due to a number of factors, most Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) do not have official internship programs. Many MFIs are still quite young and have not yet gotten around to developing a program. Mostly, however, the lack of formal programs is due to the very nature of the industry: even those MFIs which service tens of thousands of borrowers do not necessarily have large staffs or even websites, and thus do not have the capacity to organize and advertise a formal program. Although this may seem like an impediment, it can actually make it much easier to obtain a high-quality internship, because you might end up not having to compete against other applicants for a position. On the other hand, it requires much more work in terms of finding and vetting different possibilities.
No matter whether you are a seasoned professional looking for something different on an extended “work vacation” or a college student wanting to learn more about the industry, chances are there is a microfinance internship for you. It may take bit of time and a lot of mouse clicks, but if you follow these six steps, you will soon find yourself stepping off of the plane and into an internship that you will never forget.
1. Figure Out What You Want Out of the Internship
When considering a microfinance internship, it is important to realize what you want to get out of the experience. There are two ways to go about this: deciding where you want to go geographically and finding a position in that region or deciding what type of position you want and being more flexible in terms of placement. If you are focused on a particular region, it is best to cast as wide a net as possible in that area (as outlined in later steps) and be ready to accept a range of responsibilities.
If there is a particular aspect of microfinance you want to work in, you may have fewer options in terms of location. ou may be looking to work on the finance or fundraising side of things; if so, many opportunities will be in the U.S. or Western Europe with large organizations with partners or branches abroad such as ACCION and FINCA. There are, however, also opportunities overseas on the finance side of the business, usually with larger MFIs such as Grameen who may be looking for someone with some relevant experience. Some of these larger organizations do in fact have formal internship programs, and these can be quite competitive.
If you are more interested in the on-the-ground operations (such as working on the loan process) or publicity and communications, you will likely be able to find something overseas. It is inherent to the microfinance industry that its operations tend to be in the poorest parts of the world, especially in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Be prepared to challenge yourself through an austere living experience away from the normal glitz and glamour of sightseeing tourism.
Another important factor is of course money. The nature of the industry also dictates that microfinance internships will almost always be unpaid. You must find funding through other methods, either through personal fundraising or through your University. Luckily, because microfinance generally operates in poor areas, living expenses tend to be extremely low compared to Western Europe and the United States. And because you are working rather than moving around, you can expect to spend significantly less than you would on a normal long-term trip.
2. Figure Out What You Can Offer an MFI
The positions you can take as an intern depend upon your experience and qualifications. If you have any relevant expertise in finance or banking, opportunities to work on big-picture operations such as business strategy and planning may be available. In addition, website development and management information system skills are in huge demand within the industry, as most MFIs want a better Web presence and more adequate IT systems. Knowledge of the local language is another important skill since it allows you to do work in the field interacting with borrowers. However, even with no background in banking or technology and no local language skills, it is still possible to find high-quality and meaningful work at an MFI. Many MFIs have few or no native English speakers, and thus desperately need people to write success stories, work on publicity material, and edit all sorts of documents. For my first microfinance internship, I had no experience and did not speak a lick of the local language, but got set up with a start-up MFI that had huge needs for a resourceful English-speaker across the board, from reviewing the lending operations to writing the HR manual.
The duration of your availability is also a major issue in terms of being able to have a meaningful impact. If you are not staying for at least two months, you will spend most of your time getting settled in and figuring out how things operate. Therefore it is not usually worth it for the MFI to accommodate shorter stays, and most formal programs require at least two months on site and sometimes as much as a 6-month commitment.
