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U.S. Aid Efforts to Tsunami Affected Areas Criticized

December 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now to the question of America’s role when disaster strikes. For that we turn to the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios. Ambassador Natsios, welcome.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Good evening

GWEN IFILL: Give us a summary, if you can, of what the U.S. effort has been so far since this disaster struck on Sunday.

ANDREW NATSIOS: We’ve mobilized our operations center in Washington 24 hours a day or every day from now on.

It is contact with the disaster assistance response team that we’ve employed to the four countries most affected by the disaster.

On these teams of people are experts in water and sanitation, food assistance, logistics, health and medicine, shelter, they are doing assessments, now working with international NGO’s, with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society and with U.N. agencies to determine what the needs are, what the local resources are, and then what local officials are doing.

This is not our country. It is the countries of the people who are affected by this and we need to work with them.

GWEN IFILL: These four countries, just to remind people…

ANDREW NATSIOS: India, Sri Lank, Indonesia, and Thailand are the most severely affect. Others are affected, as well, but much less severely. So we’re focusing on these four countries.

What we need to do is do the assessment so we don’t send the wrong commodities and the wrong assistance to the wrong countries. We’ve already made a contribution of $4 million to the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

We’ve put $35 million aside. There is an account now with that much money in it. The DART team will begin to draw down those resources. And we’ll add more in as the assessments —


ANDREW NATSIOS: I’m sorry — Disaster Assistance Response Team is the way that we project our assistance into the field. We work through international organizations, international NGO’s.

And the DART team itself will do purchasing of commodities if they see it necessary in the field. But we need to let the local people take the lead and our job is to support them. That’s the best way to do this.

GWEN IFILL: The president said today, he used the term “initial response” to describe what you have just described. What does that mean, “initial response”?

Does that mean just that much again is coming?

ANDREW NATSIOS: No, it means that we put money aside so if they see an immediate need, or peoples’ lives are at risk, they will immediately purchase the commodity or give the grant to the NGO or the U.N. agency.

Once the assessments are done, which will take a few days, we expect the first assessments to come in tomorrow, we will begin to add more money into the account.

And we’ll have plan drawn up for each of the countries working.

GWEN IFILL: So it’s like opening the tap…


GWEN IFILL: But who knows when the tap will close?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Exactly. Well, the relief response is the first step. That will take three weeks to a month.

Then the next step is the rehabilitation so that we restore basic services so that people can care for themselves. And then the longer term is the reconstruction which takes years. It will take four or five years to recover from this.

GWEN IFILL: You made the point earlier today and you made it again just now that this is their country and we’re just there to help.

How essential is it, however, for United States to take the lead in something like this?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, it’s not a matter of whether it’s essential. We do that traditionally.

While there have been some controversies over this, the statistics show, internationally accepted statistics, that in the last year that we have them for ’03, the United States gave 40 percent of all government assistance for international humanitarian aid for all countries in the world.

So we’re the largest donor by far, and I would say 40 percent of the total given, it’s $2.4 billion, it’s a lot of money.

GWEN IFILL: We’re also the richest country by far.


GWEN IFILL: So I guess there is a group called the Center for Global Development that says that 40 percent of the relief aid boils down to about 2 cents a day per American.

Is that generous enough?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, I would say that 40 percent of the requirement worldwide and 2.4 billion dollars is very generous. How much it is per American seems to me to be irrelevant.

GWEN IFILL: Why is that?

ANDREW NATSIOS: What counts is what the requirement is in the field. How many people are at risk and how much food and how much medical assistance do they need?

That’s what we design our budgets to do: To respond to people in the field. The Americans are not at risk. And how much we give should not be based on how many people live in America or in Europe.

It’s how many people are at risk and how much do they need for us to assist them. Sixty percent of all the food given in humanitarian assistance around the world comes from the United States – 60 percent.

That’s a traditional figure for a number of years. We’re the largest donor to UNICEF, the largest donor to the International Committee for the Red Cross, the largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

I mean, there are more Europeans than there are Americans. So we are very generous, and we have been for a long time. And we’re leaders in international relief —

GWEN IFILL: A lot of people are at risk in this one, though, wouldn’t you say?


GWEN IFILL: So you could assume that this is going to be a much bigger, using your formula, a much bigger American contribution than you would normally see?


GWEN IFILL: How does this compare to past major disasters, international disasters that the U.S. has been called upon to get involved in?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, for example, I was involved when I was in the NGO community in the mid-’90s with the North Korean famine. Two point five million people died in that famine.

The Bangladesh cyclone of 1991 killed 140,000 people. I was sent in by the president’s father, because I worked in aid in those days, to lead the relief response.

