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Being a DESA

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As part of the first cohort of the DFID Entry Scheme for Advisers (DESA), Isabelle Abbott Pugh, James Hamilton-Harding and Clare McCrum gamely signed up to spend one year working in the UK and two years in an as-yet-to-be-determined overseas office without quite knowing what to expect.

We joined the Social Development cadre (one of the thirteen professional cadres in DFID), driving inclusive, sustainable development, maximising poverty reduction and transformational social change, focusing on gender, social protection and citizen empowerment and accountability.  Now, coming to the end of our second year of the scheme, we can safely say the professional (and personal) gamble paid off.

Isabelle: I spent my first year in the Private Sector Department in DFID’s Whitehall office, which was quite a shift in theme from my previous roles in a research consortium and NGOs.

My work focused on responsible business – a high priority policy area within DFID’s increased focus on economic development.  Any concerns I had about the level of responsibility I would have on this Entry Scheme quickly faded, as I led on DFID’s relationship with a variety of partners including Fairtrade and the UN Global Compact.  This role was also a great introduction to being a civil servant: juggling responding to requests for ministerial briefings; letters from MPs, the public and NGO campaigns; alongside contributing to the formation of DFID’s approach to working with the private sector and working with colleagues across my department to drive increased consideration of marginalised groups in their work.

During my year in Whitehall, I found out that my two-year overseas posting would be in Rwanda.  I was delighted with this news as, while we do not get to choose or bid for our postings while on the scheme, I felt that my professional and personal preferences had been taken into account.

In Rwanda, I am the lead adviser on a new gender-based violence prevention programme working with NGO, UN and government partners to devise a new community-based intervention model and support the national child protection programme. I’m really excited by the new intervention design we’ll start rolling out later in 2015, and the impact evaluation which will bring invaluable data about gender norms and violence prevention.

Alongside this work, I lead on another NGO-led programme on disability and education, and have also continued work I started in the UK focused on considering inclusion and poverty reduction in DFID’s work on economic growth and trade. I also have the opportunity to engage outside the Rwanda office, supporting colleagues in South Africa and DRC with delivery and review of their programmes.

The past two years have been a great opportunity to working on a diverse range of issues I really care about.  I have enjoyed the pace of work and intellectual rigour and commitment of my colleagues, many of whom are experts in their fields. Although it has been a steep learning curve, my colleagues have been supportive of my development while allowing me a great deal of space and autonomy in my work.  I have also learned a huge amount about being a civil servant and representing the UK government overseas.

Clare:  I spent my first year in Abercrombie House (DFID office just outside Glasgow in East Kilbride) split between the Evaluation Department and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Team.  It was quite daunting, moving city, finding a new house and starting my new career as a civil servant.  Having spent most of my professional life in campaigning and advocacy roles it was quite a shock to the system, but the decision to join DFID was definitely the right one.

In my first year I was part of the small core team working on Female Genital Mutilation at the time when ministerial and public interest was picking up. The fast paced policy environment was a great opportunity to see how DFID works across government departments, influence policy formation and engage with an exciting agenda as it built up global momentum.

This was perfectly balanced by my role in supporting social development and governance evaluations, having much more time to reflect, analyse and contribute to debate, policy and guidance on how we think about the impact of our programmes.  The support I received from colleagues was great, I found DFID, and I would have to say Abercrombie House in particular, an incredibly friendly place to work.

For the past year I have been working in DFID Tanzania.  One of the great things about being a DESA is getting to see the different faces of DFID, and a country office can sometimes seem like a world away from Whitehall.

In Tanzania I have led the design of our social protection programme, provided advice across a very large country portfolio on gender and inclusion, and am currently leading the office in developing a new strategy on youth.  This work has involved managing complex relationships with the Government, the World Bank, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector, and building the capacity of others to deliver on our exciting programmes operating across the country. All in all an amazing opportunity to learn develop and contribute to the fantastic work that DFID is doing in Tanzania.

From the moment I walked through the doors two years ago I don’t think there has been a point when I haven’t been learning new things, challenged and supported by amazing colleagues and encouraged to continually evolve, adapt and develop as a professional.

James: I spent a good chunk of my professional life before the DESA programme in research and advocacy on gender and conflict, specifically the protection of civilians in conflict zones. Really, that meant engaging with DFID from the outside, trying to influence HMG policy. As a DESA, I walked around the desk and joined the Gender Team helping to refresh and implement DFID’s Strategic Vision for Girls and Women. As part of a dynamic team with high profile at the very centre of one of DFID’s core policy agendas, I had the pleasure to finally help shape DFID policy directly. I enjoyed a massive diversity of responsibilities from supporting the UK delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, to reviewing the Girl Hub project in Ethiopia.

Being part of a fast paced and busy team for my first year meant I was quite ready to slow down and narrow my focus in a country office position. After a hectic 12 months of UN conferences, the Girl Summit in London, and influencing international partners deciding of the Sustainable Development Goals, I looked forward to a more targeted portfolio and a small number of programmes to manage. Then they told me I was going to Somalia.

Working in Somalia is as exciting as it is challenging. Security and stabilisation feature heavily in all the work in one of the world most fragile states. But Somalia has had a remarkable few years. State structures are improving and better donor coordination is producing a peace dividend for the Somali people. I’ve been able to work closely with government and civil society partners from the UK’s newest embassy in Mogadishu, and travelled to see some of the health programmes I help implement in Garowe.

The energy of working on Somalia is sometimes its own reward, but the speed at which things move means I have a lot of input across the office. Beyond the new programme on women’s political participation I’m designing, I work closely with FCO colleagues on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and I’m the lead in country for the UK’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. And the international influencing aspect of my job continues. Working well in Somalia means working through UN and other partners with greater ease of movement and access around the country. It’s been a great two years of personal and professional development and there’s no sign of the pace slowing in my final year as a DESA.

DFID is currently recruiting more DESAs for the seven cadres listed below. Application closing is 14 September 2015 and the successful applicants will start in April 2016.

Social Development




Private Sector Development




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