3. See What’s Already Publicized
Those formal internship programs which do exist can often be found on the Microfinance Gateway website and sometimes on Idealist.org. The main web pages of the larger MFIs already mentioned (FINCA, Grameen, ACCION) as well as BRAC in Bangladesh all offer internship programs which can be found on their websites (although ACCION does not always have opportunities available abroad). The popular and innovative website Kiva, which allows people to fund microfinance projects right from their computer, offers a range of fellowships with its partner organizations all over the world. Most if not all of the programs you find advertised will require a commitment of at least two or more months and will be unpaid. One disadvantage to going through one of these programs is that the competition can be quite fierce and you may have to apply very far in advance of your trip. However, a formal and publicized program probably means that your internship will be well-organized and the MFI will have suitable work for you to do.
4. Find What’s Not Publicized
As mentioned above, the vast majority of MFIs do not publicize or even regularly organize any internships, but they may be able to organize something for you. It is often better to contact these organizations directly with a cover letter explaining your skills and what you would like to do as well as your resume. Luckily, although many MFIs do not have a web presence, some MFI websites provided information about the major opportunities. The way I found my first microfinance internship was through a mass email campaign of contacts collected from an MFI website (see those listed at the end of this article). Although the majority did not respond, a number of MFIs replied, and a number of those ended up offering me internship positions which did not exist as part of any formal program.
Finding an internship through direct contact with MFIs which have no advertised program has some real advantages. In many parts of the world, the idea of an unpaid internship is still quite foreign. Therefore many MFIs may have never even considered the possibility of someone from another country flying halfway around the world to work for them without any remuneration whatsoever. These MFIs may have huge needs for someone with your skill set and experience (even if your relevant skill set only includes fluency in English), and thus there is the potential to make a substantial impact with an MFI that has possibly never even hosted an intern before.
5. Get the Scoop on your Internship Offer
So now, after corresponding with dozens of MFIs, you’ve been offered one, two, or maybe even a few internships. But don’t pack your bags just yet, because not all internships are created equal, and it is important to know the position and responsibilities in which you are going to be involved. This part of the process is especially important if you have found an internship that is not part of any program. In this case, it is essential to find out exactly what work the MFI expects you to be doing. There is a chance that the MFI simply accepted your offer because they figured that there is no reason to turn down free labor even though they do not have any specific tasks in mind for you. Although even this situation could turn out well and you could end up doing good work, there is a real possibility that it could make for a more frustrating than fulfilling experience. Try to establish the specific work that the MFI has planned for you before you make a commitment or buy a ticket. If there have in fact been any previous interns, try to get their contact information so you can get the low down on life and work at the internship site.
6. Get Ready and Go!
If you have found a promising position at an MFI that sounds right up your alley, then it’s time to take the plunge. You will likely be headed somewhere that requires vaccinations and medications, so make sure to pay a visit to a travel doctor well in advance of your departure. Stay in close contact with your MFI to ensure that you know where you are headed, how you are getting there, and what your options are for housing once you arrive.
An internship in microfinance is the perfect opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a dynamic part of the NGO sector. With so many MFIs starting up or expanding in every region of the world, now is the perfect time to start looking for a microfinance internship opportunity abroad.
Microfinance Internship Resources
A site which lists postings for internship opportunities from all over the world. Look in the “Jobs” section.
Kiva Fellows Program
Whether based internationally or in the U.S., Kiva Fellows have a unique opportunity to witness the realities of microfinance firsthand by working directly with a Kiva field partner for 16-week placements. Kiva Fellowships are unpaid, volunteer-based positions designed to increase Kiva's global impact, offer participants a unique insider experience into the microfinance industry, and provide a career opportunity of a lifetime.
A large microfinance institution (MFI) which operates and offers internships in a number of regions.
A large MFI originally founded in Bangladesh but which now operates worldwide and offers internships in a number of regions.
A U.S.-based MFI (actually, not technically an MFI itself, but it works with MFIs all over the world) which occasionally offers overseas internships.
A very large MFI based in Bangladesh which offers internships.
A non-profit job and internship site that lists microfinance opportunities.
Matthew Guttentag interned with an MFI in Dehradun, India and is currently interning part-time with an MFI in Jordan, where he lives.