The Next Generation of Aid Workers Gets Hands-on in Ghana


By Erin Foster

Since 2010, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Ghana has welcomed students for an eight-week summer practicum, bridging the gap between the academic and professional divide. Forged as part of a partnership with Syracuse University, located in upstate New York, USA, this study abroad programme allows the next generation of aid workers to take classroom principles and apply them in a field setting, with guidance from seasoned IOM staff members. “This internship programme is a win-win for IOM in Ghana and the Syracuse students. Their remarkable enthusiasm and knowledge leave a lasting impact,” according to Dyane Epstein, Chief of Mission, IOM Ghana.

The 2013 group of students was comprised of three undergraduate students and one graduate student, eager to learn about IOM programmes and adapt their experience to match their unique area of study (photojournalism, social work, public health, and international relations). The Syracuse students were in a way a cross-section of a typical non-profit aid organization. A team of individuals working to implement projects in their specialised area at the request of and for the benefit of their assigned community, and taken as a whole contributed more than just a development project or proposal, but also a knowledge bank and a contagious enthusiasm for making a difference in the lives of others. 

The internship started off with a one-week orientation to IOM programmes and Ghanaian language and culture. This was followed by a six-week internship assignment and completion of a community development project for those in the field. Finally, the programme concluded with a one-week proposal writing and debriefing seminar in Accra.

To fully capture the students’ experiences and allow them thereby to reflect on such an intense cultural exchange, each week they wrote a blog entry featuring their most memorable interactions, reactions and perceptions. The following is a series of excerpts from a weekly blog written by the students.

“Day number three was the start of orientation week at the International Organization for Migration in Accra, Ghana! It was packed with activities and field trips out of the office. Dyane welcomed us warmly and gave a brief overview of the IOM globally and in Ghana. I was even more impressed with the organization than I had been before; it's truly a wonderful place that creates so many successful projects on positive and regulated migration. Soon after, we went to the United Nations to get briefed on security in the field. We'll be living out in the field, in a fishing village on the coast called Immuna, for six weeks. It was great training! Learned a lot and felt really prepared to be living in this country.” – Lauren

“Today was one of those days so chock-full of memories it’s hard to know where to begin…In the last 12 hours I walked through the canopy of a rainforest, touched a live crocodile, and stood in a place that had seen unimaginable suffering. Two of these experiences seem great, but it was actually the third that will likely stick with me for the rest of my life.” – Benjamin

“It did not take long for word to spread throughout the village that the obroni (meaning white people in Fante) had arrived. When I exited the IOM van, I walked the perimeter of the property to see it. When I reached the front security wall, I heard giggles from the other side. When I peered over the wall, I found two curious little ones, Zuala and Mustapha, trying to look in and see their new obroni neighbours.” – Alexa

“I knew this experience would impact my life, what I didn’t know was how much it possibly could. In such a short time of knowing this boy in the pictures displayed I have formed this bond I never knew was even possible. He is two years old, understands absolutely no English besides repeating the words I speak to him, yet we have this connection and bond every time he comes over or if he sees we are going for a walk through the village and joins. […] Kofi has taught me to appreciate so much in life that I took for granted. He has taught me to appreciate laughter, food, water, the feeling of being full, and the feeling of hydration. He has taught me the apprecation of communication beyond words, and how warming a hug or a simple touch can be. I will forever be greatful for this little boy, and I hope when he is older he will remember me, but more importatnly remember the things I will continue to try and teach him during my stay here in Immuna. Kofi has changed my life.” – Siera

After settling into their new community Alexa, Laura and Siera spent the remainder of their six-week internship in Immuna mentoring school children and assisting teachers at the Srafa Westley Community School. During this time they spoke with children and parents in the community to identify a development project that was needed and welcome. In just a short time the students were able to identify three projects that not only tied into their personal studies and interests, but that will have a lasting impact on the people of Immuna.

