"It's a start'

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The authors of a ten-year plan to battle the effects of Agent Orange have witnessed the first trickle of US funding and hope for more

Two children affected by Agent Orange at Peace Village in Ho Chi Minh City's Tu Du Maternity Hospital, a home for Agent Orange victims. Despite growing declarations of goodwill from high-level US officials, funding for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims remains elusive.

The US House of Representatives has just approved a War Spending Bill which includes US$12 million for dioxin clean-up at Da Nang Airport during this fiscal year. The bill, passed on July 27, also approved an additional $13.3 billion in funding for US Veterans affected by the same chemical. The money symbolizes the first step in funding a $300 million, decade-long effort to remediate the effects of a chemical campaign waged by the US military during the Vietnam War.

"It's a good start," Congressman Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS), chairman of the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment told Thanh Nien Weekly by phone. "More needs to be done."

In June, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange and Dioxin, an independent consortium of scientists, private donors and policy-makers, issued a comprehensive ten-year action plan for the clean-up of highly toxic "hot spots" and the treatment of disabled people throughout Vietnam.

The group set a $30 million annual target to fund comprehensive restoration efforts - from the re-forestation of defoliated countryside to an improvement in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers. The hope was for the US to take the lead on the funding and spur private donations from American companies doing business in Vietnam.

The recent approval of spending signifies something of a victory for those who have worked hard to increase US funding to Agent Orange victims inside Vietnam - though it is unclear how far the money will travel. The language of the bill approves the $12 million in "assistance for Vietnam to support the remediation of dioxin contamination at the Da Nang Airport, which poses extreme risks to human health and welfare, and related health activities."

In a release made subsequent to the approval, Susan Hammond, director of the US-based War Legacies Project wrote: "How much, if any, of the funding recently allocated will go towards the "˜related health activities' is not yet known." Hammond added that some analysts have estimated that the cost of cleaning up the former base alone will run to $34 million.

The airport has received a great deal of attention of late.

Early this month, a delegation of three US Senators visited the Da Nang Airport, where American soldiers once loaded more than 11 million gallons of the dioxin-laced defoliant to be sprayed all over the country. The senators then toured a local facility designed to assist deformed and disabled victims of the fat-soluble chemical. According to the US-Vietnam Dialogue group's action plan, the American Institute of Medicine has linked dioxin to "cancers, diabetes, and nerve and heart disease among people directly and indirectly exposed, and to spina bifida among their offspring."

Because the known carcinogen is slow to break down, it can persist in soil, ponds and streams for generations. One study in Vietnam discovered high concentrations of the chemical in fatty tissue samples taken from fish and livestock living in heavily sprayed areas.

In an interview with a Vietnamese newspaper, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters he was aiming to raise between $20-30 million for victims here, a sum that represented a tenfold increase of the $3 million annual allotment that the US had set aside in the fiscal years of 2007, 2009 and 2010. During a recent interview, Rep. Faleomavaega (D-AS) referred to the $3 million as "just a pittance."

In response to a list of questions sent by Thanh Nien Weekly, Sen. Harkin's staff backed away from an exact figure, and confirmed only that Harkin would "continue to seek funding" for AO victims. "Things can change," a staffer noted in the response.

Meanwhile, at home, the US is trying to reconcile stark projections for the care of its retired soldiers and their offspring. Early this year, the US office of Veterans Affairs projected a $42.2 billion increase in domestic Agent Orange-related medical claims over the next decade.

Those affected in Vietnam have not been nearly as fortunate.

According to a report prepared last year by Michael Martin of the Congressional Research Service, much of the initial funding was spent on scientific research and did not reach Vietnamese victims. Since then, there has been greater interest in involving Vietnamese organizations in the effort. There is a hope among those involved in the process that future funding will have more of an impact on the day-to-day lives of the disabled and afflicted here.

Martin's report closed with a suggestion that the United States could stand to benefit from more generous involvement in the Agent Orange remediation efforts: "US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have undermined its global image," it said; and to restore its image, "the United States should more actively engage in "˜soft power' exercises, such as humanitarian assistance to Vietnam to address its "˜war legacy' problems."

Last week, during a visit aimed at discussing regional security, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made similarly vague pledges to increase funding for Vietnamese victims.

"We've been working with Vietnam for about nine years to try to remedy the effects of Agent Orange," Clinton told reporters. "I will work to increase our cooperation and make even greater progress together."

A State department spokesman declined to elaborate on any developments.

"We are increasing our funding," P.J. Crowley told Thanh Nien Weekly. "I don't know whether it will get to [$30 million per year]."

Phil Sparks, a spokesman for the Agent Orange in Vietnam Information Initiative, a lobbying group, said that a Senate appropriations committee has included $10 million in Vietnamese Agent Orange funding for the 2011 fiscal year. "[The $10 million] will be considered between now and the end of the year," Sparks said.

He attributes the sudden rise in funding to the publication of the report by the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group.

"They've opened the dialogue," Sparks said.

Despite a lack of firm commitments from private donors, members of the Vietnam-US Dialogue remain optimistic and hopeful.

Charles Bailey can remember arriving in Vietnam as the country liaison for the Ford Foundation in 1997, eager to take on the long-debated problem.

"It was a logjam," Bailey said. "People [on both sides] were not allowed to talk about it for various reasons."

Since that time, the Ford foundation has been lauded as one of the principal groups advancing the Agent Orange cause inside Vietnam. Based on figures released in the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group's plan of action, "the Ford Foundation has provided $11.7 million in grants to develop treatments and support for affected Vietnamese, test and contain contaminated soils, restore landscapes and educate the US public and policymakers on the issue."

Bailey said he is not concerned that no additional private funding has been committed since the plan's publication last month: "It's still early days."

Bailey did stress the need for "an increased sense of urgency" on the part of policymakers and potential donor corporations.

"There's a new spirit of hope," he said of the atmosphere created by the publication of the action plan. "It's good for people with disabilities; it's good for US-Vietnam relations. It's a window of opportunity and, as we know, windows open and they close."

David Devlin-Foltz, director of the Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program at the Aspen Institute (a major player in the International Dialogue group), said that he is firmly convinced of the United States' liability in Vietnam.

On a recent visit to Da Nang Airport, Devlin-Foltz and his colleagues recounted how they had been asked to don disposable shoes to protect themselves from the toxic chemicals that continue to seep up out of the ground.

"We could see and smell how negative the impact was," Devlin-Foltz said. Not far from where they stood, children continued to play in a pool of water.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the US has been calling for increased research on the actual effects of the chemical on the Vietnamese population. While it has come to acknowledge 13 conditions and diseases as associated with Agent Orange exposure in its own veterans, it has not done so for those who were on the receiving end of the spraying. Devlin-Foltz has attributed the long delay in US Agent Orange money to a fear of similar claims from war victims all over the world.

"[The refusal to extend US veteran benefits to Vietnamese victims] has largely to do with concern that it could be interpreted as an admission of legal liability that could open [the US government] up to massive damage claims," he said in a taped press conference.

Devlin-Foltz told Thanh Nien Weekly that he remains patient.

"The action plan calls for activity over a ten year period," he said. "If it ramps up over time, that's fine. What we are hoping to do with the [plan] is to make real change in the lives and livelihood of Vietnam."

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