Mulling over the MERF programme
Reflections from Melina Koutsis, MERF Programme Manager
Melina joined the Start Network in 2016. Before this she had been working with the International Rescue Committee in Mali as their grants manager, and this is where she had her first experience with the Start Network through two initiatives. The first was a Start Fund Alert (Alert 36) in response to internal displacement and the second was Start Response Ebola Preparedness Programme. Both these introduced Melina to very different ways of working with rapid and collaborative decision-making processes and implementation in just 45 days. Soon after, she joined the Start Network as a Start Fund Programme Officer establishing the Start Fund Regional Advisor roles as well as leading on a growing number of alerts, before moving to the Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF) in 2018 first as the Regional Coordinator based out of Tunis and then as the Programme Manager. She joined MERF as it started its second phase and here reflects on some of the learning along the way.
What were your first impressions of the MERF programme?
It was a really exciting time when I first joined the MERF programme. MERF sat within a much wider DFID (now FCDO) funded programme, the Safety, Support and Solutions (Phase 2) programme. They launched this with a kick-off meeting in North Africa with all the other partners including actors such as Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the British Red Cross, IOM, and UNICEF. There was this great energy from all sides, and a great expectation of what our impact could be and how we were going to collaborate, with DFID really encouraging us all to use evidence to make changes. It felt like a really big initiative. On the Start Network side, we also had new members joining the MERF, and for myself there was all this groundwork to be done, setting up workshops in the 11 countries covered by the MERF, understanding all the contexts and the needs. There was a great deal of excitement in setting up this programme.
Can you talk about some of your reflections?
Very soon after launching the MERF in August 2018, we had two alerts. The first was by Doctors of the World to respond to an influx of Sudanese asylum seekers in Agadez, Niger. It was not clear who was meant to provide support for them, and it seemed they were falling through the cracks. At the same time, an alert was raised in Morocco to respond to a spike in migrant numbers. Both these alerts exemplified the niche of the MERF but also its adaptability to different contexts. As the MERF responses are three months, rather than the 45-day window of the Start Fund, I was able to visit both of these, and it really helped me understand the challenges in providing assistance to migrants, in particular the importance of trust-building in effectively reaching this vulnerable group, a process that takes time but was really being championed by our members.
We achieved a lot, but there were also challenges, and I see some of these possible perils emerging with Start Fund COVID-19 as well. It is really difficult to manage a geographically focused, time-bound fund. Although we had two alerts almost immediately there were times when we had no alerts for significant periods of time. To me, it showed us that you need some flexibility in the mechanism. No matter how good your context analysis is initially, needs can change over time. There is a real added value in the Start Fund which is a truly global mechanism.
Where do you think the main success areas have been?
MERF had two objectives. The first was to respond to unforeseen needs along the migration routes and the second was to improve the understanding of migration where we operate. For the latter, we designed the Collaborative Information Collection and Analysis (CICA) grant for rapid needs assessments or more in-depth research pieces and that has been one of the more successful aspects of the MERF. From needs assessments (such as the one done in Mali and Tunisia), and pieces looking at the impact of COVID-19 and climate change, we have had really useful analysis and research done through our members and especially our two research partners, the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) and REACH/IMPACT Initiatives.
There was also a lot of internal learning that was done by the MERF team and two external pieces this year on accountability and the impact and role of the MERF in both the sector and the Start Network.
Do you think there would have been a place for a MERF 3?
We would not have been opposed to a MERF 3 but it would have to be in line with the Start Financing Facility (SFF) strategy. I think it will be a great strength to have more harmony in our financing approach through the SFF. There may be an opportunity for a migration thematic financing within the financing facility for a specific hub or a region, and the advantage of the SFF is there are pooled risks and flexibility so if there are no needs then it can be used for something else. One challenge is that migration is not as easily predictable as flooding or drought.
Migration responses also often need a longer window than the 45-day Start Fund response timeframe. Having said that, some of the MERF alerts would have fitted within the Start Fund niche aside from maybe the situation in Morocco which was more a chronic situation. There may be opportunities for longer responses in our funding mechanisms and interestingly Start Fund Bangladesh is currently trialling a second tranche funding approach which would extend the timeline of some of their alerts.
You are now leaving the Start Network with the close of MERF, do you have a parting message for us?
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on Start Network values lately. I remember when these were reviewed collaboratively by the whole team during a town hall meeting. One of these values is being brave and I think it is really important that the Start Network keeps doing this. Whether this is discussing the needs of migrants, which can be a sensitive topic or pushing our members, our donors, to work differently, I really hope the Start Network continues to do this. It is hard to change the system from the inside, but this is something that the Start Network is well known for, and I would encourage the Start Network to continue to be brave in making the humanitarian system a better place.