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Hugh Bonneville: It's so inspiring to see Merlin's committed workforce in action

Hugh Bonneville
Sunday 18 December 2011 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Reading stories like today's article by Emily Dugan and Shaista Aziz is a great way to find out about Merlin. I have also been lucky to see Merlin in action. Privileged, in fact. This plucky British-founded medical charity responds to problems in some of the world's toughest countries, providing life-saving medical care, restoring shattered health services and making vulnerable communities more resilient.

To bid for an original signed photograph of the Downton Abbey cast, click HERE

In my seven years as patron, I have watched the organisation grow to a workforce of 5,000, providing access to healthcare to 20 million people every year. My role involves raising awareness of and funds for the charity. This summer, I was delighted to host a gala dinner and auction at the Savoy Hotel, alongside Joanna Lumley, Downton Abbey's creator, Julian Fellowes, and many of the Downton cast, who are fast becoming fans of Merlin. Together, we raised £92,000 for Merlin's programmes around the world.

Much of this money went to Merlin's amazing work in East Africa, where teams have been working round the clock to set up feeding programmes. The success of these was documented in a second story for The IoS Christmas Appeal. The article focused on a young girl who was at risk of losing her life to malnutrition. Now, six months after Merlin's intervention, she is thriving. A small story, perhaps, but for me this was symbolic of what I know about Merlin and its tenacious staff.

I first became involved with Merlin in 2005, when I took a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo where the charity has been working since 1997. The grim conditions of the health workers, their long hours, low pay and basic living conditions – these were all worse than I expected. The patients included young, starving children with distended stomachs, and women with horrific tales of rape. The kinds of stories I had heard on documentaries were now being told to me in person. Suddenly, it was all very real and I was struck by the worrying thought of what would happen if Merlin were not there.

And yet the staff were cheerful and focused. Their commitment is phenomenal and they deserve our support. On average, 96p of every £1 Merlin spends goes to its health programmes.

Quite rightly, Merlin prides itself on the speed with which it responds to emergencies, such as the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. But it's the staying on after the media has gone that struck me most – the way that Merlin's teams pull together to make things better in the longer term.

The midwifery care in Liberia is an excellent example of this. Making childbirth safer is a key aim of Merlin, which, with the Liberian Ministry of Health, has set up a midwifery school. There is a long way to go to transform the maternal mortality rate, still one of the worst in the world, but things are moving in the right direction. The few health workers the country has are struggling to cope with the demand. They provide the kind of medical care we in the UK take for granted, like immunisations and antenatal care. They also provide health services to combat diseases and illnesses of which we have little experience: severe malnutrition, malaria, cholera and tropical diseases.

Watching Merlin's health workers is uplifting. They work in places other aid agencies shy away from and they succeed when failure looks more likely. With the most basic of surroundings and equipment, Merlin staff are changing lives. Every day.

Hugh Bonneville stars as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, which will be shown on Christmas Day on ITV1 at 9pm

Charity auction: Bid for an original signed 'Downton Abbey' photograph

Bidding is open for an original framed photograph of the Downton Abbey cast, signed by the actors. All proceeds from the sale will go towards the IoS Appeal for Merlin. The 41in by 52in picture is set in a gold wooden frame. Bids start at £1,000 on eBay and the sale closes on Wednesday at 10am. To bid, go to Downton Photo

To make a donation visit: or call 0800 035 6035 (24 hour, seven days a week - donation line).

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