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Saving Lives in Ukraine: A view from our Director of Stabilisation, James Blair

13th June 2022

As the Russian military invasion of Ukraine continues, Crown Agents is at the forefront of the conflict: Having worked in Ukraine for 25 years and having been embedded in the Ministry of Health, we are providing essential life-saving aid through our office in Ukraine and our humanitarian base in Poland, with support from across the region.

With an experienced team on the ground, Crown Agents operation manages to deliver into areas of Ukraine that are hard to reach, supporting civil society on the ground.

We spoke with our Director of Stabilisation, James Blair, on the challenges of the operation, and how he manages to stay on course when dealing with the atrocities of war.

Please tell us more about your role in Crown Agents and your involvement in the Crown Agents Ukraine Emergency Response.

I joined Crown Agents in 2009 and have worked in Iraq and Libya, amongst others. As Director of Stabilisation, I and my team support state institutions which have or are experiencing conflict, and make sure essential services for citizens are being institutionalised and made available on a continuous basis.

To support our Ukraine emergency response, I was part of the team that established Crown Agents’ operational footprint in Poland and positioned our organisation within the international aid community, identifying opportunities where we could deploy our expertise to help. I also worked on specific donor bids in relation to Ukraine, investigating options to resolve specific challenges that the wider Ukrainian civil society could respond to, and to ensure aid items could reach those areas where they were needed most.

What challenges did you encounter working on the Ukraine response? Where they different from other conflicts you have worked on?

In the case of Ukraine- as with most crises- there was a strong rational to coordinate donor and money influx: This includes ensuring that the same funders aren’t approached by multiple aid actors, and that the aid community coordinates what is being provided and shipped. Ultimately, the most effective way of assistance is asking the Ukrainians themselves what is needed most on the ground. But again, it is crucial that the same people are not being approached by various stakeholders. Furthermore, we must not assume we know what is needed on the ground, as we can often assume wrong. At the beginning of the war, for example, many people donated clothing, which was something refugees did bring in their suitcases.

In comparison to many other crises I have worked on, I saw a large amount of military flights coming into neighbouring countries. At the same time, the war prompted a substantive response from the international aid community. As most people in this field will know, humanitarian and military operations must not intersect at all during an emergency response. A military actor unloading food items, for example, would mean that the freight is no longer protected by international humanitarian law. It was therefore crucial that military carriers were clearly separated from humanitarian aid charters. Other responses I have worked on did not need such a clear distinction. In places like Kosovo, for example, NATO has been leading a peacekeeping operation, which means that the military is protected by the law as a humanitarian actor.

Another very unique challenge of the conflict is the fact that a lot of the embassies are currently wrapped up with surrogacy cases because lots of Western people have surrogates based in Ukraine. The country is a popular choice for surrogacy because it lists the intended parents on the birth certificate. In practice, this means if Ukrainian mothers give birth in Ukraine, their baby holds a foreign nationality. Again, this is something I have never come across in my career.

The job you do is complex and deals with global challenges of very difficult nature. What prompted you to pursue this work?

My choices were very much inspired by my grandfather, who was a career soldier and spent the latter part of his professional life at the British Foreign Office. During his posting at the Defence Section of the British Embassy in Norway, he used to host diplomats at his house, and it sparked my interest to work in the international space- already at age 5!

I later learned that he had been involved in contingency planning for World War Three during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it struck me how challenging and frightening this must have been for him.

What do you find difficult about working in this space?

In my early 20s, I found it extremely hard to be confronted by the horrors of war. I was quite young and inexperienced, and arguably hadn’t been fully prepared for it.

The Ukraine war is not an accident or a hurricane or a cyclone, or simply bad luck- Russia decided to invade- it is based on a conscious choice.

It really hit home for me when I was messaging one of my Ukrainian colleagues on WhatsApp: Her picture showed her dressed up on a night out and it struck me that this was taken only two weeks before the war started- now life as she knew it didn’t exist any longer.

On another occasion, I was picking up one of our Ukrainian staff members from the Polish border. She came with her husband, two children and three suitcases- three suitcases which basically contained the life of her family. I picked the bags up and felt the weight of them-this really moved me. How do you decide what to leave and what to bring?

You move through these situations by knowing that your job saves lives, no matter how hopeless a situation may seem. But especially then, people with experience and resilience are needed, so they can ensure that those suffering know that they have not been left behind, and that they will do everything in our power to make life better for them.