In your own way

Into the Door of Global Development: a Conversation with Donal Brown, Director of DFID’s Global Funds Department

“In a world where we are no longer a part of the EU, it might become even more important to show that we are very much connected to the world.” 

UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has played an important role and offered crucial support to the education and health sectors of various countries. Say for Development is interested in learning about the personal stories and career path of development professionals who play key roles in aid agencies, as well as their thoughts about international development.

Say for Development had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Donal Brown*, Director and Board Member of Global Health and Education Funds at DFID. With more than 25 years of experience in international development, Donal shares how he started his career in international development, gives advice to young aspiring development professionals and offers his perspectives on DFID’s role in this post-Brexit era.


Say for Development: You have been serving DFID for more than twenty years now. Coming from a background in veterinary medicine, how and when did you get interested in international development?

Donal: I got interested because my father was in development and I was born in Tanzania. I pretty much grew up in an environment where development was in the blood. I wanted to study agriculture but there were not many jobs, so I looked into veterinary as a large part of it is dealing with farmers. I was trained as a vet and went into veterinary in the UK. Later, I got a scholarship from DFID to do a Master’s degree in Tropical Animal Health and Production. After graduating, I went to South America as DFID’s Rural Livelihoods Adviser and worked with poor farmers. I ended up spending a lot of time looking at farming, rural economy and people’s livelihoods. I developed a much wider interest than just working with animals and ended up getting involved with the farming system and did a lot of forestries, fisheries, etc. One thing led to another and eventually I found myself dealing with broader global development issues.

Say for Development: Currently, you are the Director of International Health and Education Funds and you sit on a number of boards of the international organisation such as the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS. What are the most inspiring and challenging parts of your work?

Donal: In my current job, I give advice to the ministers on funding decisions. I also work with them to ensure that we can deliver what they promised including the Government’s manifesto commitments on development. I spend a lot of time on institutional governance of the Boards I sit on to ensure that different parts of institutions are properly in place and are strong, such as audit, results monitoring etc. to ensure how decisions are made and how funds are spent to get maximum impact and value for money not only to save lives but for the British taxpayer who pays for the UK contributions.

Well, the most inspiring part of my job would be working with health and education because they are the fundamental building blocks of a healthy prosperous life. I mean if you just have a look at the UK and the priority given to the NHS (National Health Service) and health issues, and education and schools – they have been recurring themes over the years and people care so passionately about them. It is similar in developing countries. They give even more importance to education and health as they are often poorer and the need is higher and unlike the UK, government systems are often weaker and less developed. You can also measure the direct impact of health and education on people’s lives on a yearly basis, which is very rewarding.

And, the most challenging part is the governance bit of it. There are a lot of people out there who are keen on helping to improve poor people’s lives but they are not so experienced in making institutions and systems work effectively to deliver which is key as this ultimately is UK taxpayers’ money. The institutions I work with need to demonstrate not only that they are achieving what they said but also that they are doing it at the most cost-effective and transparent manner to get maximum impact and can be held accountable for what they do. It is also more difficult to get change as more interests are at stake than just the UK’s, for example, I sit on the WHO (World Health Organisation) board where there are 19 core member states who are all trying to influence and get different decisions and follow their own interests. To manage all these interests and ensure the right outcome is particularly challenging.


Dr. Donal Brown (left) and his message about girls’ education

Say for Development: In DFID, you have been the Head of Vietnam Department as well as the Middle East and North Africa Department. Quite recently, you were also the Head of Africa Regional Policy and Programmes. Drawing from your vast experience, what do you think is the major challenge for someone like you working in the field of international development?

Donal: The personal challenge is that there is a lot of sacrifice from your family. My wife and children have to move countries often even to those that are not particularly developed without things we often take for granted, such as regular electricity and clean water. Good medical services and schooling can be difficult. My wife had to give up her job and career to move around and follow me. They make the biggest sacrifices so I can do my part for development.

On a professional basis, the major challenge is similar. Every 3-4 years you have to switch countries, jobs and cultures and learn a whole new set of things and establish new working relationships. You have to be resilient to work in international development because it can get rather tough.

Say for Development: The development field hardly offers a straightforward career path; hence many graduates find it difficult to get a job right away often because of their lack of professional experience. But, it is also not possible for someone to earn experience without holding a position. Even internships these days are very competitive. What would be your advice to young aspiring development workers in landing jobs?

Donal: Actually many developing countries have their own skilled people who understand the issues, culture, politics and context, so you got to have something additional to contribute over and above what they offer. One tip is to have a strong technical background and experience that is a transferable skill. It can be in education, medicine, accounting, law, engineering or economics for example, or any particular technical skills that are always in demand in developing countries. So if you just have a degree in history but you want to work in development, then you may need to pursue further qualifications or develop your administrative and management skills to offer these. And DFID is not the only place in the British government that is involved in development.  Increasingly other parts of the UK government such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office and Department of Health are doing more and more in development. You can also look at interesting careers in these too.

