041 – Scalable Impact Through Internships

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
041 – Scalable Impact Through Internships


IDEMS has big ambitions, including to become redundant in our Research Methods Support (RMS) work for the Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems. David and Lucie discuss the ongoing RMS internship program in West Africa and how, through the program, we can expand and increase our impact in the region.

[00:00:00] Lucie: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. My name’s Lucie Hazelgrove Planel. I’m a Social Impact Scientist and anthropologist, and I’m here today with David Stern, co-founding director of IDEMS.

Hi, David.

[00:00:17] David: Hi, Lucie.

[00:00:20] Lucie: So we as part of our research method support work for the Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems in West Africa, we recently took on eight interns, we met them last week, or two weeks ago when we were in Bamako. So they’re all in Bamako, the capital of Mali. And it would be great to discuss with you what we’re doing or what they’re doing with us and what our aims are.

[00:00:48] David: I’m really excited about this process and I suppose in some ways I’ve been involved in similar processes for over 10 years now, particularly in Kenya, with our partners there and collaborators taking on students, recent graduates in different ways and trying to sort of give them mentorship to be able to get involved in a wide range of activities and build their skills.

But what I’m really excited about with what’s happened in Mali, I feel this is the first time when we’re in the process, we’re hitting on to a sort of formula, which is really potentially scalable. That’s what’s sort of exciting to me. I think it’s always been very ad hoc before. But even last year when we did a similar process in Niger, it felt still very ad hoc. Whereas there’s an element of what I’ve observed this year, and maybe it’s just really, I’ve been involved very little, and it’s running completely smoothly, so maybe from your side it’s a very different matter. But from where I’m sitting this feels much more scalable than in the past.

[00:02:08] Lucie: So I’m thinking back to last year then when we had six interns in Niger. So some of the differences, in both rounds, we recruited recent graduates or sort of people with masters or equivalent experience in a variety of disciplines to join us in, providing research method support to the 20 or so CRFS, Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems, projects in the three countries of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

[00:02:35] David: We’d already done something similar before you joined in Burkina.

[00:02:40] Lucie: The Burkina one was fully remote though because of COVID 19.

[00:02:45] David: Exactly.

[00:02:47] Lucie: Which is a whole different situation.

[00:02:49] David: This happened in 2020, was it 2021? Sorry, I’m trying to even remember. I think it was 2021. I think it was early 2021 that it really took off.

[00:03:01] Lucie: Yeah, exactly. End of 2020, early 2021.

[00:03:04] David: Exactly. And then, as you say, this was the first of these in this West African context, as part of this piece of work which we’re doing where we support projects. Our vision, of course, is to remove the need for our support.

[00:03:19] Lucie: So this is really rare though for an organization to try and in-build their, you know, their inexistence.

[00:03:26] David: Redundancy.

[00:03:27] Lucie: Redundancy.

[00:03:30] David: We want to become redundant. This is something which I’ve been trying to do for a long time and failing miserably at, but trying to build in our own redundancy is really central to this process. And we’re a long way from achieving that at this point still, because there’s a whole set of skills which take time to build up and where a lot of it comes down to experiences and you need the time to have the experience, you need the mentors around. That’s so difficult to provide remotely, that level of mentorship that would really enable people to grow.

But still I’m finding that there is a level of learning which is happening which really makes me hopeful.

[00:04:12] Lucie: So the aim of the internships is in general to expand the amount and skill of research methods specialists in the region.

[00:04:26] David: I would argue that it’s ambitious for the internships. Let me try to say the same thing, but tone down a little bit. So, to me, the aim of the internship is to expose the interns themselves to what it means to offer research method support, to enable them to understand that this can be an extremely satisfying career trajectory, which some of them may decide that they may want to pursue, and to give them skills which, whether they decide to pursue that or to pursue other things, will serve them well.

Simple data skills and others, but which are so needed in research and other areas. So, I’ve toned down maybe quite a lot, maybe too much, but I think that the key is this exposure. The intent is really about exposure.

[00:05:32] Lucie: Okay, well the reason that what I was saying was huge aims is because I was thinking of the internship as joined into a whole set of other experiences that we’re sort of developing.

