Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Sustainable Businesses Council (WICCI SBC), in partnership with Deakin Business School, Australia, organized a virtual Panel Discussion around the importance of cross-border internships to foster SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) on September 9, 2021. This was in a series of Panel discussions organized by Deakin University partnering with various Indian institutes. 

In a-bit-over-3-hour event, the central point of discussion was how could countries come together through their stakeholders (universities, students, governments, corporates, NGOs etc) to build an ecosystem that fosters SDGs. This was discussed with the lens of internships. While the first panel discussed around the idea of such internships at a conceptual level, the second panel discussed the operationalization perspective of cross-border internships to foster SDGs.

Participants on both the panels represented diverse backgrounds of professions (academician, author, corporate professional, entrepreneur etc.) and sectors (working with the government, entrepreneurial venture, private firm, MNC etc) and were eminent and accomplished personalities in their fields. Dr. Bhaskar Chatterjee (Former Director General and CEO, Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs), Ms. Pritha Dutt (Board Director, Empower Pragati), Dr. Rajesh Chakrabarti (Director, MDI Gurgaon), Dr. Aparna Rao (Women in Entrepreneurship, IIT Bombay), Ms. Surekha Routray (Head, Social Incubation and CSR – KIIT Bhubaneswar), Mr. Neelesh Gupta (Director, Deloitte), Mr. Prem Yadav (Co-Founder and CEO, Pratham Infotech Foundation) and Ms. Meeta Sengupta, FRSA (Centre for Education Strategy) spoke on various aspects of cross—border internships. The event started with Dr. Ameeta Jain (Program Lead- Deakin University) introducing the project. Both the panel discussions were moderated by the project lead, Dr. Jain and her team- A/Prof Harsh Suri and Prof Alexander Newman from Deakin University, Australia.

The event was graced by Ms. Rowan Ainsworth, Consul-General Australian Consulate-General Kolkata. In her opening address, Ms. Ainsworth emphasised that the goal is to achieve peace and sustainable globe.

Dr. Nayan Mitra, President- WICCI SBC National Council, spoke of the amazing work that WICCI SBC is doing in India to encourage and empower women in sustainable businesses.  Referring to conducting a similar internship last year, Dr. Mitra mentioned: “What started as an immensely successful pilot last year, where 5 students from Deakin University attended an internship process with WICCI SBC, now, has grown so much as to demand an entire platform of multi-stakeholders coming together to drive this change.”

The panellists delved into their own experiences while speaking about topics such as: benefits of SDG focused cross-border internships, criteria for evaluation of internships, challenges in offering high-quality internships at scale, recommendations for decision-makers to foster such internships, suitable projects/internships for cross-border collaboration, stakeholder inclusion and support to foster cross-border internships, needs of the host organizations for internships, role of digital hub in reviewing opportunities, connecting with organizations, marketing and advertising.

While most of the discussions acknowledged the Pandemic having had an effect on the education and internship scenario globally, they also complemented institutes for a wonderful job in making the transition to online internships.

SDGs are all about understanding, amplification, awareness, partnerships. Cross-border internships around SDGs make special sense when topics relevant to both the countries are taken up. In that way, internships help cross-fertilise ideas and synergise. Various stakeholders benefit from these cross-border internships. Industries that connect with internship program also get to understand how SDGs are understood in other countries. For NGOs or civil society sectors, when interns work with them, there is a mutual understanding and learning from each other. Internships facilitate contact and mutual learning. Cross-border internships also help develop understanding of how country/context changes the underlying constituents of an SDG. Another noteworthy benefit of such internships is after interning on an SDG project, even if students do not choose a career in social side, they will become conscious business people/professional by virtue of their exposure to sustainability.

Panellists also discussed the role of technology and shifting geopolitics impacting the way work, worker and workplaces are structured, calling for accepting the importance of experiential learning as a teaching pedagogy for a far greater retention and internalization.

While organizations may have projects around SDGs and institutes may have students eager to gain hands-on work experience in those, there need to be checks and evaluative criteria to keep the quality of such internships high, the work outcome meaningful and the flow of work around SDGs not just limited to that one project but extendable to the world.

When such high-quality internships are offered, the perceived value that students gain from such internships has great importance for the future of internships. Also true is the fact that perceived value for SDG focussed internships is much higher than a normal internship because of the feeling of contributing. According to Dr Jain “the aim of this project is two fold: First, enable students in India and Australia to collaborate on SDG focused projects in both countries. This will provide real work experience with the NGOs, private and public sector and help contribute towards the Global Agenda 2030. Second, to strengthen bilateral relationships between universities and industry in India and Australia; SDG17 Partnerships.”

India’s new education policy lays emphasis on innovation and start-up ecosystem. Also, the focus on SDG and corporate sustainability has never been higher. With this in sight, corporates need to step up and look at interns and internship programs in a different light.

Two types of internship projects could be designed: technical projects, based on shared solutions and core/business projects, sharing of best practices. While technical projects will enable students from one geography to apply their learning to another geography, and hence add to the knowledge base, the core/business projects will enable students to learn best practices and apply them in real business scenarios.

As suggestions to make internships more lucrative for students, government should put such internship programs on their portals, websites to show support. Credibility magnifies when students see government support is present. Universities should shortlist few companies in public/private sector, NGOs & non-profits and talk to them beforehand about internships, sensitize these recipient organizations about internship programs and interns and make them ready to receive interns.

Universities may also look at government partnerships to promote an egalitarian approach to internships where they co-create evidence-based, impact making and measurable projects for students. The use of technology and power of relationships that organizations such as WICCI SBC have will also aid in reducing the gap between knowledge seekers and where knowledge is present. This is doable in a more conceivable way today due to Covid-19.