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Laura Walker McDonald

Laura Walker McDonald (LLM International Development Law and Human Rights, 2006) has dedicated her career to helping others through her work in humanitarian and international aid. Now working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Laura looks at how technology can have both a positive and negative impact on wellbeing across the globe.


Can you tell us about your current role?

I’ve just started as Senior Advisor, Digital Technology and Data Protection at the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the Washington DC delegation in the USA. It’s a new role focusing on understanding how technology can help to provide humanitarian aid, or can contribute to harming people. Before this, I was Senior Director, Insights and Outreach at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), a hosted initiative of the UN Foundation.


What has your career journey been since graduating from Warwick? Why have you dedicated your career to social justice?

After graduating, I looked initially for a role in policy in an international human rights organisation. However, my first role ended up in the British Red Cross. I was PA to the Head of International Policy, and wasn't sure where it would lead - but I ended up falling in love with humanitarian work and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I stayed for three years in various roles, learning an incredible amount and working on issues including civil military relations, accountability to affected people, and cash-based programming in emergencies. However, I was unable to go and work overseas at the time and was advised that I wouldn’t be able to progress within the organisation without that field experience.

I was becoming increasingly interested in the role technology could play in humanitarian aid. I joined Twitter early, which helped me to keep an eye on what other partners were doing and learn more about the space. It also helped me build a profile, which meant that when the founder of FrontlineSMS, Ken Banks, advertised a project manager role, he recognised my name. We had an interview in a London pub and the rest is history. I joined FrontlineSMS in March 2010 and ended up running the organisation together with Sean McDonald, who later became my husband.


We spun FrontlineSMS out as a for-profit company in 2014 and I ran the non-profit organisation until it closed in 2017. Since then, I’ve consulted and worked at the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation and DIAL. Throughout those years, I kept my hand in on the humanitarian front by taking on voluntary roles, including board seats and stints on funding committees. I'm delighted to be returning to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement with this latest position. It all worked out in the end!


What inspired you to take these roles?

Initially, I was drawn to social justice work out of a lifelong interest in helping people. I wanted to understand why things go wrong, and what we can do to make things better. International development and aid work is incredibly complex. The challenges of organisational management and culture, funding mobilisation and execution are compounded by global politics, climate, natural disasters, and the devastating impacts of conflict. Increasingly we are recognising the role of racism and colonial power structures in this field, and part of my commitment is to embody my values of equity and justice in the way that I advise organisations and carry out my work.


What challenges have you faced during your career and how have you overcome them?

Like most people, I’ve faced many! The main one being the failure of SIMLab, the non-profit I ran until 2017. This was due to many factors, and I wrote about it on Medium at the time. Many people have found that story very helpful, because not everyone can talk about these challenges as they're going through them.

Because of the way health insurance works in the US, somebody in the family has to have a steady job at all times and this can add an extra layer of uncertainty, however I’ve been very fortunate to find good jobs at the right time. To those in the UK: appreciate the NHS while you have it!


What advice would you give to students and graduates looking to follow a similar career path?

Tend to your network. Having a place where people can find out about you and your work is really important. The colleagues and friends I’ve made along the way, the conversations we've had, and the experiences we have with each other have been very formative in my career. However, you should make a point of diversifying your network so you are meeting and learning from people from a variety of backgrounds. Never stop learning. Read all the time.


What are you most proud of and what are your hopes for the future?

Over the years, particularly in more recent senior positions, I have developed a real confidence in my working style, which is positive, people-centred and good-practice-focused. I believe that safe, happy people bring their whole selves to work and do better as a result. If we continue to tweak and develop principled processes that include everybody, we can't help but incrementally achieve more and ultimately help more people. The relief that comes from knowing that you are on the right track - from knowing that the way you have learned to do your job is effective - is a real source of confidence for me. It also helps me to help other people, sometimes in ways I don't find out about until much later. It’s not just about doing good work, it's about the way you do it.

I hope that in future we all, as a field, will get better at listening, and recognising the messiness of the world. There are no simple ways to solve complex problems. There is only listening, trying things, learning from our mistakes, and trying again. I hope to be part of redistributing power in the international development and aid sectors towards the countries where most of the work is done, and the people who live there. This feels like a huge hill to climb, but I believe it’s possible.


Why did you choose to study at Warwick, and why the LLM International Development Law and Human Rights programme?

In 2002, I was all set to go into a career in commercial law. I had a job offer and a place on a training course, when I realised that commercial work wasn't for me, and decided to look for a Civil Liberties and Human Rights Master’s. Warwick had a wonderful LLM at the time in International Development Law and Human Rights. It was a demanding programme, but I loved it. It was such a treat and a privilege to read and think for a year.


What was the most important thing you learned from your time at Warwick?

A very important lesson about global justice: it begins at home. A visiting lecturer from South Africa inspired me to look at communities within the UK where I could do some primary research. This was more ambitious than anything I was being encouraged to do at the time

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are still among the most discriminated against groups in the UK. There is a huge amount to do to human rights, particularly under current and recent administrations. I focused my dissertation on maternal health for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women, and those lessons are still foundational to the way I think about the interaction between the law and justice. My dissertation was published in a peer-reviewed journal, too.


Do you have a favourite memory of studying at Warwick?

Definitely, it's all about the people. I made lasting friendships at Warwick and my only sadness is that we all live too far apart to see each other regularly. An honourable mention goes to Sam Adelman’s dog, who attended every lecture.