[00:05:43] David: And I think there, you’re absolutely right. So our aim is from the internship to then find people who want to pursue this or would be interested in pursuing this in a career and take them on a two to four year journey, which leads to what you’re describing. And that sort of combination of the two is exactly what you’re describing. The idea of actually really trying to build up the skills to offer research method support in the region where there’s people who can take that on, make careers out of it, and offer these services in a way which will add value to research institutions and others, in ways that could be, if we could get that out at scale, transformative.

[00:06:29] Lucie: So you said that this version that we’re currently doing in Mali, you’re interested in it compared to what has happened before. I’m trying to work out why it’s different. So one of the differences I’m aware of is that the interns that we were able to recruit in Niger did not only come from Niger, they came from several different countries, not everyone was able to be in person. Another difference was this aspect of exposure.

So we had asked projects, the CRFS projects who we support, we’d asked them, who has needs for the interns to be able to support them with. And while everyone was very positive and said that they had needs, in the end, it didn’t really happen, it wasn’t good timing for the projects or things didn’t always match up, not with all of the projects anyway.

Whereas this time round in Mali, again, we’re only at the very early stages, not only did we have lots of applicants from Mali itself, especially Bamako, so all the interns were able to work together for the first two weeks at least in person, but we also have projects who are really motivated, these CRFS projects who are really motivated and have loads of data, loads of surveys and just general requests for support.

So it’s looking like the collaborations between our research methods support team and the research projects, it’s looking like they’re getting off to a good start. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

[00:07:59] David: And I think one of the things, this might just be an evolution within the community. There was one project in particular in Niger last year, where they took real advantage. They took on one of the interns who went and became a supervisor as part of their enumeration team, collecting data on a big survey, who helped that survey happen and get data of a higher quality than would have been possible otherwise. And then made sure that the data got analysed, and so on.

And actually, that particular person, didn’t just do that in the internship. They went from the internship and they’re now going into our team. And they were one of the people who was actually part of the training in Mali. So they’ve actually gone through that and they brought that experience to bear.

So I feel that there is this sort of evolution, which is coming from building this team slowly, where these experiences are coming out, they can be talked about in these ways, where the projects are there for the collaborations. Of course, interns in general, most projects would sort of feel an intern is a bit of a burden, but could add value.

And so why would they help take an intern from somebody else where they’re not getting the value? Whereas actually what they’re now recognizing is that the interns are actually a conduit through which they get more access to our support. Again, that dynamic has changed, the role of the intern has changed to the projects that they’re serving, they’re not interns. They are support.

[00:09:26] Lucie: Yep.

[00:09:27] David: And that’s so powerful that once that’s realised, the projects that have realised that are just treating them as support. They’re not treating them as interns. They are our interns offering them support.

[00:09:38] Lucie: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

[00:09:40] David: And that’s really powerful, and that’s what I don’t think I really saw last time. I think it was only the one case that we just mentioned, where one of the interns got embedded into the sort of data collection teams and so on. But this time, I feel that that recognition that, ah, these interns are a way for us to get more support at a time when we need it, has been part of the change. And that’s this collaboration.

But I think the thing you haven’t mentioned is the training has also changed.

[00:10:14] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:10:15] David: It’s been more structured this time. There’s been some really concrete bits of learning. And I think there’s still room for improvement on that. That will improve if we were to do it again, and we have an opportunity to do it again. Because actually on the back of this, one of the partners in Mali has said we want our own interns to do this and we want you to help train our interns, we have interns within our organization, this is a research institute. So okay, fine, yes, happy to do so. So we’re going to go through the process again later this year or early next year in this other way, which is so exciting that it’s naturally gaining momentum. In a way it’s very slow, but it’s something which I believe, we could do at a larger scale now.

I believe we can support this at a larger scale without it being too dependent on individuals. Of course, your role, my role is now not important, which is great, makes me feel good.

[00:11:20] Lucie: Seeing as you’re the one who set up that, that other institution being interested.

