Paul Ignatieff

Born: October 11, 1936;

Died: January 19, 2024

Paul Ignatieff, who has died aged 87, was a dynamic UNICEF representative and fund-raiser who served the organisation in seven countries, skilfully negotiating development programmes in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Mengistu’s Ethiopia but whose heart firmly remained in Scotland.

The grandson of the last education minister in the Imperial Russian Government of Tsar Nicholas II, 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 where they took refuge for several years before starting a new life in Canada in 1925.

Vladimir, Paul’s father, became a pioneering agronomist and soil specialist. In 1934, he married Florence Hargreaves, an internationally recognised biochemist and nutritionist. They had two children, Paul in 1936 and Mika, in 1939. In 1946, 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) becoming director of land and water divisions based in Rome. Here Paul spent his teenage years and learned Italian.

Paul’s childhood was spent in Canada. He was educated at McGill University, Montreal, where he studied history and economics; and at Waterloo University, Ontario, where he studied marketing and business administration. At the Universite de Lausanne, Switzerland, he studied literature and French, in which he became fluent and met his future wife, Katharine Duncan of Closeburn, Dumfriesshire.

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 Burn’s maxim, ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’. His Scottish sojourn gave him newfound confidence to be his own man. He never looked back, except in gratitude to the Lubbock family that took him in and gave him space.

Paul returned to Canada and worked for 10 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.

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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. 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.

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, drilling to provide safe drinking water close to communities to reduce water borne disease and to spare young girls the chore of hauling water from distant sources, allowing them time to go to school and improve their chances in life. Paul was a skilful negotiator who persuaded Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, to invest government funds in the innovative technology UNICEF had introduced, he achieved a nation-wide impact.

From Sri Lanka, Paul returned to New York for the first of two stints at UNICEF headquarters, back to his roots, fundraising. 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 with 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. 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.

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 US$1 Billion ceiling. Finally, he was posted to Geneva where he served out his time as Director of the European Office.

Retirement at 60 meant that Paul and Katherine could redirect their attention to Scotland, setting up a new home and becoming involved in a range of projects. Initially, Paul took on the job of Secretary General of the World Federation of UN Associations then turned his attention to 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.

Paul had been given an honorary professorship by Glasgow University for his work with UNICEF so it followed naturally that he should become active in the unique development of the Dumfries Crichton Estate, which became Crichton University Campus.

Paul had many hobbies, including fishing. He was a keen sailor and a proficient cook. 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.

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. He was a one off’ who was held in lasting affection by the UNICEF teams he led and lived a life guided by a sense of duty to leave a better world behind.