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Aid Official Details Scope of Relief to Tsunami Victims


VOA interview with Ed Fox,

Assistant Administrator for Legislative and Public Affairs, USAID

MR. JAMES BERTEL:

I'm joined now by Ed Fox, the Assistant Administrator of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mr. Fox, thank you for being here.

President Bush today, Wednesday, made a statement, saying that the United States is committed in the short term and the long term to help the people in the devastated areas. Let's begin by the short term. What is the United States doing right now?

MR. FOX:

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here today.

Obviously, this is a horrible tragedy, of historic proportion. USAID, the Agency for International Development, is the lead U.S. Government agency for both humanitarian and development assistance. As soon as we were alerted to this tragedy, we mobilized what's called a disaster assistance response team, which are a group of specialists that we have on staff, to help make assessments as to what the needs are. This team, originally consisting of 21 people, has been dispatched to the various countries throughout the area. We've set up a command center in Thailand and also in Sri Lanka. We're working with the U.S. military and others.

We have also committed an initial amount of $35 million for emergency immediate relief. And we are working to disburse those funds as quickly as possible to begin the relief effort.

I should point out that, of course, the most important job in some respects, and the most expensive job, will be the follow-on, longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction. But right now it's about saving lives.

MR. BERTEL:

Well, as you pointed out, time is of the essence here. So what is in the pipeline on the way there right now besides people, as far as supplies and other equipment?

MR. FOX:

Well, in this initial $35 million that I mentioned was a large contribution to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, so that they could mobilize their forces as well. In addition, we have supplies prepositioned around the world, and we have facilities in Dubai and the Philippines which we have already begun to draw down on. And we have planeloads of supplies arriving today, as a matter of fact, with plastic sheeting for shelter, with water bladders and water cans to get fresh water to people, with health care supplies, and things of that nature. And tragically, also, with body bags, for the sad aspects of this tragedy, the loss of human life. So we're doing that.

We've also disbursed funds through the individual countries. One of the challenges of this kind of a disaster is that it affects not just a region or an individual country, but perhaps 12 countries have been seriously affected, six with dramatic loss of life. And so we have to assess each one differently, work with the different governments, come up with a plan that meets the needs of those countries -- Indonesia, India and so on.

MR. BERTEL:

With a disaster of this scale, spread across so many different nations, certainly coordination is very important. Is the United States coordinating with individual countries or is it working with the United Nations and other NGO's to bring relief to these various spots?

MR. FOX:

A little bit of all of the above. Each organization and each country has its own unique gifts to bring to this effort. The United Nations has sent an assessment team out there, and we are working with them to try to get a better understanding. There is so much work to be done that no individual country or organization can do it.

We're also working closely with other international nongovernmental organizations, such as the Red Cross, who this is their specialty and they're well placed and positioned in all of these countries. Fortunately, most of the countries also have indigenous and domestic organizations in place that we can work with, along with the governments. So it's a combination of all of those.

MR. BERTEL:

Let's look specifically as Indonesia, certainly one of the hardest hit, if not the hardest hit, countries. What exactly is USAID doing for Indonesia at this point?

MR. FOX:

Indonesia is perhaps the hardest hit. Tragically, some of the numbers we're getting now indicate that more than half of the deaths have taken place in the Sumatra area alone. So they are going to be in serious need of assistance.

One of the first things that happened is when the Indonesian Government indicated to us that they wanted to declare this as a national emergency, it allowed our Ambassador to begin to move financial assistance immediately. And as a part of that, USAID, with our Ambassador, provided $100,000 instantaneously so the Ambassador could put those funds toward local Red Cross and local humanitarian organizations on the ground.

We also are working with the Indonesian Government in a number of other ways, such as we have given a grant to CARE, the international relief organization CARE, which is going to provide over 100,000 fresh drinking water kits, which is a very important part of this particular disaster. And that is not only grieving over the loss of life, but doing what you can now to prevent further loss.

MR. BERTEL:

Let's move on now to India, which is in a unique situation. Despite the devastation there, they're also reaching out and helping some of the other countries in the region. What is going on between the United States and India?

MR. FOX:

India was fortunate in the fact that although it suffered greatly was not as badly injured as some of the other countries. It's also a much larger country, with a larger government and capabilities. So India in fact, while grieving over its own loss, has reached out and is working with the United States and other countries to not only deal with its own problems but also to try to help some of its neighbors.

We heard this morning President Bush made an announcement that, along with the United States, he has been working with the leaders from not only India but Australia and Japan to form a regional platform of donor assistance to help lead the effort for the whole region, to raise funds for the ultimate reconstruction of the area. So India is playing a large role. The United States is offering some assistance. We do have people on the ground working with the Indian officials. We have a long, established relationship with them. In fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development has ongoing missions and cooperative people on the ground in all of these countries.

MR. BERTEL:

We only have a few moments left. We've been talking about short-term relief, trying to save the living at this point. Longer term, what steps will the United States take to help the region rebuild?

MR. FOX:

Well, that's a difficult question, in that we barely have an understanding of the tragic nature of what has happened and an assessment of what needs to be done to immediately focus on the living. As we begin to address those needs, and with the President's announcement this morning, senior diplomats in all of these countries will be getting together to form a donors' conference of some sort in order to accept donations and contributions and the assistance of other nations to create a dynamic which will allow us to work with them to rebuild the lives of these individuals.

As I mentioned, we already have some longer-term development programs in these countries, and I'm sure that what we'll do is refocus those efforts on things that will help restore the shelter and livelihood and job opportunities of the folks that have suffered. Although several tens of thousands of people have died, we estimate that over 3 million people are now homeless and jobless as a result of this tragedy.

MR. BERTEL:

Ed Fox, from USAID, thank you so much for bringing us up to date.

MR. FOX:

My pleasure. Nice to be here.

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