You also need experience which is often difficult to get. My advice is to look far and wide and be prepared to send your CV and show your interest to all these organisations which can be NGOs, civil society, international intern programmes, UK government or any volunteering programmes. If you have neither been done some voluntary or other work abroad nor volunteered in the UK, then you probably will not get very far – these must be the primary steps. You have to demonstrate that you know a bit what doing development is about and that you have actually made the sacrifices to do even unpaid work in developing countries. Even for DFID Graduate Schemes, by looking at applicants’ CVs you will find a lot of people who have managed to get quite a lot of experience by just being out and about, and they are people that would be ahead of others.

My other advice for graduates is to not expect to get paid employment first off. You got to be able to volunteer, fundraise, and show a commitment that gets you in the door. You really have to be resourceful and just keep going and get some experience even if it is unpaid. As soon as you get experience, you will find life easier to start getting your foot in the door for a career in development.

Say for Development: In your opinion, what are the key qualities or attributes that are crucial for someone wanting to develop their career in aid agencies and international NGOs?

Donal: Building on the previous question you asked, I would say self-motivation is the key. You want motivated people who do not just think that development is a nice, glamorous profession that allows you to fly around the world. You also need people who are resilient like I said earlier; because development can be tough emotionally and work-wise and you can live in some difficult and dangerous places. You look for people who can adapt and not complain when electricity is not working or when they are sleeping under a tent.

A real passion for development is also crucial, meaning that they do not just have the academic side of it but also the practical experience which shows that they go beyond being intellectually interested. Most people nowadays do not get very far without a masters degree or a post-graduate qualification and some experience.  You also got to be able to show that you can get your hands dirty.

Say for Development: On that note, how useful do you think a masters degree in international development is?

Donal: It is good for an all round education but it is quite a general degree and is best when done after you have some experience in my view. It helps you understand development more but it is usually better to have some technical skills be it statistics or some other that are in short supply in developing countries and then do masters in International development to complement these but others will have different views.

Say for Development: As you mentioned earlier, DFID offers graduate schemes and internships for fresh graduates. What are the motivations of these schemes and internships?

Donal: One thing is to provide opportunities to young people interested in development and help them to get their foot in the door and get some experience and find out more. We are also interested in giving opportunities to people who might want to have a career in DFID and the UK civil service.  These schemes give you a bit of an insight into not just development but also about the civil service which is obviously different from a career within an NGO or the UN system.

The other thing we do is ICS (International Citizen Service) which we fund VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas) to take young people and give them experience in development.

Say for Development: How do you foresee DFID’s role in international development in the coming twenty years?

Donal: I think it is changing quite a lot; it is changing now with the new aid strategy. There is a lot more focus on conflict and fragility because the biggest development challenges are more in fragile and conflict states. If you really want to do development, it is not your traditional type of development work anymore. Most of the development issues are in conflict zones like Somalia or Syria or in fragile states which are often in post-conflict and a lot of it is also linked to extremism and terrorism. There is also a lot of work now in health issues not only for development but also due to the fact they can affect us too. The Ebola crisis taught us a lot about the cost and the danger of epidemics. Ebola was quite a different case; it was an airborne disease, it could have had a massive impact around the world very quickly. Like the UK, economic prosperity is also a key part of everything going forward, because if you have a prosperous economy, there is growth and jobs and it is far less likely to fall into conflict and it is easy to pay for one’s own development. And then there is a set of issues about human rights. One of the biggest things in the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) is to ‘leave no one behind’, be it women and girls who have no access to education, marginalised groups like ethnic minorities who are marginalised in certain countries or key populations like transgender and LGBT who are stigmatised and often discriminated against. There is a growing specific focus on people who are being left behind often who have “no voice” for their needs and aspirations to be heard by those who govern.


Dr. Donal Brown talking to media during the Ebola Crisis

Say for Development: Amidst all these shifts in the focus of international development, how does Brexit affect DFID’s role in international development? Will there be a lot of changes?

Donal: Yes, there will be a lot of changes in many areas. For example, in trade, especially with us now leaving the EU (European Union) and we have a lot of interests in WTO (World Trade Organisation). Under the EU on trade, the European Commission negotiates on behalf of member states. As we come out we will have to negotiate by ourselves, so you see a lot more focus on the development of the wider international trade issues and institutions.

But there are also opportunities, and international development will remain a key part of the UK government policy, and may become even more prominent. In a world where we are no longer a part of the EU, we are very clear that we still want to be an outward facing nation and be really engaged with the world. Our international development work is somewhat the highest profile considering the UK’s relation with other countries and something we are all proud of and is valued across the world. It might become even more important to show that we are very much connected to the world. In the future, there will also be a much wider engagement from the UK in international development initiatives across the government and agencies, rather than initiatives just being spearheaded by DFID.


*Dr. Donal Brown, CBE is the Director of International Global Health and Education Funds at UK’s Department for International Development. He has over 25 years of experience in international development, having lived and worked in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as spending considerable time in the Middle East. In his current role, he is responsible for DFID’s policies, programmes, financial management and shareholder relations with global funds and innovative finance in health and education.


Say for Development is thankful to Dr. Donal Brown for sharing his thoughts on the topics discussed around international development as well as his work at UK’s Department of International Development. This conversation was conducted by Sarabe Chan and Mahmudul Hoque Moni.


Feature Photograph: Google Images. 


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