The U.S. began providing support to Vietnam for people with disabilities in 1989 as part of the Leahy War Victims Fund. But this early support was limited to victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). For the first decade after normalization of diplomatic relations, the U.S. and Vietnam were not able to come to an agreement on providing support to people with disabilities that may have been caused by Agent Orange. Many organizations, including the Ford Foundation, Vietnam Veterans for America, Veterans for Peace, The Fund for Reconciliation and Development and War Legacies Project, began advocating for the U.S. to do so.
In 2006, a breakthrough finally arrived with President George W. Bush’s visit to Vietnam. In a joint statement with then-President Nguyễn Minh Triết, the two agreed that cooperation on the Dioxin contamination at former U.S. bases in Vietnam was valuable for strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. This enabled Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in May 2007 to push through an appropriation of $3 million “for the remediation of dioxin contaminated sites in Vietnam, and to support health programs in communities near those sites.”
It took over a year for the U.S. to decide how to distribute these funds. At this time, the U.S. insisted that funding to people with disabilities would be made “regardless of cause,” meaning the funding was not contingent on whether someone’s disability was caused by Agent Orange.
The first round of grants went to Save the Children, East Meets West Foundation, and Vietnam Assistance to the Handicap (VNAH) in Da Nang for rehabilitation programs, scholarships, vocational training for people with disabilities, and for disability rights advocacy.
An additional $3 million was allocated in the Fiscal Years (FY) of 2009 and 2010 and another allocation of $12 million was provided in the second half of FY 2010 for both public health programs and dioxin remediation work.
In 2012, U.S. funding was allocated “for health/disability activities in areas in Vietnam that were targeted with Agent Orange or contaminated with dioxin.” This led to the second round of grant funding, totalling $9 million, for the for-profit company Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) in partnership with VNAH, to conduct a three-year project to assist people with disabilities in Da Nang as well as in areas “where there was a high disability burden” and “in regions where dioxin hotspots are located.” A small amount of this funding was distributed through this project to 14 local and international organizations, including War Legacies Project, to expand services to Quang Nam, Tay Ninh, Thua-Thien Hue, Binh Dinh and Dong Nai provinces that were all sprayed with herbicides. At its close, the project served 9,482 people with disabilities; 3,264 health and social service providers received training.
While this funding reached some people who may have been impacted by Agent Orange, advocates worked to ensure that the language in future U.S. appropriations bills specifically covered those whose disabilities were likely caused by Agent Orange. By FY2015, the language of the appropriation specified funding would go “to assist individuals with severe upper or lower body mobility impairment and/or cognitive or developmental disabilities” in areas that were “sprayed by Agent Orange and otherwise contaminated with dioxin.”
Since 2011 funding for disability and health-related programs in Vietnam has been steadily increasing. As of FY 2023 the funding allocated by Congress totaled $30 million for disability programs “to assist persons with severe physical mobility, cognitive, or developmental disabilities: Provided, that such funds shall be prioritized to assist persons whose disabilities may be related to the use of Agent Orange and exposure to dioxin, or are the result of unexploded ordnance accidents.” A similar amount of funding was proposed for FY 2024.
The funds are distributed through international and Vietnamese non-governmental organizations for programs supporting people with disabilities in 8 of the most heavily sprayed provinces in the south of Vietnam. These provinces include: Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh, Binh Phuoc, Tay Ninh, Dong Nai, and Kon Tum.
The U.S.-funded programs primarily focus on improving rehabilitation services to people with disabilities and connecting them with physical and occupational therapists and speech pathologists and other medical professionals. Other services include: Upgrading the skills of caregivers, improving access to public buildings and transportation for people with disabilities, advocating for disability rights, and improving public policy to address the rights of people with disabilities. A few of the programs are helping people with disabilities to improve access to education, job training, employment opportunities and livelihood support.