Status of U.S. Assistance to LebanonAmbassador Randall Tobias, Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator
November 16, 2006
(10:15 p.m. EST)
MR. GALLEGOS: Good morning, you all. Thank you for coming. Today we have Randall L. Tobias, Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator. He's going to be speaking about United States assistance to Lebanon. I appreciate your coming.
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Good morning, everyone. I am just back from an extensive trip around the world where I've been meeting with U.S. ambassadors and USAID mission directors to talk with them about our foreign assistance reform. But in the course of that trip, I spent about two and a half days in Lebanon and I thought I would give you a bit of an update this morning on United States assistance to Lebanon.
You will recall that we have made a commitment to Lebanon of about $250 million both in funds to help with the initial humanitarian needs and the early stages of reconstruction. I led the U.S. delegation last -- late last summer to the donors conference in Stockholm. And I made the point in that meeting in Stockholm that it was important for governments and others around the world to step up to help the people of Lebanon and the Government of Lebanon meet the needs there. But it was also important for us to move quickly to translate those pledges into action on the ground. And so part of my purpose in this trip to Lebanon was to take a look at how quickly are we moving and what's actually happening. And I was really quite pleased with the progress that I saw.
About $100 million of the $250-million U.S. commitment has, in fact, already been put to work. And there are a number of things in the pipeline to address the remaining portions of that money. But among the things that the United States Government is focusing on is -- and I guess it was about the first thing I saw -- is the effort to help clean up the massive oil spill that occurred during the turmoil in July.
We have people who are working with local Lebanese to clean up the shoreline to actually remove the oil from the water and from the rocks. I saw a great deal of activity associated with power spraying the hulls of fishing boats because there are literally hundreds of fishermen who were put out of business temporarily by the oil spill problems, both because their boats are fouled with the oil and their fishing equipment, nets and so forth, were damaged and so we're replacing that equipment, helping them clean up the boats and that's coming along very well.
There's a major problem with unexploded ordnance on the ground and our efforts to help remove that are also proceeding very rapidly. At the time I was there, the estimate was that we had removed or assisted in the removal of about 50,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. And to just give you a comparison of that, I'm told that we removed about half that number over the first two years of unexploded ordnance removal effort in Kosovo. So this is making a lot of progress. And of course, that's very important to farmers being able to get back in their fields and simply the safety of people moving around.
There's a very large bridge, the Mdeirej bridge, that we've committed to rebuild. I visited that site. It's a very large, very high and long bridge, and through the bombing one lane of that was completely destroyed and the entire bridge has been damaged and out of service. And it's a very major commercial artery in Lebanon, and so work is already underway there to begin to repair that bridge.
We have a number of activities going on to help get schools back in shape and, in fact, to make some longer term commitments to computer facilities and improving library facilities in a number of schools throughout the country, and that's moving along well.
In addition to that, the United States efforts which began almost immediately in July when the conflict began, we had people on the ground helping with humanitarian issues. We put 17 medical facilities -- we have what we call a medical kit -- that's really probably not the best term in the world because it's -- a kit provides the resources to provide medical -- meet the medical needs of 10,000 people for 90 days in first aid supplies, equipment for minor surgery and that kind of thing. We put 17 of those on the ground very early on, a number of tarps and blankets and those kinds of things to help address housing needs. But now we're really focused on both this intermediate rebuilding and then the long-term needs of really helping the Lebanese people and doing this through the Lebanese Government, address the needs that are going to make a difference over the long term.
One of the programs that I visited that I was very impressed with involves about 800 farmers who are part of a cooperative effort that we are supporting through U.S. Government resources, specifically through USAID. And just to give you an example, I visited one farmer, one young farmer in a dairy farm who started out with 10 cows. Through a microfinance program that we are funding, he was able to borrow the money to buy two more cows through the increased milk output, paid that money back, borrowed more money to buy more cows, now is up to 17 cows and two modern milking machines. All of which is nice, but he is also part of this 800 farmer dairy -- farm cooperative that we are funding and we're giving people the skills to improve their production by bringing technical expertise into Lebanon to help to do that. But we're also giving them the capability to focus more effectively on meeting the needs to participate in international markets.
