Remarks by Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Craig Hart at the “U.S. Congress and the Legacies of the Vietnam War” Stimson Center Event

Speeches Shim

Thursday, January 14, 2021

[As prepared]

Thank you to the Stimson Center for hosting today’s important discussion.

It is a pleasure to join Dr. Bolton, Mr. Rieser, and Representative Speier on this esteemed panel. 

As the former Deputy Mission Director in Vietnam, where USAID has been working since the early 1990s to address war legacy issues, this particular topic hits home for me.

USAID has a long-standing commitment to address legacies of the Vietnam War. While our colleagues in the Department of State focus on UXO demining, USAID works to assist people with disabilities and clean up sites contaminated by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. 

For the purposes of today’s discussion, however, I’ll focus on USAID’s disabilities work in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

USAID has an enduring commitment to disability-inclusive development across all sectors of our work.

We recognize that when we promote the human rights of persons with disabilities and support their empowerment, we advance inclusion, equity, and sustainability for all. These persons must be able to benefit from and contribute meaningfully to their country’s Journey to Self-Reliance.

USAID's disabilities assistance in Southeast Asia has been possible due to the strong support of members of Congress and their staff, in particular Senator Patrick Leahy and Tim Rieser. Our sincere thanks go out to them for their long years of leadership championing these causes and continuously advocating for US Government action, particularly since the creation of the Leahy War Victims Fund in 1989. Since the establishment of USAID’s Leahy War Victims Fund, USAID has worked to increase access to a wide variety of programs benefiting people with disabilities in conflict-affected countries. 

Disability projects in Vietnam have evolved over time, from providing prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, to building a system that provides essential services and supports the self-reliance of persons with disabilities, advancing disability policies and regulations, and strengthening advocacy for rights and inclusion. Local partners have been instrumental in achieving these goals, as we have worked with them to strengthen their management and implementation capacity while carrying out our projects.

USAID is currently focused on providing services for persons with severe disabilities in provinces heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. Our assistance includes: 

  • Early childhood intervention to detect disabilities and identify needed therapies; 

  • Building Vietnam’s rehabilitation system to provide speech, occupational, and physical therapies;

  • Establishing national guidelines and education programs; and,

  • Working with Vietnam to build a system of social support at the community level.

Our longstanding support has also been instrumental in expanding health care coverage under Vietnam’s national health insurance plan to include disabilities coverage. Specifically, USAID support resulted in a major expansion of rehabilitation services covered by national insurance — from 33 to 265 services that support persons with disabilities

This work contributes to both countries’ efforts to overcome the past, build trust, and strengthen bilateral relations. This foundational work has promoted a stronger security relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam and opened doors to new cooperation.

In Laos, persons with disabilities are one of the most marginalized populations. 

In 2019, we launched a program to enhance the economic independence and functional ability of persons with disabilities through the promotion of equal access to health and social services. 

We are training health and rehabilitation service providers, supporting health centers to provide assistive products at the local level, and promoting rehabilitation as a standard part of health care treatment.

We are engaging a variety of public and private partners to implement inclusive vocational training courses, integrate persons with disabilities into the labor force, and provide market-based livelihood opportunities.

We are partnering with the Lao government and civil society to develop and implement disability inclusive policies and advance the rights of persons with disabilities. 

USAID has a long history of enhancing the care of persons with disabilities in Cambodia, including victims of torture under the Khmer Rouge. Since the 1990s, our support has included the provision of prosthetics, orthotics, and assistance for three regional rehabilitation centers. 

As a result of USAID support, just over two years ago, the Cambodian government was able to assume full financial responsibility for the management and operation of the three rehabilitation centers, which continue to serve its citizens.

USAID is also supporting early monitoring and screening of children in three provinces to detect developmental delays and disabilities for early intervention. 

Our inclusive education work has adapted early grade reading materials into braille, and videos into Cambodian Sign Language for students with hearing and vision impairments. A USAID-developed reading program that promotes learning outcomes for children with and without disabilities has resulted in a 16 percent improvement in foundational literacy in its first year. 

Other support includes working to prevent the abandonment of disabled children at hospitals, and to reunify children with disabilities with their families or find alternative, nurturing and family-based care outside of institutions.

My thanks again to Senator Leahy and Tim for their leadership on Legacy of War issues, as well as to Stimson Center for its scholarship and advocacy on these issues. I look forward to your questions.