Newsmaker: Out of the shadows - Carolyn Miller Chief executive, Merlin

Mathew Little

If Carolyn Miller envisaged her first month as chief executive of Merlin as a period of gradual acclimatisation, meeting the team and getting on top of the issues, fate had other ideas.

Just eight days before her new year start date, the South Asian tsunamis struck. Miller was hurled into frantic co-ordination of the medical relief charity's emergency response to one of the biggest natural disasters in human history. She has scarcely had time to draw breath since.

Just back to Merlin's inner London headquarters from a flying visit to see its relief work in Sri Lanka, the former Department for International Development director says the charity has remained faithful to its guiding philosophy of co-operating with public authorities rather than creating a parallel infrastructure that will fall apart if it pulls out.

"We've been working with the Sri Lankan health ministry on a day-to-day basis," she says. "They can see what else we can bring, but we are also working within what they are trying to do. Since it happened, people there have been working almost without sleep to set up alternative health facilities and keep a service going - they need support in doing that."

Since its creation 12 years ago by a British GP, Merlin has carved out a niche for itself that has earned the respect of international agencies such as the World Health Organisation and ministries of health worldwide.

It now operates in 17 countries, employs more than 100 specialist medical staff and reaches about 16 million beneficiaries. But in terms of public recognition in the UK, it struggles to escape from the shadow cast by behemoths such as Oxfam and Save the Children. It is an anonymity Miller is resolved to end.

"It's fascinating to me how well known Merlin is in the international sector, and how little known it is in the UK," she says. "We do have to promote better. We're doing all the right things, it's just that we have to find different ways of letting people know. We hope this year to invest in that area."

Ironically, however, the charity stops itself from publicising its most interesting work. Merlin has shown no qualms about working in some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones - it was the first NGO to enter rebel-held territory during the flare-up of Liberia's civil war in 2003 and one of the last to leave Iraq, for example. Yet for months before it quit Baghdad, it was operating under a self-imposed media blackout for fear of drawing unwanted attention to its presence.

"We have to be particularly careful what we say about the work we do in certain countries," Miller laments. "We want more profile with the public so people realise what we're doing, but there's a lot of good work we can't talk about."

The oxygen of publicity has gradually come to Merlin nonetheless, helped by its role in the tsunami relief effort. Miller sees this encroachment onto the public radar as helping it to loosen its financial dependence on the state. The more people know about what Merlin does, they more they will give. At present, just 10 per cent of the charity's income comes from the public.

Her reasons for seeking independence from Whitehall are practical rather than ideological. During the Iraq war, she was Middle East director for DfID, and defends the department's relationship with the NGO sector in the face of doubts from most charities about the humanitarian justification for the war.

But she says aid agencies need a nimbleness that reliance on government can inhibit. "Getting too much from statutory sources limits your ability to respond fast. You need a good proportion of your own money," she says.

"You can't respond fast enough when you're Šwaiting for a grant."

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