And so the dairy farmers there, for example, as part of this effort we are funding, have access now to very modern equipment to process their milk into cheese. And these are people who three or four or five years ago at best were selling their products, whether it's cheese or fruit or vegetables or olives or whatever the case may be, they've been selling their products in roadside stands or local markets. But through this program that we are funding and the skills that we've given them, they're literally now participating in international markets. And their products through this cooperative are being marketed not only throughout Lebanon but throughout the region. And you can see the day coming when the USAID people who are involved in this will be able to back away and move onto something else, which is our objective with all of our foreign assistance. That is to say, to be able to graduate people from the need for foreign assistance and given them the capability to be able to do these things on their own. And so that long-term focus is a very important part of what we are doing not only in Lebanon but around the world.
I met with a number of people in the Lebanese Government and I met with a number of people in civil society, and again I'm very pleased with the progress we're making there and with the fact that we have moved our commitments from speeches to reality on the ground very quickly. And we will be there not only in the near term, but we will be there in the long term to help the Lebanese people.
With that, I'd be happy to take any questions you may have. Yes.
QUESTION: Sue Pleming from Reuters. You said that you'd remove 50,000 of unexploded ordinance. How many more pieces of unexploded ordinance do you estimate there are and who else is doing this work, if you could give us a bigger picture?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Yeah. There are others involved. I'll have to leave it to others to get back to you on the specifics. My understanding is that that was about half of the estimate of what was on the ground but let me have someone else confirm that for you. I think the point that I want to make is that the effort to remove the unexploded ordinance is moving along very aggressively and we're really making a lot of progress.
QUESTION: You say you've been dealing with the Lebanese Government, how visible is the U.S. role to the Lebanese people? In other words, I know you're not looking for applause, but are they aware? I mean, you're in an area of the world where America is not very popular.
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you visible? Is the U.S. visible? Have you had any expressions of gratitude? Selling this are you being ignored? And do you ever brush alongside Hezbollah people while you do this?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I think there is appreciation for what the United States and the American people are doing. For example, in the site that I visited, or a couple of sites that I visited, where the oil cleanup is taking place there are signs there depicting the partnership between the United States Government and the American people and the organizations on the ground who are doing the work. And people came up to, as I was just walking up and down the beach with the people who were with me and the local media and so forth, ordinary Lebanese were coming up to me who are benefiting from all of this and thanking me for what the American people are helping them to do.
I had the same experience talking with all these farmers who are involved in this cooperative, because this effort is very much changing their lives. And I think for the long term we need to be visible but we need to be visible as helping the Lebanese Government and working through the Lebanese Government and helping build the capabilities of the Lebanese Government, not only the national government but the local government.
I had another experience in a medium-sized town I visited. I had lunch with the mayor and the city council and then looked at a program that we are helping this particular community do, where we have given them the skills and the capability to mechanize their property tax records. We have also given them the capacity-building skills to turn the way in which they deal with the citizens in their community into kind of a one-stop shopping when people come to the city hall.
And in a recent public opinion survey of those people, with respect to the question in this community of can you get something done in the city government without knowing someone or having someone pull the strings, that had moved from saying -- from only 9 percent of the people saying that you could get it done without pulling strings to 40 percent of the people saying that you could get it done without pulling strings. Now there's, you know, room to go, but that has been as a result of this effort. And the mechanization of the tax records has, over the last year, doubled the revenue that's coming into the city government which in turn is being turned into the funding of services. So these are the kinds of capacity building things that we're trying to focus on.
QUESTION: What about Hezbollah, I mean, that Barry asked about, did you come into contact with them? And just to take that a bit further, right after the end of the fighting, I mean, Hezbollah was extremely present in terms of humanitarian aid and initial grants to families so they could go back into their homes near the Israeli border. Now is that continuing? Is your experience to see? Is Hezbollah still present in the longer-term reconstruction efforts going on?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I'm sure it is. But I think our efforts and the efforts of working with the Lebanese Government are really focused, yes, on trying to help with the short-term humanitarian needs, but also on building long-term capacity and long-term capability. And I think what we're doing there is more unique and really much appreciated.
