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25 February 2005

Former Presidents' Visit to Tsunami-Affected Countries a Success

Officials report more than $1 billion in U.S. private-sector donations

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File White House Correspondent

Washington -- Bush administration officials described the visit of former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to four countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami as “a tremendous success.”

Speaking at the Washington Foreign Press Center February 25, Karin Torgerson, special assistant to the president and deputy director of USA Freedom Corps, said the February 19-21 trip to Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives accomplished three main purposes in connection with the Bush and Clinton joint effort to raise private funds to help the victims.

She said the trip provided an opportunity for the two former presidents to learn more about the needs in the region as a way of aiding them in their efforts to encourage additional donations.  Secondly, it gave them the opportunity to build and sustain good will in the region on behalf of the United States. 

Finally, the trip helped to focus the world’s attention on the continuing needs in the region.  “On each of these fronts, the trip was a tremendous success,” Torgerson said.

She also announced that U.S. private sector donations for tsunami relief and reconstruction are estimated to have topped $1 billion.

Of that sum, $290 million came from U.S. corporations and foundations. Torgerson added that the actual figures might be much higher, since 43 charities have not yet reported the funds that they have received.

The Bush administration has also pledged $950 million to support the rehabilitation and reconstruction of areas devastated by the tsunami, as well as to cover the costs of U.S. government relief efforts, according to a February 9 fact sheet released by the White House.

Ambassador Douglas Hartwick, the State Department’s senior coordinator of the Tsunami Reconstruction Task Force, described the visit by the former presidents as “moving testimony to the fact that America cares deeply about the people affected by this tragedy.”

“[My] impression was that the unique nature of the two former presidents coming together and traveling around this affected region is something that is most unusual, and I think everyone from the various presidents and prime ministers that we met with acknowledged that fact,” he said.

During the visit to the four countries, Hartwick said Bush and Clinton met with local inhabitants and survivors, and witnessed reconstruction efforts such as rebuilding and infrastructure projects.  They also met with government leaders to discuss cooperation in relief activities and needs assessments, and in ensuring that assistance is used as intended.

Deputy Director Togerson said even though some of the children did not know who the former presidents were, they were nevertheless excited by the visit. “… and in some ways that actually gave it more attention because it was just a sense of joy [and] a sense of survival.”

The two former presidents gave interviews to the American media, using those opportunities to show their fellow citizens drawings by Thai children inspired by the disaster. Hartwick said those presentations “captured the moment, the whole point of this presidential mission, which was to try to help these people recover as quickly as possible.”

Hartwick said the immediate relief and some recovery efforts are now “behind us,” with needs now shifting toward reconstruction.  “This is something that will be done over the next two, three, four years [and] not the next two, three, four months,” he said.

With longer-term aid expected, he called for practices and procedures to be put in place in order to prevent or minimize the possibility of corruption or diversion of aid money.

Hartwick also said the United States “fully recognize[s] that the affected countries themselves are responsible for determining their own recovery needs,” and it will help to ensure that assistance “is targeted where it is needed most and [that] this assistance is distributed in a fair and transparent nature.”

Torgerson also reported that former President Clinton will begin serving as the United Nations special envoy for tsunami aid on March 1.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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