With only one week remaining at my internship in Cape Town, I am beginning to reflect on my time here. Three months is far too little time to fully know and understand this beautiful city – I feel as if I am only just beginning to feel settled and it is time to leave—but I suppose that’s always how these things go.
My decision to intern in Cape Town came as somewhat of a surprise. Entering the MGA program, I assumed I would be working in Geneva, New York, DC or another global city centre. Yet when I received my offer from Cenfri, I knew (after some brief deliberation) that this was an opportunity I could not refuse. After all, I am interested in development, and this was a chance to truly be in the field.
Of course, upon arrival, I realized that Cape Town is a world of its own, distinct from the rest of the country and continent. The city’s infrastructure is reminiscent of any developed city, with an efficient public transport system, well-paved and clean roads, and well-manicured neighbourhoods. If ignorance is bliss, then life in Cape Town is a slice of paradise. While Cape Town often boasts top rankings on articles titled “the world’s most beautiful city,” it simultaneously claims fame to being “the murder capital of the world.” Even hearing that statistic sometimes seems inconceivable. Like any great façade, however, when one begins to scratch the surface certain ugliness becomes apparent— whether it be through the high gates and barbed wire that encloses most residential neighbourhoods, street kids that peddle at every busy corner (some as young as 7 or 8), or the townships (informal housing settlements) that linger on the edges of town.
This summer I am interning at The Centre for Financial Regulation and Inclusion, or Cenfri, a non-profit think tank that works in financial sector development, or financial inclusion. Financial inclusion is one of the biggest buzzwords in development right now, firmly up there with social innovation, sustainable development and public-private partnerships. But really, at its core, Cenfri’s mission is the betterment of people’s lives—finance just happens to be the vehicle the organisation uses to achieve its goals. As a research intern, my main projects have varied from researching the risks and barriers to regulating innovation within the financial sector, to the role of behavioural science in increasing uptake and usage of financial products for the poor. While I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience here, it has brought up its fair share of existential questions about the field I have decided to work in. Indeed, it can sometimes feel all too abstract, sitting in an office and researching, while the ultimate beneficiaries are on the ground and far away. My supervisor summed it up to me quite simply; in development there are two paths— either you are working on the ground, seeing the direct impact of your work on one person’s life, or working at the policy level, distant from any immediate impact but capable of impacting one million lives.
Working at Cenfri is an obvious example of this dichotomy. The organization works at the policy level alongside governments, global foundations, and financial service providers to research and devise policy and industry recommendations. Observing the process through which information was meticulously gathered and researched at Cenfri, discussed at working sessions, generated into insights and then shared (and repeated) was fascinating, and an incredible learning experience. However, at times I felt distant from the population we were ultimately serving. With that being said, one of my favourite experiences was the day I got to spend in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s biggest townships. I was fortunate to have this experience as Cenfri was invited to an event being hosted by the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative, and in this capacity I was able to tour the expansive settlement, talk to residents, and hear them speak of their struggles about access to financial capital, amongst other issues, in their own words. While this was a brief experience, it was meaningful to connect with local residents and examine if the findings we researched rang true.
It would be impossible to sum up my time here in Cape Town without mentioning the sheer natural beauty of this place. Table Mountain towers over the entire city, its majestic presence seen and felt from almost every corner of Cape Town. The view from table top is breathtaking; the city unfolds beneath you as if you’re standing on top of the world. The drive down the coast from Cape Town to Cape Point (the most south western part of Africa) is magnificent, as the long winding roads stretch alongside the ocean. And of course, the plentiful vineyards scattering close to the city with never ending wine tastings don’t hurt.
I feel fortunate that I have been given three months in this beautiful city. With any luck, I hope to return one day soon.