Twenty-five years of saving lives

Photo: Simon Davis/DFID

Photo: Simon Davis/DFID


This is the story of how a small group of dedicated, innovative professionals built a team that has changed the world.

For 25 years, Crown Agents were at the forefront of global disaster response, supporting the British Government to save lives across the globe.

Since the early 1990s our team responded at scale to crises as diverse as floods, hurricanes and deadly pandemics.

No disaster has been too large or too daunting to tackle. Our team has moved critical supplies across the world at a moment’s notice and put support on the ground hours later.

All of this work was done on behalf of the British Government, who asked Crown Agents to develop a world-leading humanitarian response facility.

Twenty-five years later, we know how to navigate complex landscapes in times of upheaval, conflict and political instability. Our team helped literally hundreds of millions of people in every major disaster.

All the while, we led and improved the system. We have never simply thought about the short term. Our expertise in supply chain, fund management, governance and public administration means that today we continue to build back better.

Come with us as we journey through our epic history over the past quarter of a century. It's a story that starts in the 1990s, with 80 lorries and 100 staff delivering essential food supplies to war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina...


Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992 - 1995

Picture: Crown Agents

Picture: Crown Agents


Emergency Logistics Team Leader

Operations Team Member 1992-2004

“I walked into Crown Agents headquarters. On the desk was a note saying: ‘We need someone to go and look at the British Overseas Development Administration’s operation in the Former Yugoslavia’ - which was being torn apart at the time. I snatched it off the desk and said: ‘That's the job for me.’”

This marked the start of the Crown Agents’ Emergency Logistics Team - the forerunner to a humanitarian operations team that would not just help lead emergency aid relief for the UK Government, but also go on to build and shape the international disaster response system still in use today.

In 1992, Alan Matthews – a logistician with 24 years experience under his belt – and his original team of 3 took over Britain’s aid convoy operation in Bosnia.

Yugoslavia started to break up into aspiring independent nations, largely along ethnic and religious lines. The resulting conflict between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians had cut off families and friends from food, basic supplies and communication.

The United Nations stepped in to organise a huge aid programme – and Alan’s team were soon working part and parcel with the mosaic of international responders: the UN High Commission for Refugees, the World Health Organization and the European Commission.

With Alan’s expertise and the support of Crown Agents, the British convoy of civilian drivers quickly went from a couple of sets of trucks to a fleet of around 80 vehicles, employing nearly 100 people.

“We were delivering staples - flour was the big one.”

“The main route was from our base in Metković along the Croatian coast, not far from Dubrovnik, across the mountains – because the main bridge across the rivers had been blown up.”

Beyond flour and life-saving rations, the convoy helped deliver medical supplies into the war zone, as well as evacuate casualties away from worst of the conflict.

One day, a call came from the UN to ask if the team could pick up civilians caught in the crossfire of a town under shelling. After assessing the security situation, Alan took his team and trucks in.

“There were some sad stories. We had one woman who was on a stretcher - both legs broken - and we were going to load her into the truck. But it was a cargo truck - no windows. Her carer said: ‘She doesn’t want to go in - it’s dark.’”

“I ended up sitting in the truck with her, holding her hand, for the journey back to Zagreb.”

It was an extremely difficult and complex environment to operate in: working with civilian drivers unused to the harrowing trauma, helping to coordinate with other international convoys and moving around the patchwork of armed groups.

“It was a tough time. We took casualties - one dead and two wounded.”

But it didn’t stop the operation. And by its end, their civilian truckers had delivered nearly 200,000 tonnes of aid, to places as far apart as Goražde, Srebrenica and Banja Luka.

“It helped pave the way for the eventual peace programme,” says Alan. “It certainly kept a lot of people alive.”

His experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina was just the beginning. Alan saw how this nascent team and its logistical know-how, coupled with the backroom capability of Crown Agents, could become much more.

