Changing the way we change the world

Coffee talk – Merlin (not the wizard)

This is part of an occasional series that I’m calling “Coffee Talk” (in homage to a Saturday Night Live skit). I get to talk to many people about their organization’s water and sanitation models, their experiences with monitoring, and what they happen to be thinking about right now, and I thought I would share those conversations. These blogs are intended to reflect the nature of my conversations as I remember them (since I’m usually scribbling notes on a napkin), and are not intended to be direct quotes.  These blogs are not meant to be endorsements or full profiles of any organization, person, or company.

Merlin USA event
October 17, 2011
New York, NY

Today I went to the Yale Club for a Merlin event.  While it wasn’t an intimate conversation over coffee, they provided a nice lunch, and coffee, so I thought this would count as a “coffee talk.”  (By the way, this is Merlin the aid organization, not the wizard.)  I had not heard of Merlin until my friend Theresa started working for them.  Merlin started in the UK but is now reaching out to US donors.

After looking at their fact sheet, I was more surprised that I hadn’t heard of them.  Merlin currently works in 15 countries around the world and employs 5000 people, most of whom are national, field based staff.  In 2010, Merlin’s annual budget was over $90 million.

The speakers were Tim Butcher, journalist and author of “Chasing the Devil,” and Linda Doull, Director of Health & Policy for Merlin.  Christiane Amanpour was supposed to be the moderator but she had a family emergency.

Below are a few of the comments that I liked during the lively conversation.  They are in no particular order since I was once again scribbling in the margins of my program.

Linda: My motivation is people’s right to healthcare.  Merlin is trying to bring evidence to decision makers.  Often decisions about aid are made from far way, and have tremendous impact.
Tim: Getting Africa right impacts us all.  We have a common humanity.

Tim: Many people think of Africa either as chaos or as a safari.  I made my journeys (trekking through Congo and Liberia) to get away from the clichés and fill in the gaps in understanding.
Linda:  Africa is able to help itself.  We can help a health practitioner with information and equipment.
Tim: One carefully placed health practitioner can have a multiplier effect.  Just one midwife has probably saved thousands of lives (mothers and children).

Linda:  Don’t expect things to happen quickly.  Patience is needed.  Mozambique is a good example.  Health improvements took 17 years or more, but significant changes have taken place.
Tim:  Great Britain took 600 years to reach stability.  The European Union and the United States are unions forged through blood.   I saw a fighting spirit in rural areas of Liberia: a fight to survive.

Linda:  Merlin will leave countries when we stop being relevant or adding value.  Here’s a great example: in a meeting with the Liberia Minister of Health, he asked, “When is Merlin leaving our country?”   He went on to explain that they didn’t want to have external support, but they probably needed it a bit longer.   The way we work has changed over time.  In some countries, we’ve gone from direct health service delivery to supporting county health management teams with monitoring and evaluation and management skills, to the national level where we help inform the shaping of health policies.

Tim:  When people ask about the scale of the problem I point out the scale of the possible solutions.   Look at the huge potential of cell phones.  The first operation with advice over the phone was done by a Merlin physician.
Linda:  Cell phones allow us to see what’s going on in areas we couldn’t reach before.

Linda: We constantly go back and look at what we did and revise where necessary.  Aid organizations need to adapt.

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