Unpaid Internships, Glampers, and the Grade School Gum Dictum
There is a brilliant short story by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron.” In a future America, all citizens are declared equal. To ensure this equality, those who are gifted are purposefully handicapped. The beautiful must wear masks; the swift must carry weights. It is very much worth the five minutes it would take you to read it (here).
The villain of the piece is Diana Moon Glampers, the US Handicapper General. And, while she remains a work of fiction, there are many mini Glampers among us. I met some on twitter this week.
The issue that provoked the Glampers was “the dilemma” of unpaid internships.
At PDT we have an intern program. We accept 3-6 interns a year, mostly for posts in New York and Ottawa. They work both part time and full time, depending on the time of year and their class load. They do pretty much anything, except for “busy work” or custodial duties. Examples of recent tasks include (to quote from our website):
- Write a detailed report on the demographics of Haitian businesses.
- Compile research on economic development in Liberia and suggest new ways of driving growth.
- Fly to Kabul to assist our Afghan team as they host a large conference.
- Find a sat phone and a bag of military rations, in Midtown Manhattan, in 90 minutes, on a Friday night.
- Track down a quote from an obscure 16th century Persian poet celebrating Kandahari pomegranates.
The interns obtain unique career experience in development, while substantially helping our efforts to build markets and create jobs in some of the world’s poorest nations. In more than one case, they have gone on to long-term jobs with PDT. An example is our own infamous
Kavya-The-Intern, Kavya-The-Executive-Assitant, Kavya-The-Project-Officer.
But here’s the rub. It’s widely acknowledged that unpaid internships favor the wealthy students over the poor. Poor college students must work at paid jobs in order to cover their costs, and therefore they can’t afford to take on internships. Thus, the Glampers proclaim that unpaid internships are unethical and should be abolished. If all cannot participate, none should participate. Let’s call this the Grade School Gum dictum: if there isn’t enough for the entire class, spit it out.
Here’s an important point: PDT (as with most NGOs) is not sitting on hidden sacks of cash that we could otherwise use to pay interns. Our budget is finite and is emptied paying our salaried staff. But we do have some open desk space. So we fill them with unpaid interns. Therefore, the options are twofold:
- Host unpaid internships, which tend to be filled by the wealthy or middle class. Or,
- Cancel all internships and leave those desks empty.
Consider the consequences of both these actions on the various people involved.
In every case, Option 2 either produces no effect, or a negative effect for each stakeholder. The poor students are in the exact same position in either case, albeit a disadvantaged one. The only thing that could possibly be said in defence of the second option is that “everyone is equal (in their level of disadvantage).” From the perspective of the Glampers, this is the most important goal. But, from my perspective, the most important goal is to “get shit done” and get on with the business of trying to reduce poverty.
I will concede that I have not studied ethics, nor have I read St. Augustine. At Sunday Mass, I tend to marvel at the stained-glass windows instead of paying attention to the sermons. Therefore, I may be getting this all wrong. So I will defer to my readers, but from my perspective, I say to the Glampers that there is no possible way to see unpaid internships as an ethically complicated dilemma.
In other words: if there isn’t enough gum for the entire class, too bad for them.