Together, they could help the UK Government build the humanitarian operations team it was seeking – to assess the situation in the field when a disaster broke out, to recommend the best response, and then to deliver aid on the government’s wishes.

“But it wasn’t just the ability to put people on the ground who could find their way around in a disaster - it was the ability to call on the full support that Crown Agents provided,” explains Alan.

“That was everything – from HR, which was vital when recruiting, paying and supporting staff in the field – to procurement, which was important for trucks, engineering services and shipping. The whole raft of issues that the people on the frontline cannot operate without.”

“And that’s what we did. And behind Crown Agents was the panoply of government capability, and most importantly, the policy direction from them. Which meant we knew what they wanted, and we did our very best to deliver it. And I think we did, which is why the concept still exists 25 years on.”

The newly-established Operations Team was put to immediate use. Following on from Bosnia and Herzegovina, it brought its expertise and vehicles to then-called Zaire, to help supply water to a million refugees fleeing Rwanda, who had sought safety around Goma, in present-day DR Congo.

Soon after that, Britain called on the team to head to its overseas territory of Montserrat,  where an active volcano threatened the entire Caribbean island – eventually erupting, wiping out the nation’s capital and destroying lives and livelihoods. But not before the Operations Team had put in place an evacuation plan, and after, helped to reconnect vital supply routes.

Their international efforts had not gone unnoticed. At a reception at Buckingham Palace, the team was brought to the Duke of Edinburgh’s attention. ‘Have you done any bloody good?’ he asked Alan. “There was only one answer,” he recalls. “‘Absolutely. A lot of people are alive today that wouldn’t have been otherwise.’”


What does it take to work for Crown Agents humanitarian team? The real question is: who does it take?

Our work today has changed but we seek the same core values: humanity, team spirit and an unfaltering can-do attitude.

Humanitarian work is tough. It is often unforgiving and always unrelenting. In the midst of a crisis, problems will always stack up before you begin to see real progress.

In the 1990s, we developed simulations for our own staff, and helped develop them for international coordination. We designed and delivered the first Triplex humanitarian training exercise in 1995 – putting the disaster responders of the Britain, Denmark and Sweden to the test with a large-scale flooding scenario in the UK’s Severn Valley.

Today the skills we need are different. Understanding local values and having the people-skills to communicate effectively with people at the heart of the crisis is critical.

Our work requires a lot of different disciplines, which is why our strength comes from our diversity. Beyond technical expertise we actively seek a range of experience and a balance of backgrounds in terms of education, gender and ethnicity. We believe this gives us the team of all the talents needed to deliver on the ground.

What unites us all is a drive to help those caught in chronic crisis. This is more than a profession, it’s a dedication to save lives wherever, whenever we can.


Indian Ocean, 2004 - 2005

Picture: AusAid

Picture: AusAid

Philip Upson

Humanitarian Adviser

Operations Team Member 1999-2017

Conflict and stabilisation work were major features of the 1990s and the early 2000s - with major British interventions in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Crown Agents adviser Philip Upson worked on them all.

Yet, on Boxing Day in 2004, the world faced a major test. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered an enormous tsunami, wiping out communities across south Asia. It was an unprecedented disaster: 250,000 dead across 12 countries.

After years in war zones, Philip was living in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the time. “My daughter was born in September, so she was just 3 months old when it happened.

“On Boxing Day morning, my wife was up early with the baby and saw the news on TV. She came through and asked: ‘What’s a tsunami?’ I leapt out of bed and called the duty officer in London.”

Philip immediately set to work, gathering as much information as he could from the scene in Sri Lanka, where the death toll would eventually reach tens of thousands, with hundreds of thousands more displaced. Sri Lanka was one of the worst hit countries after Indonesia, closest to the epicentre.

“By the evening I was working on it.”

Shortly after, Philip attended an emergency meeting with Sri Lankan Prime Minister and flew out with the UN and Sri Lankan Government officials to support them with helicopter assessments of the west and southern parts of island.