[00:11:25] David: I accept I still have a role to play and I enjoy that. Your role is important right now, but I also see how you’re doing much better at making sure that you’re not central to the process. You’re bringing other people along with you in ways which I think are better than I’ve ever managed to do on this. So I think, you know Aboubacari, Sabi, they’re really engaged, and Issouf, are engaged.

[00:11:49] Lucie: Yeah, it was wonderful, so last week Aboubacari, Sabi and I, and you were in a meeting in person. And so it was wonderful to have Issouf online with the interns working remotely. That was a really great team to make the most of our availabilities.

[00:12:05] David: And this is the thing that it is that element that there is a team of people behind this. And of course now. Aboubacari, Issouf and Sabi have been through a process like this. And so they’re now coming through and they’re helping us to actually make the process better. They’re building from their experience and they’re using that experience to grow the processes.

[00:12:26] Lucie: And to grow themselves as well.

[00:12:28] David: Exactly, exactly. And this is part of the sort of two to four years afterwards, which we discussed before. The internship is just the beginning, for some people. For other people, the internship is enough.

We’ve actually had a really, and I don’t know how it’ll be in Mali, but it’s feeling like it might be similar, but in both Burkina and Niger, we’ve had a very easy sort of cut off in terms of actually people who are interested in this element of building a career in research method support.

[00:13:01] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:13:02] David: That is not for everybody. And many people are not even aware of what this could be. It’s extremely rich to be able to work with people from all sorts of different disciplines to have to learn about their domain, and to bring expertise from your experience to help them with their research methods. You’re always in the back seat. You’re always a support role.

[00:13:31] Lucie: And that’s quite new to a lot of us, especially who have been in academia or something where it’s, you’re the researcher, you’re the one who’s in control.

[00:13:37] David: Exactly. Yeah. And it’s a very different way of looking at it. And I love watching how some people, I mean, I’ve got to single out Aboubacari for this, he’s taken to it like a fish to water, it seems to come so naturally to him to want to play that support role. He’s brilliant, and he’s in terms of his capabilities for his own research and so on, he has all sorts of possibilities. But he never brings that ego or anything into the work where he’s supporting, where he’s there. And he’s just trying to be useful. It’s so powerful to see somebody, you know, understand that role, and with such an intellect, he’s brilliant. And yet to use it, for support, it’s a joy to watch.

[00:14:27] Lucie: This is partly also because our role as support isn’t only big strategic things, it’s also anything very small and practical.

[00:14:35] David: Yeah, he’s been putting things in my diary the last week, you know, because he’s got some data analysis that he’s doing for one of the projects, where it’s just simple data analysis, but it needs to be done. And so he’s taken that on and he’s doing it and he’s just sort of digging into the details and putting it on, making sure he’s getting time from me, so he’s supported and he’s building those skills. And so it’s great. I’m really, I’m really enjoying how, as a process, this internship is evolving into a real team process.

There’s no way of knowing what will happen in the future, but I’m really hopeful that actually, if we look quite a long way ahead, 5, 10 years, I hope that some of this team that we’re building now, will actually find that they can build really quite impressive careers for themselves, offering this sort of support, and building that into what they do and what they want to do so that they’re part of really interesting transdisciplinary work. They’re enabling others around them to do better work and hence enabling themselves to grow in the process. So I can see that happening and we’ll just have to see how it plays out. And my real dream is that they then will take over essentially the internship approaches that we’re developing.

[00:16:07] Lucie: And there’s a principle that’s related to this, isn’t it? Locally developed or?

[00:16:10] David: Local innovation.

[00:16:12] Lucie: Local innovation, okay.

[00:16:14] David: Yeah, so the idea is they don’t just take what we’ve developed, they actually innovate them. They make it work in their context because we’ve done it all remotely. They get to do it where they’re actually there, where they can build this for themselves in different ways. If only they’re given those opportunities. It’d be great. So yeah, it’s really exciting to see. It’s still, I would argue, very early days.

As I say, I’ve been involved in efforts in this vein for over 10 years in Kenya, where we’ve had interns for a long time who have grown up in different ways, and where they are now, the people overseeing the whole process, there’s a group of 20 people who are working together in different ways there now, and they have taken it over and made it their own.

