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5 Questions for...Charles Bailey, Director, Agent Orange in Vietnam Program

August 19, 2013

Headshot_charles_baileyFrom 1997 to 2007, Charles Bailey was the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam. At the start of his posting, the war in Vietnam had been over for more than twenty years, but one of its legacies, environmental contamination caused by the U.S. military's use of Agent Orange, was an under-addressed concern. Bailey looked into the facts of Agent Orange use in the Southeast Asian country and began to develop a vocabulary that American and Vietnamese officials could use to discuss the issue. After a few years, Ford invited the Aspen Institute, which has expertise in facilitating difficult conversations, to initiate a dialogue around the issue, and the two governments began to talk. Eventually, the United Nations, other NGOs and foundations, and several European governments joined the conversation.

But one thing was missing, says Bailey, and that was a way to connect the American public to the effort. With his encouragement, Active Voice, a social documentary shop in San Francisco, put together a three-minute public-service video, "Make Agent Orange History," while San Francisco State University contributed fresh reporting to the discussion through its Vietnam Reporting Project. In 2011, Bailey moved to the Aspen Institute, where he continues to support dialogue, advocacy, and public education around the issue.

Recently, PND spoke with Bailey about the Agent Orange program and what remains to be done.

Philanthropy News Digest: Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang recently met with President Obama in Washington, D.C. Why was the meeting significant?

Charles Bailey: President Sang is the second Vietnamese head-of-state to visit the U.S. since the two countries normalized relations in 1995, and his visit was an important opportunity to celebrate the remarkable progress made since 2007 in at last addressing the legacy of Agent Orange. Over the last six years, our Agent Orange in Vietnam Program has had a hand in raising over $100 million to assist Vietnam to begin to deal with this legacy from the U.S.-Vietnam War. Even more important for the future, President Obama and President Sang issued a joint statement at the end of their talks on July 26 that contained a key statement: "The president reaffirmed the United States' commitment to providing further medical and other care and assistance for people with disabilities, regardless of cause."

I published an op-ed in the Huffington Post on the occasion urging both presidents to take advantage of this breakthrough and include language on disability services and rights as part of a new comprehensive partnership agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam.

PND: Why was Agent Orange a disaster for the people of Vietnam?

CB: The U.S. military decided to use defoliants during the Vietnam War as a way of clearing forest cover. Agent Orange was a chemical that at the time was widely used in American agriculture to kill weeds. In Vietnam, however, we sprayed millions and millions of gallons of it in concentrations up to fifty times what the manufacturer recommended.

Wherever Agent Orange was sprayed, it pretty effectively killed all crops, trees, shrubs, and other vegetation. We did that for ten years, from 1961 to 1971. By the end of this time we had denuded an area nearly the size of Massachusetts of all the things that people in a rural economy need, forcing millions of Vietnamese farmers and their families to leave their homes and migrate to urban areas. It became clear later that much of the Agent Orange sprayed on Vietnam was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic byproduct of the manufacturing process. This dioxin residue persists at a small number of localized hot spots in central and southern Vietnam.

PND: Hot spots?

CB: The planes that did the spraying were based at a small number of airbases. Agent Orange and other herbicides used in the spraying campaign were shipped to those bases from the U.S. in steel drums and then stored and mixed right there on the base, before being loaded into tanks in the aircraft. After a load had been sprayed, the planes would return to the base, their tanks would be washed out, and then they would reload and go out on another spraying flight. This went on day after day, year after year.

Invariably, there was spillage involved in the handling and storage of these chemicals, and over time the toxic residue, especially dioxin, built up in the soil. In the case of the Da Nang air base, well over one hundred thousand of these drums were stored, decanted, mixed, and discarded during the ten years of the campaign. It created a mess that is still very much there, and they are what is known as hot spots. Fortunately the contamination is very localized and the number of hot spots is small.

PND: Does the program hope to remediate all the hot spots in Vietnam?

CB: We began with a survey of all former U.S. military bases in Vietnam that produced a list of some two dozen suspected hot spots. Of these, three stood out for their high levels of contamination -- Da Nang, Phu Cat, and Bien Hoa. Da Nang proved to be the starting point. About 2007, I was able to say, "We're not in complete agreement here, but we all agree that what happened was a terrible disaster that never should have happened. So let's start where we have a good chance of success, and that's by working together to clean up the hot spot at the Da Nang airbase." By January 2008 we had completed soil measurements and cordoned off the contaminated soils. In August 2012, the two governments broke ground on a project to clean up all the dioxin at the Da Nang airbase. The project is expected to cost $84 million. It’ll be completed in 2016.

The much more fundamental issue, however, is the impact of dioxin on the people of Vietnam, an issue that continues to the present. The impact centered on those people who were exposed during the war -- civilians, soldiers, Americans, Vietnamese, and their descendants. Dioxin is linked to continuing health and disability issues for the people of Vietnam, similar to what our own veterans have experienced, but on a much larger scale.

PND: Are you making any progress on that front?

CB: One of the things I learned early on was that the issue was so contentious, so polarizing, that the principal actors were immobilized -- there was no movement toward a solution or even agreement on what a solution might look like.

So, what we did was work with the Vietnamese and Americans to create, in 2007, the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. And over the last six years the group has played an incredibly important role. It pointed out that we should look to the future, not chew over the past, and if we could do that, we would see that many aspects of the problem were resolvable. It said that we should take a humanitarian approach to health and disability issues, a position now adopted by both governments.

The group set several priorities, and in 2010 it released a Declaration & Plan of Action, which laid out what it would take to substantially resolve the Agent Orange issue over the next ten years, at a cost of $300 million. That covers clean up of the hot spots, health and disability programs, and restoring soils in areas that had been sprayed. The group raised the figure to $450 million in 2012, as the real costs of the clean up at Da Nang and Bien Hoa became clearer.

The American and Vietnamese members of the group bring diverse backgrounds and expertise and are well known and respected in their countries. They don't need to defend official policies or perspectives because they are acting as private citizens. They can listen and talk and try out ideas, and, very importantly, seek consensus within the group. Susan Berresford, the former president of the Ford Foundation, has led on this issue right from the beginning. She backed me a hundred percent while I was Ford's representative in Vietnam, and she eventually became the convener of the dialogue group. To this day, she continues to be a source of wise counsel to both sides.

The largest part of this, of course, is the health programs and disability services for people who may have been exposed. And the key to making progress is that we don't argue about causes. We simply agree that there is a burden of disability and illness, particularly in areas that were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. It is a humanitarian issue we can and should do something about. We know how to do it, we know which programs and services help. All we need is to collaborate with an open heart with our Vietnamese partners to get it done -- and that's what we are doing.

-- Matt Sinclair

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Posted by Jon Funabiki  |   August 20, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Congratulations to Charles Bailey for his leadership on this difficult issue. Renaissance Journalism was proud to be associated with the effort through our Vietnam Reporting Project!

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