Homes, schools, markets and entire villages had been washed away in an instant, leaving just debris and mud for miles on end.

“We funded some immediate relief programmes rapidly,” he says. “But funding was not the issue.

"Very quickly our role became a guiding role. We brought people out to assist the government to structure its response, working right alongside the Sri Lankan authorities.”

With the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination unit, the team helped to develop a broader coordination function which allowed the right relief items to flow into the country more effectively.

“People around the world were sending food and clothes, but many Sri Lankans wanted small fishing boats so they could return to work,” explains Philip. Boats and vessels in their thousands were lost. The fishing industry had been destroyed.

Major humanitarian challenge

Across the Indian ocean, Alan Matthews got to work in Banda Aceh, in Indonesia.

“Banda Aceh was one of the worst disaster scenes I had seen. I flew in on one of the first aircraft to get in.

“As we approached the area, they dropped the ramp of the aircraft at 20,000 feet so we could survey the scene and even experienced disaster responders like me were astonished by it.”

“That impression was reinforced once we got on the ground and started to look around the area. I mean, the classic images of 200 tonne fishing boats cast kilometres in from what had been the seashore. Literally, the whole city had been overwhelmed.

“I’ve seen lots of death, I’ve seen lots of destruction, and lots of deprivation - but in terms of scale, Banda Aceh was the biggest. And you just wonder, how do you get to grips? But the people and the system – the international system – did get to grips. And eventually it moved us from emergency response to development. But the scale of it was just jaw-dropping.”


When disaster strikes, every second counts. Our staff make critical decisions based on fast-moving information. Do you have what it takes to join the Operations Room - the nerve centre of an international aid response?

Take a tour around Ops Room 360° – a virtual experience where life-threatening events are unfolding in "K-Land" to find out. Hit the play button to start...

Today, the Operations Room is at the heart of any humanitarian response. But it’s a model we helped to introduce to Britain’s aid programme, as the scale and complexity of international operations grew.

And it’s a system we’ve honed over the years - able to swing into action within minutes of a crisis unfolding, to help efficiently manage the deluge of information coming in. It’s part and parcel of our ‘preparedness’ approach - so that we’re ready to respond as soon as that first message comes in...


Haiti, 2010 - 2011

Picture: Marco Dormino/United Nations

Picture: Marco Dormino/United Nations

Anissa Toscano

Humanitarian Adviser and Relief Expert

Operations Team Member 2001-2017

“Of the natural disasters we’ve responded to, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 ranks as one of the most challenging,” says Anissa Toscano, veteran humanitarian with more than 20 years’ experience in disaster response.

“The scale of the devastation and the loss of life were just staggering,” she says.

The 7.1 earthquake struck on 12 January with an epicentre near Leogane, just 25 kilometres west of capital Port-au-Prince. It killed an estimated 300,000 and displaced millions.

“It came on top of such intense poverty,” she says. “Haiti’s existing infrastructure was already so stretched that any initial response was always going to be a huge challenge.”

She was not wrong. To start, the airfield was out of action due to serious damage to the air control tower. Equally, the capital’s harbour was unusable. So any logistical operations would need to think creatively to get supplies to those in need.

Among the fatalities were people from all walks of life, including many people in the Haitian Government and civil service.

The team quickly established a field office from the airfield, living and working there for more than a month. Soon, a £20 million relief programme from the British Government was under way.

“There were challenging moments,” says Anissa. “We became targets for night time raids, quite understandably in such desperate times. And there were huge numbers of tarantulas that lived in holes in the airfield.”

“I’m not an arachnophobe, I actually quite like spiders, but there’s something about one of them sitting in your toilet tent, sitting in the bucket, or hanging up over you as you’re taking a shower, that just quite does it.”

She describes these events as “quite manageable, though”.

“These are things that we could find solutions to, and that we could actually navigate our way through, as a team.”

“More pressing in our minds was that it would take a long time for people to recover from this disaster, even as resilient as they were.”