And we provided lots of assistance to Bangladesh. But that was only one country. The big complication of this effort is that it’s four countries simultaneously spread over a very large distance of… region.

GWEN IFILL: And eleven affected countries.

ANDREW NATSIOS: And 11 affected countries. But we’re focusing on the ones that are most severely affected at this point.

And so the logistics of this, the communications of this is massive. We’re also now lashing up our effort with the 16 ships the president’s just sent in through the U.S. Military.

We’ve had meetings this morning. We’ve put people on the DOD staff at specific command. And they put staff on our disaster assistance response team to make sure this is an integrated U.S. effort.

GWEN IFILL: Before we leave this issue of U.S. generosity, of course, the dust up today has been about comments made by the U.N. relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, in which he says – I want to actually read his actual words, because the president took issue with that today, he said:

“We were more generous when we were less rich — many of the rich countries. And it is beyond me why we are so stingy really. Even Christmastime should remind many western countries at least how rich we’ve become.”

Do you fundamentally, does the U.S. Government fundamentally disagree with that world view?

ANDREW NATSIOS: I have written books on this. I’ve been doing this work for 15 years. Jan Egeland is a friend of mine; we’re the biggest donor to fund his office and his staff.

I called him and said, Jan, what are you talking about? He’s talking about development assistance, not disaster relief. For disaster relief, it’s simply nonsense. He doesn’t know what the data shows.

If he did, he wouldn’t have made that comment. He told me he was misquoted and he was speaking about development assistance.

What he did not know is that President Bush has arranged the largest increase in development assistance since Harry Truman.

The budget when Bill Clinton entered office for ODA, Official Development Assistance, which is an international formula used by 27 countries that are donor governments, was 10.6 billion dollars. In 2003, it was $24 billion.

You’ve had a 140 percent increase. We’re well beyond what the president committed at Monterey and at Johannesburg. There is a huge effort to combat HIV/AIDS, the millennium challenge account. My food aid budget has been increased hugely.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying even when talking about development assistance, that those numbers don’t add up?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Those numbers don’t add up. What they do is they use a European formula, which we’ve never used in the United States in 55 years, which is to use a percentage of our Gross National Product.

The reason that people quote that is because in Europe it’s been used as a standard, but our economy grows so much faster than the Japanese or the European economy that we would never catch up.

No matter how much we do, we could never be… if we did, we would dominate the entire world and overwhelm everybody with the amount of money but a 140 percent increase in three years is a massive increase in development assistance.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the challenges at hand. How do you prioritize what happens next? You focus on four of the major affected countries.

But then where does it go — the type of aid, the type of relief, the timing that it needs to get whoever needs it the most quickly, how do you put these things in order?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, we focus on four interventions, as I said earlier, the shelter. We look at the number of families displaced, and whose homes were destroyed. And then we will order shelter material in, working with other governments so that we don’t replicate what they’re doing.

We don’t want… we might work with the European Union and the Japanese and the Australians, for example, and they’ll do shelter and we’ll do water purification. The Europeans might do some pharmaceuticals. We might do food assistance.

GWEN IFILL: Debt relief, something that was suggested by the Europeans today —

ANDREW NATSIOS: That was suggested; that is being discussed at treasury level and finance ministry level. But our response now is based on these assessments to support local efforts.

And we’re dealing with four governments here that have very well-developed social service systems. Sri Lanka has one of the best health ministries in Asia. So they have a lot of very finely… very well-educated doctors.

We don’t need to bring in a lot of medical staff.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any concerns that people making pledges now, those pledges will be unmet farther on down the road when rebuilding is necessary after the immediate relief?

ANDREW NATSIOS: There are some countries that make pledges and don’t take them seriously. It has been a tradition in the United States for AID and the State Department that we make a pledge, a record is kept at OMB, no matter who the president is.

This is not a partisan statement. I’m not criticizing anybody because Clinton did this. We did this. Ronald Reagan did this.

It’s just an American tradition. You make a pledge, you fulfill the pledge. We’re very good about that. And I think if you go back and quietly talk to U.N. agencies that say the United States when it makes a pledge fulfills the pledge, they will tell you, yes, we do.

And we don’t double count. We don’t pledge it three times and then add the three times up when it’s the same pledge repeated over and over again. We’re very careful about that because we know as a great power, our credibility is at stake and we want to help these people.

I know peoples’ lives around the world are at risk in these emergencies. And if the United States does not lead and does not act, if we don’t, a lot of people die. So we take it very seriously.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Natsios, thank you very much.