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BLOG: Rt. Hon. Sir Stephen O’Brien KBE, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator - CGHR Practitioner Series 2019

last modified Mar 21, 2019 11:37 AM
Lena Riecke, Law, member of CGHR's Student Group wrote about the second talk of this year's Practitioner Series with Sir Stephen O’Brien, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

On February 20, Sir Stephen O’Brien gave a talk at the CGHR as part of the CGHR’s practitioner series. During the talk, he took the audience through the stages of his career and gave advice on pursuing work in the development and humanitarian sector.


Born in Tanzania and educated in Kenya, Sir Stephen O’Brien came to the UK to study law as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. He was drawn to modules such as constitutional law and conflict of laws, and the apparent unenforceability of humanitarian and human rights law particularly attracted his interest. 

After completing a summer internship at Freshfields, a multinational law firm with headquarters in London, Sir Stephen accepted an offer for a training contract. At Freshfields, he went into international arbitration, experiencing firsthand how powerful entities on the international plane could be incentivized to submit to dispute settlement procedures. In 1988, after having decided not to pursue a long-term commitment in the law by joining the partnership, he decided his true interests lay elsewhere and he left the firm. Rather than advise others as a lawyer, he wanted to be in a position to make decisions and take actions himself. 

Taking a risky career switch, he began work for Redland plc, a leading British building materials company, where he was made International Director and Group Secretary. When Redland was acquired by Lafarge in 1997, Sir Stephen was made redundant. Thereafter, he again shifted his sector of work and entered into politics and was elected as MP of Eddisbury in a by-election in 1999. He was then appointed as the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State in the Department for International Developmentas part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. In 2013, Sir Stephen became the Prime Minister's Envoy to the Sahel, which includes nine countries across North and West Africa. From 2015-17, he served as the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Throughout his career, Sir Stephen has continued to lobby for the prevention and control of malaria. In 2004, he founded and served as first chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. He is co-founder and chairman of the NGO Malaria Consortium and Chair of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.



Reflecting on his career pathway, and the decisions he took at different points, Sir Stephen gave the following advice and reflection for students looking to their next career steps:

  1. Be aware of and explore your current passions, strengths and weaknesses. They are what distinguishes you from others and will impact on the decisions you make and areas in which you thrive during your career.
  2. Are you a leader, a contributor or do you prefer to work independently? Find out and shape your career around how you prefer to work and develop your strengths.
  3. The more choices you make, the more experience you will gather, and the more of an instinct you will develop. Trust that instinct. Be confident in your contributions, being careful in recognising the difference between confidence and arrogance.
  4. When you succeed, retain humility. You will need help throughout your career, so build a team of experts around you. 
  5. Never give up on progress –  and don’t become complacent in success.
  6. Don’t commoditize yourself. It is easy to get locked into the fast-stream career path, but it is the unusual experiences that will distinguish you from others.
  7. An unconventional career can’t be planned. What you can do is use each chance you get to its fullest and take risks on the opportunities you receive. Often, you will have to make spontaneous decisions in the moment – do not be afraid to do so.
  8. Think about how your career and life choices impact on others and the world. We are all global citizens and have the responsibility to live like ones.
  9. For the right opportunity and stimulation in your career, be prepared to move for a less attractive financial and reward package.