Obituaries: Paul Ignatieff, dynamic UNICEF Representative and fundraiser

​Paul Ignatieff. Born: 11 October, 1936 in Canada. Died: 19 January, 2024 in Scotland, aged 87

Paul Ignatieff, who was born in Canada, has died aged 87 at his home in Dumfriesshire. The descendant of government servants in Imperial Russia, Paul continued his family’s long commitment to public service in a highly successful 30-year career with UNICEF.

Threatened with execution during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Ignatiev family fled to England before starting a new life in Canada in 1925.

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Vladimir, Paul’s father, became a pioneering agronomist and soil specialist. In 1934, he married Florence Hargreaves, an internationally recognised biochemist and nutritionist. Vladimir was instrumental, under the leadership of the Scottish scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lord Boyd Orr, in establishing the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Paul Ignatieff enjoyed a 30-year career at UNICEFPaul Ignatieff enjoyed a 30-year career at UNICEF
Paul Ignatieff enjoyed a 30-year career at UNICEF

Paul’s high-profile parents nurtured great expectations for their son. He did not disappoint.

Paul’s childhood was spent in Canada. He was educated at McGill University, Montreal.

As a young man and struggling to find his way in the world, Paul spent a year farming with family friends in Brechin, Angus. He came to love Scotland, the local people and their way of life and he embraced the idea encapsulated in Burns’ maxim, ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’. His Scottish sojourn gave him newfound confidence to be his own man.

Paul returned to Canada and worked for ten years in the private sector, honing his marketing, financial and analytical skills, which stood him in good stead during his UNICEF career.

In 1960, having stayed in touch since their Lausanne days, Paul married Katharine, in Dumfriesshire. Over the next several years they raised three children, Alexander, Lara and Nicola.

In 1967, Paul joined Canada’s National Committee for UNICEF as Executive Director. He served in this capacity for five years, raising funds and promoting the work of the organisation; he had found his niche.

Paul's first international assignment, in 1973, was a baptism of fire as UNICEF’s Representative to war-torn Cambodia. He embraced the challenge, building a young dynamic team and running a relief operation that benefited many women and children. Living with his family in the middle of a horrific conflict was not ideal. The family was evacuated while Paul remained in the country hoping to be able to continue the work of UNICEF with its new regime. As things fell apart, Paul was able to gather foreigners and many threatened Cambodians to shelter in the French Embassy compound to which he had been given access. Eventually the Cambodians were forced to give themselves up to the Khmer Rouge, the foreigners were loaded into trucks and driven to the Thai border. The country became a virtual concentration camp, as depicted in the chilling film The Killing Fields, written by Paul’s fellow prisoner Sydney Schanberg.

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The horrors of this experience shaped Paul and he remained a staunch advocate for peace and conflict resolution throughout his life.

Sri Lanka was his next posting where he discovered the importance of water – drilling for it to provide safe drinking water to reduce disease and to spare young girls the chore of hauling water from distant sources. Paul was a skilful negotiator who persuaded Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa to invest government funds in the innovative technology UNICEF had introduced, achieving nation-wide impact.

Paul returned to New York for the first of two stints fundraising at UNICEF headquarters Then he was off to Sydney adding the role of Representative for the UN Secretary General to his work for UNICEF in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific and after another five years, on to Tokyo in the same dual role.

From Japan, Paul was appointed UNICEF’s Representative to Ethiopia, his most challenging assignment yet. At the time, the country was governed by a tyrannical president, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam who had butchered his way to the top, disposing of Emperor Haile Selassie enroute. The complexity and controversy of working with a regime of that ilk cannot be overstated. Paul handled this aspect of his assignment with patience and tact. As Paul saw it, working closely with an odious President and a ruthless regime was part of the development game. His task was to persuade the Ethiopian Government to invest their own resources in programmes for the betterment of an oppressed and desperately poor people and to allow UNICEF to operate in the country unimpeded. That was the priority, that was the focus and that is what he did. All the rest was background noise.

When Tigrayan and Eritrean forces swept the Ethiopian army aside, and a new President, Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan fighter, replaced Mengistu, Paul was quick to meet him and set up the necessary protocols to provide humanitarian aid and partner the new government in programmes for women and children.

In 1992, Paul returned to New York where, as Director of Program Funding, he took donations through the $1 billion ceiling. Along the way he befriended several UNICEF goodwill ambassadors. Due to a shared Russian heritage and sense of humour, his greatest goodwill friend was Peter Ustinov; they often traded stories in exaggerated Russian accents amidst much hilarity.

Finally, Paul was posted to Geneva as Director of the European Office.

Retirement at the age of 60 meant that Paul and his wife Katherine could redirect their attention to Scotland and more local issues, becoming a Trustee for the Dumfries and Galloway NHS Primary Health Care Trust, Secretary for the Cairnhead Community Forest Trust, Chair of the Dumfries Royal Geographic Society and finally Chair of the Forestry Commission’s South Scotland Regional Advisory Panel.

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Paul had been given an honorary professorship by Glasgow University for his work with UNICEF.

Paul had many hobbies, including fishing, he visited rivers and lochs in the search for salmon all over the North of Scotland and the Western Isles. He was a keen sailor and a proficient cook. His love of music was spread around the world as he always filled his houses with his choice of classical or country music at full volume.

Paul was a family man no less than an international civil servant. To the end, he reminded anyone who would listen, that nothing in his life could have been achieved without Katharine. His family and friends knew that already.

Despite his aristocratic Russian heritage, Paul felt instinctively the equal dignity of all people whatever their social position. Perhaps that is why he proved such a successful UNICEF Representative, as comfortable with Presidents and Prime Ministers as with well drillers and drivers,

Despite his aristocratic Russian heritage, Paul felt instinctively the equal dignity of all people whatever their social position. Perhaps that is why he proved such a successful UNICEF Representative, as comfortable with Presidents and Prime Ministers as with well drillers and drivers. Paul was a ‘one off’ who was held in lasting affection by the UNICEF teams he led. He lived a life guided by a sense of duty to leave a better world behind.


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