Friday, June 8, 2012

An Open Letter to USAID

Recommendations to USAID on their Comprehensive Multi-year Plan for
Agent Orange-related Activities in Vietnam
Project Agent Orange

June 8, 2012

Thank you for this welcome chance to offer input to USAID as it moves ahead with developing a comprehensive, multi-year plan for Agent Orange-related activities in Vietnam. Addressing the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam presents the opportunity for us to resolve old tensions within our society and between the governments of the U.S. and Vietnam. This “Comprehensive Plan” is an important step forward in realizing our responsibility to the people and places in Vietnam affected by Agent Orange.

My name is Natalia Duong, and I am an artist, scholar, and choreographer, based in New York City. In 2007, while I was in Vietnam teaching English in Saigon and Hanoi with the ACCESS Program, I had the opportunity to visit a Peace Village outside of Hanoi. For the first time, I came face to face with individuals directly affected by Agent Orange/dioxin, and though the dominant forms of media representing the issue at the time would have shown otherwise, this was a community of vibrant individuals each with vitality unmatched by many others I have met in my lifetime. I had the great opportunity to sing songs and share dances with this community, and learned, at that moment, of the profound ability for shared art practices to transcend cultural differences and language barriers. It was lovely to share laughter, hold hands, create, and heal together.

This experience motivated me to continue to explore the ability of art to bring advocacy and awareness to the legacy of Agent Orange. In 2011, I founded a movement collective, interested in investigating the legacy of war in the body, titled Project Agent Orange. The group is interested in the ways in which individuals inherit the remnants of war physically (as exemplified by Agent Orange), but also psychologically, culturally, and socially. For the past 16 months, a group of 9 dancers and I have worked to create an evening length performance representing some of the challenges currently facing people who have been affected by Agent Orange.

On May 31, June 1, and June 2, 2012, we presented this evening-length work at Dixon Place, a theater in downtown Manhattan to over 300 people over the course of three performances. Each night, art enthusiasts and social activists alike came together to watch the performance, ask questions, and brainstorm potential solutions for the future. The post-show discussions were moderated by Charles Bailey of the Aspen Institute, Dick Hughes of Loose Cannons Inc., Susan Hammond of the War Legacies Project, and Merle Ratner and Ngo Thanh Nhàn of the Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.

As is evidenced by the large turnout of audience members at our shows, and the pervasive requests for more information about the current effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the United States, there is a critical need for more advocacy and awareness for the issue, as well as financial support for programs that are working towards alleviating the effects of the herbicide both here in the U.S. and in Vietnam.

Project Agent Orange supports the recommendations presented by Former Members of Congress Pat Schroeder, Connie Morella, and Bob Edgar, and by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/dioxin. We believe USAID’s “Comprehensive Plan” should include the following:

  1. Clean up dioxin at all the remaining hot spots.  We are pleased that the Vietnamese government is already working with USAID and other agencies to develop plans for cleaning up the two remaining major hot spots at Bien Hoa and Phu Cat.  We understand that the remaining 25 identified hot spots may be cleaned up or isolated with less elaborate means.
2.     Upgrade integrated social services for people with disabilities.  We visited impressive programs, including those that are now part of the Public-Private Partnership in Da Nang now underway with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Hyatt Hotels, among others.  There are enormous opportunities for US corporations and the US government to earn good will from the Vietnamese people and government by expanding well-designed programs like these.
3.     Advance disability rights.   We were impressed by the commitment and spirit shown by members of Vietnam's nascent disability rights movement.  These fine people are carving out some space in a relatively restricted civil society.  Providing opportunities for them to participate in program design would affirm their dignity and enlarge the space for democratic action in Vietnam.   There could be no more appropriate legacy to our response to the tragic legacy of war-time herbicide use.  
4.     Increase the professional and managerial skills of local civil society groups. We join the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin in recommending that USAID focus its support on developing the capacity of local Vietnamese NGOs, including those representing people with disabilities.  
5.     Encourage new funding mechanisms, including additional public-private partnerships   The needs of people with disabilities are a humanitarian challenge of significant scale.  New and creative funding sources may well be needed to fully address the demand.  The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin estimates an annual funding target of $82 million, of which $65million would be expected to come from the U.S. government with the balance of $ 17 million/ year coming from other bilateral and private for-profit and not-for-profit sources.  We encourage USAID to include a request for significantly increased funding part of its budget request next year and for years to come.  

The “Comprehensive Plan” that you are developing is a welcome sign of progress. I applaud USAID’s technical assistance in the difficult task of cleaning up dioxin at the Da Nang “hot spot”. From visiting rehabilitation centers in Vietnam, I have also witnessed the difficulties faced by children with disabilities and their families, and commend the efforts made by USAID to support programs that address their needs.

Moreover, I will be traveling to Vietnam in August 2012 to produce a Devised Theater performance with college students from the U.S. and Vietnam, and with individuals with disabilities in communities affected by Agent Orange in order to advance disability rights in local villages. My hope is that the artistic form of the piece will catalyze and facilitate critical dialogue surrounding the need for increased humanitarian support for individuals with disabilities in a manner that would not otherwise be encouraged by direct dialogue. As dance and song are integral to Vietnamese culture, I believe that this will be a successful way to address a sensitive topic.

I believe that the above recommendations are important steps in the right direction. But I also know that more remains to be done.  In support of USAID’s efforts, I will continue to encourage even greater public visibility of the problems associated with Agent Orange and greater engagement by U.S. businesses and sources of funding and engagement. This is a humanitarian concern, as the Dialogue Group notes, that we can do something about.  

Thank you for your consideration.  

Natalia Duong

Choreographer, Dancer, Artist Scholar
Project Agent Orange
B.A. Psychology and Dance, Stanford University
M.A. Candidate in Performance Studies
New York University, Tisch School of the Arts