The transformational moment for Carroll County-based IMA World Health came the day in 2000 when it won the United States government's approval to run what became a $28 million health project in the beleaguered Democratic Republic of Congo.
"It was like going from sandlot baseball to the big leagues in one jump," recalled Paul Derstine, president of IMA, an association of 12 Protestant relief and development agencies.
IMA started in 1960 as a clearinghouse for drugs donated by Merck and other pharmaceuticals. For years, it operated quietly on the New Windsor campus of the Church of the Brethren, shipping drugs and medical supplies to Africa and elsewhere for member agencies.
After Derstine came aboard in 1992, IMA - known then as Interchurch Medical Assistance - began to branch out. In 1994, it used a church-based network in Tanzania to distribute donated medicine to treat river blindness.
Still, the deal to oversee the five-year Congo project marked IMA's arrival as a player on the development scene and its emergence as a group that could channel large flows of money, in addition to getting drugs to clinics in distant spots around the globe.
The U.S. government liked how IMA ran that program, known as Sanru III, and last year awarded it a second Congo project. This one, Project AXxes, is even bigger at $42 million and is intended to improve health care for 8 million people in eastern Congo. IMA remains a lean organization, with 42 employees, 22 of them in New Windsor; its revenue last year was $124 million, mostly in donated drugs and supplies.
With AXxes, IMA has overall coordinating duties. Its point man is Larry Sthreshley, a Congo-based missionary on loan from the U.S. Presbyterian Church. His job is to conduct a small orchestra of partners such as the Presbyterian Church of Congo and Baltimore's Catholic Relief Services. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine will analyze health data to help keep the project on track.
Streshley's tasks run the gamut, from making sure container loads of drug shipments arrive to seeing that rural nurses understand how much they can charge patients for treatment. Yet Derstine calls it the "ideal model" because it relies mostly on existing health structures and on groups such as the local Protestant church.
"We really see as our mandate to try to go in and do as much through those fledgling national organizations as we can," Derstine said.
While the phaseout of Sanru III occurred before many health zones had reached sustainability, and while Derstine worries that AXxes will be too short at three years, he said IMA's approach augurs better for long-term success than those of many non-governmental organizations.
"Many international NGOs will recruit people from the States to go and represent them on the ground," he said. "It becomes a contract office of a U.S. agency. One problem is we all talk about capacity building, but when the projects end, those tend to fold their tent and go home ."
In Congo, his hope is that long after IMA goes home, local organizations will be able to keep the tent in place - and keep the population healthier.