Addressing the Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam: Ford Foundation and U.S. Department of State and Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the harmful effects of Agent Orange and dioxin used during the war by U.S. forces are still being felt by millions of people in Vietnam — something Charles Bailey didn’t know when he was charged with running the Ford Foundation’s office there. He soon discovered how sensitive the issue was — so much so it had become a sticking point between the Vietnamese and U.S. governments, with bitterness on one side and denial on the other. The toxic atmosphere left Bailey unable to make but three grants on the issue during his first several years.

Those grants, however, were key to building trust with the Vietnamese and establishing the foundation’s credibility. One grant was simply a donation to the Vietnam Red Cross for an Agent Orange victims’ fund at a time when the U.S. government was unhappy with anyone who would give money to such a fund. “This established that we were independent of the U.S. government as a private foundation,” Bailey noted. Another was a grant to the Ministry of Health for scientific studies that, together with the work of a Canadian environmental research firm, began to identify dioxin’s potent effects on the environment by measuring the soil around former U.S. military bases: “By using a Canadian firm that had actually been working there previously, it gave the findings an international standing that was difficult for anyone to dispute.” The grants also had the effect of “throwing new light on the issue — in this case, by scientific evaluation that helped get people beyond the usual sticking points.”

Things finally began to shift in November 2005, when President Bush visited Vietnam and issued a joint statement acknowledging that the U.S.-Vietnam relationship would improve dramatically if the U.S. were to help clean up dioxin at former military storage sites. Although the statement failed to mention the health effects of dioxin, it was the first time the issue had been raised in a context that intimated U.S. responsibility for addressing it. That it was mentioned at all was due in part to Bailey’s efforts to help arrange media coverage of the President’s visit, which prompted other government officials to urge that the sentence be added to the statement. “It didn’t mean everything was solved, but it was a major turning point,” Bailey remembered. “What was interesting was that it didn’t involve any grantmaking at all. It was simply being alert to an enormous media opportunity.”

The event paved the way for Bailey and others working on the issue to approach the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs to brainstorm next steps. With resources from the DOS, work began on a technical survey and beginning cleanup efforts — a task that both Vietnam and the U.S. were ready to tackle. “The American side didn’t have the money to do this,” says Bailey, “but the foundation did, so we funded the series of steps that have now made the dioxin hot spot at Da Nang almost history.”

The lesson here, Bailey concluded, is that “once the two sides began to sort of open up just a tiny bit — while not wanting to do more than that — a private foundation was able to come in and say, ‘Look guys, let’s find the area of common ground, what can we do that would be useful, what’s it going to cost. We’ll provide some funding. But let’s get going and do it in a way that produces results that we can all celebrate.’”

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