United Nations Development Programme needs no introduction. Aiming to curb poverty, diseases and hunger, UNDP advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. As a promoter of human rights and women empowerment, UNDP is a unique organisation striving to make the world a better place to live in. Venkataraman Ganesh, a Humanities student pursuing Development Studies completed an internship at UNDP and talks about his experience there. Read on to know more about what UNDP does, the selection procedure, 4-star hotel stays and why techies should try this out.
I am a student of Development Studies. What else is better than the UN Development Programme when it comes to development studies? It is equivalent to what techies will consider their dream core internship!
How does UNDP select interns? Why do you think you were selected?
United Nations Development Programme has its website where you have to fill an application form. The form is very detailed – it includes a Statement of Purpose, your CV and your academic transcript. UNDP stores your application form in its database. When a project is available, the HR manager searches through this database using keywords and shortlists candidates. In my Statement of purpose, I wrote about why I am interested in development. I mentioned those PoRs of mine which showed my understanding about rural India. Most development work involves field work. Having lived in a city all through my life, I had to show that I had some idea about conditions in rural India. I also emphasised on my theoretical knowledge on the matter and pitched how I could utilize this to carry out field work and analyse the inputs I gather there. You should ensure that your SOP is within a page, for no one wants to read more than that.
UNDP also takes interns from many other fields. My co-intern was a programmer from IIT-BHU. They wanted him to create a database for their projects. UNDP, just like Saarang needs publicity strategists, media people etc. There are a wide variety of opportunities and people who are interested in these areas can also apply.
Having lived in a city all through my life, I had to show how I could adapt to the conditions of a rural field work.
Which project of UNDP did you work on?
There is a scheme called Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, which helps rural people build pucca houses. It grants them Rs. 75,000 and assistance under MNREGA for skilled labour. However, this is insufficient to build a RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) house. The villages do not have skilled masonry to work with RCC. Also, the transportation of RCC from cities incurs a lot of expenses. The UNDP and the Ministry of Rural Development are hence working on alternative construction materials and construction techniques. We try to use materials available in the neighbourhood, and indigenous building techniques (with which the locals are familiar) to build these houses. This resolves the shortcomings in labour and transportation. We send architects and designers to the field to account for these factors and the local climatic conditions and develop housing models which are viable. This project was started in 13 states which were divided into blocks and UNDP developed a comprehensive compendium of the ideas that can be implemented in each block.
What was your role in this project?
My role was based on development communication. In Jharkhand where I worked the project had reached its implementation stage. The models were ready and I had to put forth these ideas to the bureaucracy. The problem was that this idea was quite demanding for them. If it had been just concrete, all they had to do was allot the funds, but now they had to select a model which would suit their area. So, UNDP held a meeting with all the Block Development Officers, the Minister for Rural Development and the Secretary to the Ministry in Ranchi, Jharkhand. My team had to present the various models and get suggestions from the officials. We had to find out about the implementation issues which might arise, and opinions on how to carry forward. I had to prepare a concrete plan to take the idea in terms of publicity. I had to prepare separate strategies for all the stakeholders to ensure their participation. I also had to reach out to corporates to get further benefits of collaborating with them. I had to publicize the idea to gain the interest of all parties concerned and make it self-sustainable.
How was this different from an ordinary publicity strategist?
It was mostly publicity strategizing, but it differed in the fact that it had a development angle to it. I had to account for other social factors too. For example, in some villages people belonging to lower castes have been traditionally living in mud houses. Science has shown us that mud is a good thermal insulator which keeps the house from getting too hot or cold. But if we advise them to continue using mud in their house construction, it hurts their sentiments. For them, living in a cement constructed house is a status symbol and advising them against it, makes them feel deprived of their social privileges. These were the aspects I had to bring in as a student of development studies.
Who mentored you?
I was working in the poverty unit of the UNDP headquarters in Delhi. Here I was mentored by 2 people. Mr Suneel Padale, an expert in this field with several years of field experience was one of them. He had worked in NGOs in Gujarat, before working in the UNDP. My other mentor was Mr. Yash, a youngster who too had several years of experience in this sector.
How is the working environment at UNDP?
The working environment was excellent. It was a luxurious kind of life. The UN headquarters is in Lodhi Estate , which is one the posh areas in Delhi. When I travelled to Ranchi, I was set up in 4-star hotel all by myself! Even the work was relaxed. I was given broad deadlines and there was no one to check how I do my job. There was a weekly review, where you have to show your progress.
Takeaways, lessons learnt?
I learnt to think out of the box. I had to think of different ways to publicize the idea to each stakeholder. I had suggested that the PM could be involved in the publicity strategizing of alternative construction material through his Mann Ki Baat programme. So, I learnt to think of publicizing in lines of development.
I also learnt how different organisations collaborate to bring forward an idea. I had initial opinions that my project would probably involve only the Ministry of Rural Development. But I learnt how we needed varied people and agencies to make it successful. We had to involve the Ministry of Sanitation, the Ministry of Information and Broadcast, block development officials and village panchayats. All of these had to work in a cohesive manner.
What do you think of a career at UNDP?
UN selects only people with very good experience. It is prestigious to work in the UN and moreover, it pays very well. Also, the income is tax-free. You get access to different levels of government with relative ease. This is crucial in development and resource gathering. UN has an extraordinary reputation associated with it and this makes companies prefer associating with it. So, there need not be any doubt about its lucrativeness of its career option. However, I am not sure of the on-field experience I can expect. Initially in my career, I want to work on-field, interact with people and get a first-hand experience of their problems., I will probably not take a career at UN immediately. But maybe at a later point in my career, after I have gained sufficient exposure, I could try.
What was the best part of your internship?
The best part was the trip to Ranchi. The way the officials looked at and responded to our proposals was interesting. Some of them were interested to try new ideas in their areas, while others seemed like they had come only because they were called by the government. Their suggestions, expressions and responses were interesting to analyse and understand.
The society will benefit a lot if IITians decide to explore these areas. This kind of work is satisfying and is a way to give back to the society.
Would you suggest this internship to techies?
This a thing that techies can try out to gain a different experience. Most techies who choose non-core internship go for corporate sector. But I am pretty sure that techies have a lot to contribute to this field. There are very specific areas which require technical specialization, to make development accessible to all. The society will benefit a lot if IITians decide to explore these areas. This kind of work is satisfying and is a way to give back to the society.
Authors: Renganathan S (BT-CH ’20) & Hari Ramachandran (DD-MM ’20)