But we didn’t have, I didn’t have the sort of skills, knowledge, experience that we’re bringing to bear, I think in this example, in this instance in West Africa when I started in Kenya. And what’s happened in Kenya has been so interesting and impressive, but it was all ad hoc. Everything was always ad hoc.

Whereas I feel now for the first time, I couldn’t replicate that. I only achieved it because I was there on the ground, lived there for six years, when it was my students who then took it on and made things happen. Whereas this is, not ad hoc. There’s something emerging here, which I think could be scalable.

And the need is incredible. And I was amazed. We had 107 applications in Mali.

[00:17:48] Lucie: And very strong applications too.

[00:17:50] David: Yes. I mean, we were only going to take four.

[00:17:55] Lucie: Four interns

[00:17:56] David: You’d actually managed to cut it down to four and you said, I really wish I could take these other ones as well. And we both agreed, we put it up to eight. But it was so powerful to see that strong interest. And just meeting the interns, some of them, it is clear that they will take the experience and then they’ll go on and do what they’re doing or do other things. And so they’re only interested in the internship and that I’m happy with, I’m fine with that.

[00:18:27] Lucie: And for example, one of the interns at the moment has a normal, permanent job. And he’s just actually interested in developing his own knowledge and getting new experiences, which is great.

[00:18:38] David: Exactly. And he’s been really very interested and very interesting in how he’s responded to some of the things he’s been exposed to and the relationships he’s building. He’s been a very interesting example, but there are others who I think could be interested in this as being, you know, having discovered something which could be a direction to go. We’ll just have to see what happens.

[00:19:01] Lucie: Yes, we’ve got another two months. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens as you say.

[00:19:07] David: Any last thoughts on this?

[00:19:11] Lucie: Just that it’s really interesting as a process to see how people, how different people take on the challenge, let’s say. Again, to me, it’s like, how can we help embed them in the CRFS, this community of research projects working in agroecology in West Africa and how we can give them the experiences to grow themselves as individuals, but also how we can simultaneously support these projects in the CRFS. And support the projects and make the most of these people we have. Each time it’s different.

[00:19:47] David: Yes, and it’s this element of complexity. I think one of the things some of the projects in Mali have realized, which I think the projects in Niger maybe didn’t seize in the same way, is that we’ve been able to recruit people who would otherwise maybe not have been accessible to them.

[00:20:05] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:20:05] David: And now, they’ve got people who, in their environment, they couldn’t access otherwise, but who are there, or part of their environment, but because of the mentorship role we can play, we’ve attracted them into this, and they can now access them. And that’s why some of the projects, I feel, are taking advantage in really…

[00:20:23] Lucie: I guess the fact that they’ve also just seen it happen before now, they’ve seen that other projects have had support, and so they see it as a possibility for them too.

[00:20:33] David: Exactly. I’m really hopeful that this is a sense of momentum which could be building around this, where we come back to the key point, we need to and want to make ourselves redundant.

[00:20:45] Lucie: Yes.

[00:20:46] David: It’s not going to happen anytime soon. But it is a wonderful thing to be working towards.

[00:20:52] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:20:53] David: That we have expertise but there’s no way we should be the ones providing this support in the region. We should be able to have local counterparts who not only can do this, but have built up the experience to be able to bring the same sort of support, expert support, because that’s the truth. The truth is we need to recognise, even internationally, there’s not many other people who could offer the support we do. We offer the support in a way which is different, it relies on an understanding of the context, it relies on that interactions which are the relationships which have been built over time, and a level of expertise that we bring to the table.

[00:21:36] Lucie: Yep.

[00:21:36] David: To have that in the region, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, this is one of the toughest regions in the world. To have those expertise available in the region, growing, flourishing there, oh that’s a dream, that’s what I’d love to see. And I think, I can see it happening. There’s institutions now interested in embedding such people, you know, there’s real possibility.

[00:22:08] Lucie: Great. Well, let’s end on that positive note.

[00:22:12] David: Thank you.

[00:22:14] Lucie: Thanks, David.