The rapid response had provided immediate search and rescue assistance for Haiti. The UK’s search and rescue teams arrived within 48 hours of the disaster. They rescued four people from the rubble including a two year old girl buried beneath a nursery school. In these initial phases, international search teams brought 130 people from the debris, some many days after the quake.

Yet the recovery was set to be a long road. Through the field team, the UK began coordinating food, water and medical supplies to more than 380,000 people. Incoming flights and eventually sea freight brought essential supplies - 4x4s, port handling equipment, shelter materials, water purification tablets.

Long term, the UK supported the Government of Haiti in reconstruction. It helped to build back health centres and schools and transitional shelter for families who had lost everything.


Shelter, power, water, food. Bare minimums you expect when braving the elements on a camping trip. Now imagine doing it in a disaster zone. Welcome to Camp Craft - the art of surviving and doing your job no matter where you are.

In many responses, time is critical, so experienced field teams deploying into disasters are known experts in self-sufficiency. They need to be. More often than not, there is little by way of mod cons in a disaster response, whether it’s a war-torn country with no safe space to work from or mountainous landscapes cut off from basic services.

To be prepared for a rapid response you must always have a passport ready, vaccinations up to date and two or more deployment bags ready so you can depart at a moment’s notice.

Inside you will find a medical or trauma kit (you must be a qualified first aider), a tent, a sleeping bag, basic cooking equipment, water purification tablets, a torch, a travel towel, and essential hygiene materials: everything you need to take care of yourself for two or more weeks.

“First responders have a core team with people who are ready to go at a moment’s notice," says Philip. "For a worldwide response, you need to be ready to send 5-6 people out at no notice whatsoever, so on a plane within six hours and then back them up with new people.”

Once personal accommodation is sorted (your tent), the next job is to establish the field office. This can be as basic as two tents. Solar power equipment allows the team to set up communications back to HQ. They will use satellite phones and other simple radio kit to transmit vital data back and forth.

A team also brings its own water purification box - a component of a tried and tested “washing and wasting” system meaning that a field team can be fully self-sufficient for weeks while operations get under way.


Sierra Leone, 2014 - 2015

Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

David Quinn

Procurement and Logistics Expert

Operations Team Member 2013-Present

Sea freight shut down. Commercial flights cancelled. Commerce cut off. And inland infrastructure all but non-existent.

It was in this context that David and his team were tasked to build a 100-bed field hospital, over 3,000 miles from London in Sierra Leone. In 60 days.

As the full threat of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was becoming clear - with cases beginning to double each week - it was make or break time for the international response.

Without enough beds to treat patients and contain the disease, the outbreak would quickly spiral into a pandemic.

“At the time of the recce, it was just an empty site outside of Freetown. Just a patch of dirt.”

On that patch of dirt, his team helped set up - and supply - the Kerrytown Ebola treatment centre.

It was an enormous and unprecedented challenge, which started with a simple question: where to procure all the necessary equipment?

“For the hospital, we needed the structures to go over it, we needed beds, and we needed them on a BIG scale.

“The protective safety suits for the medics were a particular challenge because of the quantities that were projected to be required.

“We had to be creative. We were purchasing safety suits from three factories in China that we put into production. They switched off whatever they were normally manufacturing, and just started churning out the coveralls that, now, we’re all used to seeing on the news.”

Within a matter of days, the team were sourcing and coordinating cargo from suppliers across 12 different countries, warehousing it across the UK, and chartering the aircraft to get it to Sierra Leone.

“We had imports from Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, from throughout Europe -  I mean they were coming in from every corner of the globe. And all of that coming into different airports in different quantities, to be re-packaged and sent on. It was an unusually demanding pipeline into the country.

But Kerrytown was just the start.

“As we were getting on top of that, we had a call late one night to do it six times over - to open six more 100-bed Ebola treatment facilities. And to do it in three to four weeks. It was terrifying,” remembers David.

Knowing how critical it was to the response, the team stepped up again - in total moving 2,037 tonnes of cargo in less than 90 days to make it happen.

“Basically we were given a problem, and we went off and fixed it. It allowed the government to get on with their job, it allowed the medics to get on with their job, and it allowed the military to get on with their job. We only came to them with solutions – never problems,” explains David.

Within just three months, the Operations Team had delivered seven emergency treatment centres across the country - providing beds for 700 patients at a time.

The sheer speed and scale of their set up posed yet another challenge for David’s team - how to keep them stocked and serviced?

“Once the groundwork of the hospital was laid, the structures were up, the beds were in place, then we were looking at the ongoing re-supply needs -  the medical consumables, the pharmaceuticals and so on.”

Each treatment centre needed a steady flow of supplies to continue operating.

“We had so much material that needed to be transported, we thought: ‘let’s fly a charter aircraft and fly every 48 hours out of East Midlands Airport.’ And that’s what we did. And logistically-speaking, that’s a big operation.”

Between the set up materials and the ongoing supply lines, David calculates the team were averaging a flight out of the UK every 33 hours. “It was unprecedented,” he says.

But it was also extremely effective. The Ebola treatment centres marked a turning point in the response and were nothing short of critical in defeating the disease.

“You’re so busy in the Ops Room – the phone is always going, people are always asking something: but I remember the weekly headline was always the new cases. And as the weeks progressed, you could see the jump wasn’t as big.

“And then I remember the first week when there were no new cases, and all of us stopped for a minute and we simply went: ‘wow!’

“By the end of the operation, we had people everywhere: from those across the UK in warehouses, airports and in our own procurement and logistics teams to the emergency responders on the ground in Sierra Leone and those handling the incoming cargo.

“It was a fantastic team – I’m very proud of it. Very proud we were able to achieve it.”


Picture: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Picture: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Sonia Zambakides

Director of Humanitarian and Stabilisation

"Eighty percent of conflicts today are chronic conflicts. War has ravaged Somalia for decades and the Syria crisis is now sadly moving into its eighth year. These countries and regions are in need of ongoing, sustained support. Put simply, they urgently need to get goods in, to reach people in desperate need."

"As a result of these conflicts, we’re seeing 22.5 million refugees around the world. We’re seeing rapid onset emergencies happening in places we don’t expect them: like the Caribbean and the recent Hurricane Irma. This is climate change and how it impacts the humanitarian landscape.

"We need to be agile, we need to be able to respond quickly, we need to have all the tools and the services in order to adapt to these changing circumstances.

"At Crown Agents, we have a frankly brilliant track record in accountable procurement - all the way from acquiring goods to providing them to the last person in need. We have been doing this throughout our entire history.

"We work with governments, non-governmental organisations and UN partners. We offer the solutions needed for back office support when people are responding on the frontline. We make sure goods are being tracked, finances are being tracked, and goods are getting deployed at the right time, where they’re needed, when they’re needed.

"We cover humanitarian supply chain and we understand the nuances of how difficult and complex the frontline can be. We make sure the deployments of the right people are sent to the right places.

"In short, we understand the complexities of working in chronic complex settings and in first phase emergency response."


Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Our experience in humanitarian disasters began in logistics and it continues to be at the heart of our response. We are renowned for delivering to the last mile, even in the most challenging and remote environments. We build on our expertise and continue to grow our capability, offering:

  • A core roster of logistics experts
  • Access to surge staff
  • A history of helping the UK stockpile relief items for rapid global dispatch
  • Pioneering expertise in deploying aircraft loaders in disasters to avoid airport bottlenecks
  • A track record that speaks for itself...In 2018 and beyond, there are exponential opportunities to deliver disaster relief faster, better and to hard-to-reach communities. We work alongside technologists and emerging suppliers to exploit technology for good.

