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Headquarters LONDON, ENGLAND Headquarters staff 40

44 171 487 2505

No Of Overseas staff 60
Fax 44 171 487 4042 Local Staff 600
E-mail HQ@MERLIN.ORG.UK Budget £4.5 million (1996)
Formed 1993 Public Donations £250,000 (1996)
Chief Executive Alastair Troup

CVs to


by Killian Forde

MERLIN (Medical Emergency Relief International) - first surfaced during the Bosnian war. This organisation is 5 years old this year - it developed rapidly since its conception in a West London living room in 1993. For its early, brave and lasting presence in both Chechnya, Afghanistan and in Nagorno Karabhak where it undertook a programme of child immunisation whilst the capital was under siege and missile attack, has earned them a fiery no-nonsense hands-on reputation. Merlin's work in Rwanda earned it the prestigious Pierre Straus prize in 1996. Field Exchange spoke to Dr Christopher Besse the charming, chatty, and energetic co-founder and director of MERLIN.

In 1992 Christopher found himself in the former Yugoslavia working for WHO with the brief to coordinate the medical supplies programme in the region. After toying with the idea of setting up an NGO he returned home and started to plan. Like all great ideas this one developed a life of its own. Whilst on holiday in France a management consultant friend of Christopher's, Nicholas Mellor phoned to say that he had news that billionaire financier and philantropist George Soros was looking to donate some money to the former Yugoslavia. Soros had indicated to the UN that he was willing to donate a million pounds to an NGO for food aid targeted at Sarajevo. The money was conditional on an immediate start -within three weeks. At this stage MERLIN had no office - it was Christopher's front room, no staff, no transport, no food and was not even registered as a charity.

During his time with WHO Christopher had investigated the composite rations of the different armies of the west, and had concluded that the British army ration was the most nutritionally appropriate and suitable for somewhere like Bosnia. Christopher negotiated to buy a million pounds worth of these rations. The next hurdle was the British Charity Commissioners, who informed MERLIN that it would take three months to register as a charity. Undeterred, Christopher, Nicholas and a bunch of friends from Oxford "went for it". Christopher estimated they worked flat out for 22 or 23 days and nights to get the paperwork together. The all- nighters paid off, and the final piece of the jigsaw was moving the food from British army barracks in Germany to Bosnia. From his previous work in Bosnia, Christopher knew of a reliable trucking company who would look after the logistics, and with 15 rapidly recruited volunteers they headed off from Germany with their million pounds worth of British army rations.

That MERLIN evolved into the organisation it is now, is a testament to Christopher's experience with WHO in Yugoslavia. He had seen too many small agencies who "were really committed and had a bagfull of goodwill" embark on missions and make "a mess of things". He explains that the lack of professionalism, working in somewhere like Sarajevo, meant you could become a hindrance rather than the help that you intended. "If you go to Sarajevo at night and your lights don't work or your car breaks down, you quickly become a pain in the neck to everyone else who have to bail you out of trouble". Christopher believed that MERLIN had to consolidate their logistical set-up, and so for the first year concentrated on prioritising their efforts and resources on ensuring that the logistical structures of the organisation were in place. The MERLIN directors worked for over a year unpaid, ensuring that "logistically we didn't cut corners and compromise people" because, Christopher adds, "there is nothing worse than something unforeseen or silly happening and your agency having no back up or support in place".

Christopher speaks proudly of his overseas staff, volunteers paid a subsistence allowance to work in some of the world's most difficult situations. He claims that one of the main reasons that he wanted to set up an aid agency was to give people the opportunity to use their skills overseas. His work as a registrar in British hospitals and his experiences with MSF and WHO led him to the realisation that there were "plenty of people who had lots of skills, but hadn't any opportunity to work overseas in emergencies". The bigger agencies such as Oxfam or SCF, he claims, were not interested in personnel unless they had two years overseas experience. "My view was, that there are some really really good people out there and I knew plenty of colleagues of mine who, if provided with good leadership would be perfectly suitable". Christopher wants fit, energetic, young, dynamic and bright people who are "willing to get their hands dirty".

Although MERLIN has grown rapidly in the last five years, its budget for 1997 was eight times larger than it was in 1993, "MERLIN wants to stay small". Bigger agencies have multiple programmes, in both the emergency and development sector. When setting up the organisation the MERLIN directors studied other agencies and felt that, as their work load expanded their expertise became diluted. MERLIN, Christopher says, would operationally, collaborate with a specialised organisation or company, rather than trying to compete with the bigger agencies and end up stretching themselves thin on the ground. He explains that he recognised a niche that MERLIN could fill: "I felt that the medical sector was not well catered for from the UK agencies, but rather as a general bit added onÓ. He continues "if you stay focused you can do things to a very high standard".

Recently Christopher "sacked himself" as he believed that it was time to let the "young ones take over". He plans to write a book about his extraordinary experiences in the various countries he has worked, which will incorporate some ideas about "humanitarianism and its philosophy". He feels that the important values of humanitarianism are beginning to slip away and hopes that MERLIN can hold on to these values. Looking ahead he says that MERLIN will continue to work in refugee situation but feels that the continuing commercialisation and globalisation of the planet will ensure that health spending will continue to fall. Operationally Christopher thinks that MERLIN will come up against further barriers relating to access and security, as the world's conflicts become increasingly internalised. "We are going to see more Chechynas, Sierra Leones, Afghanistans and Rwandas - which means that the people that you used to be able to assist in camps are going to be very difficult to reach, as they will be intermingled with the general population, making them incredibly difficult to identify".

Imported from FEX website


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