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Investing in People: Parliamentary Internships Pay Dividends

Oritentation of the New Interns for the Ugandan Parliament - Photo Credit: J. Ketterer

Orientation of the New Interns for the Ugandan Parliament – Photo Credit: J. Ketterer

When I was in Uganda last month I was fortunate to learn more about an interesting parliamentary internship program being carried out by the Center for International Development (CID) of the State University of New York (full disclosure: I used to work there).   Supported by Higher Education for Development (which uses fairly small grants to encourage university partnerships between U.S. and overseas universities) and funding fromUSAID, a consortium has been formed that includes SUNY and three Ugandan universities: Nkumba University,Islamic University in Uganda and Uganda Martyrs University.   The Parliament of Uganda is also a partner.  Together these institutions run what is known as the Parliamentary Research and Internship Program.

Interns are selected from each university, given an orientation by parliamentary staff and former interns and then placed in offices in parliament where they work on research, legislation, legal issues and administration.  They spend a few months serving as staff members and applying what they have been learning in class. HED says the following about how the program works:

Approximately 20 students…will be trained, supported, and placed in parliamentary internships each academic semester over the course of the three-year partnership.  They will work with committees and caucuses on issues including peacebuilding and development in northern Uganda, women’s and children’s rights, natural resource management, corruption, and HIV/AIDS.  University professors, parliamentary staff, and current and former members of Parliament will participate in the orientation and training of the interns.

As anyone who has ever worked in a legislature knows, you simply cannot understand how the process works – and doesn’t – until you view it from inside.  Accordingly, these internships serve as useful educational experiences for the interns.  But the program also allows parliament to attract young staff members who might want to stay on after the internship, especially those with specialized skills and education in technical fields.  And even for those interns who don’t stay to work in parliament, they can now serve as ambassadors for the institution and demystify it for others who only read about it in the newspaper.  Parliaments are generally misunderstood institutions but are crucial to any healthy democracy. Accordingly, the more people who have first hand experience the better (even it is explaining the negative aspects of parliament).

I had the opportunity to speak with the interns who had just finished their assignments and to the new interns on their first day of orientation.  They were bright, engaged students, eager to apply their knowledge to public service.  I also spoke to some people who had been interns over a decade ago (in a different program) and they each said what an important experience it was for them to have interned in the parliament.  Some still work in parliament in senior positions and others are serving in the executive branch or in NGOs.

In addition to the interns in Uganda, one member of the parliamentary staff came to the U.S. and served as a staff member in the New York State Legislature (as part of the Senate Fellows Program).  This experience was undoubtedly as useful for the New Yorkers as it was for the Ugandan Senate Fellow; that is how partnerships should work.

This is by no means the only parliamentary internship program in the region. Kenya has a well-organized program (see here) and the Ugandan Parliament also runs several other internship programs, and there are others.  But what makes this program especially helpful and promising is the consortium of universities involved.  In addition to the internship program the participating universities are seeking to establish a legislative studies program that would offer undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as certificates and training programs for working professionals.  Legislative studies programs are few and far between anywhere in the world. Developing such a program that could serve all of East Africa would be groundbreaking, even more so with several universities cooperating in the effort.

This program helps foster partnerships among Ugandan universities and Parliament, as well as between SUNY and Ugandan universities…[and] contributes to increasing the capacity of Ugandan institutions of higher education to play a more active role in fostering good governance and social and economic development in Uganda.

Project funding comes and goes, but universities tend to outlast most other institutions.  It makes a great deal of sense, then, to work to enhance the capacity of universities in Africa – and to do so in a true partnership with U.S. universities (who are not well represented in Africa).   Untold millions of dollars are spent by donor governments and international organizations on developing parliaments in Africa, with fancy new electronic voting systems, international trips, outside consultants and new computer centers.  While there is nothing wrong with any of those programs it is worth noting that for a relatively small amount of funding this internship program is paying real dividends and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.  If something works it should be replicated in other places – and it would make sense to do so with this program.

Entrance to the Ugandan Parliament - Photo Credit: Peter Price

Entrance to the Ugandan Parliament – Photo Credit: Peter Price



James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement