Blue Grit: Humanitarian action stories by UNICEF former staff Ulf T. Kristoffersson 2015

Blue Grit: A Life on the Front Lines of Humanitarian Action with the United Nations, paperback – Feb 24, 2015

available at


I added my review at amazon site :

Extreme international service for peace-building; staying hopeful; giving reasons and striking lessons, captivating details…

An honest story of the range of motivations for serving the world; why some might continue to go back into dangerous situations; and when it may be time to serve in other ways. Bringing in former Secretary-General Hammarskjold, and others who ultimately gave their lives for this dream is always sobering …and helps to set the stage for a dedicated life. His younger experience of serving on a merchant ship exposed him to hardship and disappointment. This made him wary of jumping into situations but obviously didn’t cure him of his adventurous spirit and willingness to risk.

He has praise for public figures who experience difficult situations to raise awareness (e.g. Audrey Hepburn p.139)

The book also shows why working with dictators and un savory characters may be necessary to save those under their influence from disease or death. Gives compelling examples of why aid cannot be “predicated on social conditions or good governance”. It illustrates compromises and tricky decisions that are required to be made on short notice in emergency situations …when there are not perfect solutions but sometimes only ways to survive until the next critical point. The account has a poetic sense of believing the hidden but “real beauty” of the effort will eventually be known — if determination is continuous. ”GRIT”

Some colleagues from early adventures went on to very distinguished careers in the un, unicef and other international organizations. They were obviously helped by tackling the unexpected problems together that life in the field provided. (he names names). This is the strength of the un system that comes “more from its humanity than from its organization”. (p.11)
He gives specific credit to individuals and teams; their unique contributions and characteristics – with some real “characters”. Sharing life threating incidents, dealing with local tyrants while trying to “stand on principle and getting results”. In the geopolitical hornets’ nest he was assigned to, there was no avoiding some of the strings attached to local despot’s agreement to at least not stand in way of assistance reaching those most in need.

Grateful for the public’s support, he is dismayed by some calling for action by UN organizations without understanding the difficulties and contradictions on the ground. His experience in Cambodia of addressing why thousands of refugees leave their home and what will make them return seems to have some good lessons for the refuge crises now taking place in the Mediterranean or elsewhere. The difficulty of deciding how permanent to make temporary structures is just one example of challenges and the impact on the families and especially children living for long periods in these situations.

When there are many things that need to be done to make the world safe for humanity, like others before him (including UNICEF leaders like Grant etc,), he makes clear that “Child survival “ is a most important goal to be highlighted…

Having been “shot at, taken hostage, bombed, threatened and evacuated”. He has witnessed “evidence of massacres and famines as well as put colleagues in body bags”….Calling his experience as an international civil servant in the field “neither extraordinary or average” is telling. He shares a valuable perspective, of need for headquarters formal “High level agreements” and also seat of the pants “bush diplomacy”.

He discusses the difficult question “Does the possibility of saving even one life justify risking the lives of would be saviors?’ (p.19) As relevant today as 30 years ago he examines with examples in this telling, the significance of a symbolic force in conflict zones. Some unorthodox professional endeavors had positive local community and personal outcomes. The common sense team building activities he incorporated in outposts bears emulating.

Having little local resources, if much of the countries budget (and even external aid) is directed toward the military sometimes provided an opportunity. Only when the situation was desperate were UNICEF with others organizations finally invited in. However, the timing led to less entrenched central bureaucratic resistance as they aimed for a scaled -up health system with local participation to serve future on going needs.

He introduces the fraught conversation of who is “a terrorist”; which of questionable state leaders are supported and the practical effect on which populations are protected.

He makes clear his belief in the “fundamental principles of humanitarian aid” and dismay that such principles ae not universally recognized. (p. 137) He illustrates that when hard fought but realistic local agreements are reached they lead to growing support for the Geneva conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

He highlights the tragic situation the peace keepers, and humanitarian workers in his lifetime have gone form shield to target. The UN organizations sending their staff in harm’s way are underfunded and over committed. Just some of the problems he highlights are:
• Sense of work never done. There are “endless victims in the world and that their defenders can become victims too”
• Crime epidemic – a painful realization that “no humanitarian provision can fully counterbalance the inherent instability of an impoverished, stateless, hopeless population with limited options.”
• UN Assistance can only enter if invited by governing authority of country and has resolution of the 15 member state security council.
• “What is the personal threshold for risk in commitment to the work for the UN…What should be the UN’s institutional threshold for the servants who do its work”?
• “Tragedy always occurs in the grey zones between security and insecurity, between peace and war, between aid and neglect. Humanity lives in danger zones; humanitarian assistance must too” 176

For those who wonder after all of the above how the author feels about his experience, it is summed up with: “I gave it the best years of my life, but the hard work that I was entrusted to do as a UN worker has given me more personal satisfaction than I can ever repay.” He shares how he is trying to repay with his continuing support and NGO work. The gift of his stories is part. Reading also made me grateful for his family and friends who encouraged and assisted the effort.

  • review by adhiratha keefe



About adhiratha

I joined the UN Secretariat in 1973 and UNICEF in 1974. During 2005-2006 I was on loan from UNICEF to UN Secretariat for special projects and between 2007 to 2010 was a consultant specialist for UNFPA. Have also been consultant or unpaid volunteer for various NGO's . My fathers favorite quote from Sri Chinmoy was : "There is only one perfect road and that road is ahead of you ,, Always Ahead of you...". Association with organizations that seek to implement the UN Charters goal of practical "oneness" feels like an inner connection or reality that is not time or position bound.
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