2013: 500 tonnes of food and relief items after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013

2014: 2,037 tonnes of cargo delivered to Sierra Leone in 90 days during the Ebola outbreak

2017: 48 tonnes of aid delivered to the Caribbean within four days of Hurricane Irma, including 5,000 solar lights and 6,000 hygiene kits

For 25 years, we have helped develop, shape and lead the global disaster response system. We are trusted to work at every level from government to aid agency. We understand the complexities of multilateral needs and have built the relationships and negotiating know-how that can cut through in times of crisis. We know the system, because we helped build the system:

  • Our staff were founding members of the UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination team and continued to help its field teams strengthen their capacity through training
  • We helped put in place critical international coordination through our development of the International Humanitarian Partnership
  • Our team invented the Triplex training simulation - the foremost exercise in the industry and continued to help facilitate its delivery over the years

We build effective strategies and tools for remote management, supporting national NGOs to deliver genuinely flexible, adaptable and responsive support where donors and INGOs cannot. This draws on our experience managing funds in various protracted crises, from delivering healthcare in South Sudan to humanitarian response in Myanmar and third party monitoring in Somalia. We do this by:

  • Setting up teams to provide specialist deployment, logistics and procurement capability
  • Packaging remote management and risk mitigation tools for actors working in fragile contexts with a strong focus on due diligence
  • Providing logistics services to agencies and national governments as a stand alone package to work alongside with frontline service provision
  • Providing financial services to national NGOs or consortia or bringing savings to donors in their fund management responsibilities

We manage the entire supply chain process including expediting, inspection, consolidation, transport, warehousing, insurance and clearance.

In response to the Ebola epidemic, we built and operated the supply chains that in one year reduced weekly Ebola cases in Sierra Leone from 537 to zero. The speed in which we were able to respond was unrivalled, in a situation that demanded urgency like no other:

  • Within 72 hours we sourced and delivered stocks of the 600 items needed to build the first Ebola Treatment Centre in Freetown.

  • We procured and distributed over 10 million individual items from over 240 suppliers including pharmaceuticals, laboratory supplies, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and infrastructure.

  • We supplied more than 2 million kilos of product lines in a 48 hour rotation to deliver on our promise of ‘No Stock Outs’.

Crown Agents is trusted the world over to deliver on its promises. This is no accident. We build on 180 years’ experience of international affairs. Our knowledge of the geopolitical landscape and humanitarian operations are world-class.

Our optimism is undimmed. Progress in technology and international coordination present a tremendous opportunity for humanitarian work.

In 2018 and beyond, there are exponential opportunities to deliver disaster relief faster, better and to hard-to-reach communities. We work alongside technologists and emerging suppliers to exploit technology for good.

Successful, evidence-rich pilots in drone capability and solar power put us in an ideal position to take modern disaster response to the next level. We are ready to deliver and to push the boundaries of human ability.

As demonstrated by decades of shaping the sector on behalf of the British Government, we are committed to improving the system at every turn.

We are pioneers. We are humanitarians. We are Crown Agents /

Credits and acknowledgements

Humanitarians Behind The Headlines interactive story and Ops Room 360 VR drama written and produced by Unfold Stories

Video footage: courtesy CNN, BBC, JICA. Photography: Bosnia - Crown Agents, Alan Matthews, Unfold Stories; Tsunami - Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos, Asian Development Bank, Philip Upson; Haiti earthquake - Moises Saman/Magnum Photos, DFID/UK FireService, Marco Dormino/United Nations, Ed Hawkesworth/DFID, Anissa Toscano, DFID; Ebola in Sierra Leone - Simon Davis/Unfold Stories, Simon Davis/DFID, James Fulker/DFID, Jessica Seldon/DFID, Carl Osmond/Royal Navy; Future of the Frontline - Andrew McConnell/Panos, Russell Watkins/DFID, Simon Davis/Unfold Stories, Jessica Lea/DFID; Other - Assorted photographs from the Crown Agents archives, Jack-Benny Persson/Flickr, Discostu/Wikimedia Commons, MyXyloto/Wikimedia Commons,