In 2006, Daniel Berman came to South Africa to establish the MSF SA office. Now, six years later MSF South Africa welcomes him home as general director.
Previously based in Geneva as acting director of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, Berman worked on the campaign’s HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition and vaccine portfolios. He previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry. Berman spoke to e-Mamela about why he left the private sector and what it’s like to come home.
Question: What made you leave the private sector to join MSF?
Answer: “I was working on communications for a big public relations agency and my clients were drug companies. I saw things in drug companies that were not very ethical, and it motivated me to work to improve access to medicines.
“I wanted to use my knowledge of drugs to address the way the pharmaceutical industry and medicines pricing worked to unfairly block people in developing countries from accessing the medicines they needed.”
Q: What were some of your early experiences with MSF?
A: “I had the opportunity to see a lot of HIV projects in places like Kenya, Uganda, and obviously South Africa.
“When I started with MSF in 1999, we were treating people for AIDS-related opportunistic infections and relieving their pain because HIV treatment wasn’t available. We watched people die needlessly because there were no antiretroviral drugs [ARVs].
“In places like South Africa, the first thing MSF focused on – with the Treatment Action Campaign and our projects here – was getting ARVs to people who needed them. What struck me the most was that MSF wasn’t arrogant enough to think we could do something alone. That attitude was was absolutely critical to success.
“To see the evolution from that time until today – when there is access to HIV treatment and people can go on with their lives – has made me proud to be at MSF.”
Q: What does a general director do?
“A general director is ultimately responsible for MSF South Africa - that means supporting heads of departments and their teams. The general director also works with the board to develop the organisation’s vision, and role in South Africa and MSF internationally as part of a global network.”
Q: What’s it like coming back to South Africa?
“It’s an emotional experience to come back as general director. I’m delighted by how much MSF South Africa has grown.
“MSF has had a strong presence in clinics in South Africa since 1999. The idea behind establishing the office was to give South Africans a way to participate in MSF. Today, South Africans are recruited and work for MSF all over the world – that’s one of the most exciting things for me.
"We’ve had a record number of 41 people recruited from this office this year alone – and this is in addition to the very significant programmes we have in country. We also have the significant support of South Africans donors, who make our work around the world possible."