“For my community development project, I decided to talk to the reintegrated trafficked boys. My hope was that by sharing their story, we could raise awareness in the village and beyond. One of the biggest problem parents face when deciding to sell their child, is not being educated on the conditions the child will face. Listening to the stories the boys shared, you feel an urge to put a stop to this horrible issue. Over the course of a few weeks, I organized compelling questions about their stories and we soon started on camera interviews.” – Lauren

“For my community development project, I built and installed two hand-washing stations at the Srafa-Wesley school and educated the students on personal hygiene and water sanitation. The project was a success. The students and teachers were very receptive and I am convinced that they will utilize the hand-washing stations effectively. I am hopeful that they will translate this practice to their homes. This could ultimately reduce illness and disease in the community.” – Alexa 

“My community development project focused on waste disposal and more importantly proper waste disposal within the school and for the students at their homes. I gave an interactive presentation to the upper primary and JHS students at Srafa Wesley Community School on how to properly dispose of one’s waste and the importance of it. […] With this presentation I also provided each classroom with a trash bin and a big trash bin for the courtyard, which could be used to keep trash and waste in specific areas instead of just thrown behind the school. […]I chose this project because I feel as though if the importance of keeping the roads clean, and proper trash disposal is stressed to these people there can be a small step taken towards a cleaner and safer living environment for the people of Ghana. Also proper trash disposal affects safe water, good soil to plan t crops, and also has the potential to create jobs.” – Siera

One student completed their internship at the IOM office in Accra. Benjamin was assigned to the counter-trafficking unit and was tasked to assist in the finalization of the forthcoming Child Protection Toolkit, and activities related to the new human trafficking legislation approved by the Ghanaian government; he further drafted an anti-child labour proposal as part of his final project.

“This afternoon was very exciting for me as it marked my first lead on a meeting here at IOM. Come to think of it, it was the first professional, non-academic meeting I have ever run! I led Dyane, Dan and Doris through the updated toolkit and we got some awesome discussions going on the new layout, roll out modules, activities, and discussions questions. I feel so lucky to have these three people as mentors.” – Benjamin

Lucky for Benjamin, he also discovered the intricacies of travel authorizations.

“I finished my travel authorization (TA) and security clearance with ‘a little help from my friends’ as they say. If you have never completed these forms before, it is a complete team effort! Just the TA alone needs to be filled out by the traveller, signed, sent to the CoM to sign twice, sent to finance, shipped off to HR to obtain a TA#, then back to finance to take care of the money. Whew! This must be accompanied by the driver’s TA and clearance, an official correspondence validating the trip, and the deed to your house. Okay, so maybe the last one isn’t required, but you get the point.” – Benjamin

Reflecting on the outcome of their practicum, the students referred to their time as a “life changing experience” and that they “gained an understanding of a completely different culture”, and they would “recommend interning at this office to anyone”. Of course as anyone who has worked abroad can attest to it is the final days of your stay in a new place when you realize you have learned a great deal more, even in a short period of time, than the impact you have undoubtedly left behind. So too was it difficult for our students to say goodbye, far too soon. Although, we know they are better prepared for their future careers and will always receive a warm welcome in Ghana.

“This experience has changed me and my life in so many ways it is extremely difficult to even explain. I have never felt more welcomed into an organization and a community than by IOM and the people of Immuna. I have seen children in states of hunger and thirst that I never even had a real concept of. It has been both eye opening and heart-warming living with these people and has also become a big factor within my thought process and decision making in practically everything I do now. […] I am forever grateful for both IOM and the people of Immuna for allowing me to be a part of something so amazing.” – Siera

“Today was definitely bittersweet, with an emphasis on the bitter. Tonight is my last staying with the Turkson family in Teshie-Nungua. This family, […], has been so wonderful to me since the day I first arrived. The children have become my younger siblings and I will truly miss our daily interactions. While the family was off at church this morning, I took the chance to do some packing. It always amazes me how much I did not need to bring…you would think by now I would be better at that! Once the family returned, we had a lunch and it was family portrait time!” – Benjamin

Even if you have been working on aid projects for 30 years or perhaps you have just started with your first position, these students remind us how, even in a short period of time, just one person can make a difference in the lives of others and what a privilege, challenge and joy it is to be an aid worker.

And so, I challenge you, step away from that report, spreadsheet, email, or text message and dig out your old photos. You know the ones I’m talking about, you wearing the IOM T-shirt and a cheeky smile, with a group of individuals you just assisted, or delivering NFIs, or processing payments, or just spending time with your colleagues who have become more like family.

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Erin Foster is an information and communications officer in IOM Ghana