QUESTION: Did -- not only you but do Americans brush up against Hezbollah? I mean do they happily go ahead and -- with their projects alongside you happily going ahead with your projects? I mean, do you -- presumably they're your enemy.
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, we're clearly not working with Hezbollah. But there are -- you know, they are present in the country. But it's very important for the long-term viability in Lebanon that our activities help increase the capability and the capacity of the legitimate Lebanese Government itself. And again, that's really where our effort is focused, and that's going forward very aggressively.
QUESTION: Just to -- sorry, are you in the balance of what the people living in southern Lebanon are seeing? Are they seeing more of what you and the government are doing, or are they seeing more of what Hezbollah is doing?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I think they're seeing -- increasingly they're seeing what we're doing and what the Government of Lebanon is doing. And what we need to do is to continue our efforts to continue to accelerate that.
QUESTION: Would you prefer a balance?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I wouldn't want to -- I don't think I'm in a position to make that judgment. But clearly we're making progress, and I think that's very positive.
QUESTION: You said that the goal is long term, but you've already expended $100 million of your $250 million in only three months. I'm wondering if there's plans to increase that number. And if not, how you plan on expending that money for the next --
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, there will be an international donors conference coming up in late January. We have not yet made any determination about what we will do, but we were a significant presence in Lebanon. This agricultural program I was describing to you, for example, is something that was up and going long before the turmoil of last summer, and you know, we are a long-term presence and we will continue to be a long-term presence there. So the $250 million really represents the commitment that we have made around all of, you know, what's been going on here in recent months. But we will certainly be there in a significant way going forward because this is a very important place to us and people who really need help and are an important part of our commitment.
QUESTION: Ambassador, could you just talk about how you plan on expending that money in the future? How is it going to change other programs?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: It will go generally into the same kinds of things that I've described with our focus on ensuring that infrastructure that we're helping to rebuild, this bridge project is an example. But there will be road projects, for example, that we're working on, more work in the schools, but more work on education, on alternative livelihoods of helping people really have the skills that they need to compete in ways that will improve their economic wherewithal. That kind of thing.
QUESTION: A $100 million expended so far in projects like the bridge project you described, are these -- is the expenditure to U.S. companies or is the money going to local Lebanese contractors? Can you give us some --
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: There is -- the Corps of Engineers, the Army Corps of Engineers is -- on our behalf is coordinating this bridge construction project, and we can probably get you some specifics that I don't have at hand. But it's really our intent to have as much of this work as we possibly can do to be done by local contractors who are there in Lebanon.
QUESTION: Did you say it was $50* million? Did you raise the amount?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Two-fifty.
QUESTION: Instead of 230?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I believe --
QUESTION: The President committed 230 in August. Did you raise it to 250?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I believe 250 is the number. Yeah, it's about 250.
QUESTION: And one more question, if you please? What role the U.S. will in the Paris conference, the one that will take place --
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I'm sorry?
QUESTION: What role the U.S. is going to play in the donors conference?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: What role will we play in the donors conference?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, we will have a senior delegation. I may well lead the delegation. We haven't decided that yet. And we will play a significant role, as we did in the Stockholm conference in, among other things, ensuring that the global donor community is stepping up and that we are doing everything we can as a donor community, working with the government in Lebanon to coordinate all of our efforts and activities in as productive a way as possible so that its in -- you know, in support of what the Lebanese Government's strategy is.
The Lebanese Government is working on putting together a short-term and long-term plan for the continued advancement of Lebanon, and that really will be the roadmap that we'll need to follow.
QUESTION: Is it in Paris?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I believe it is in Paris, yeah.
QUESTION: Are you satisfied at this point, generally speaking, about the participation of the rest of the global community in the effort?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I'm sorry, would you say the first part?
QUESTION: Are you -- is the U.S. Government satisfied by the level of participation at this point generally speaking?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: I think that some donors clearly are -- the activity flowing from the commitments they've made is clearly visible on the ground. I think other donors have probably been still in the talking stages. And as is often the case with these kinds of things, we really need to urge everybody to move as quickly as they can to move their words into action on the ground because there really is a significant need for help.
QUESTION: Indeed, there a very -- a bountiful of pledges made by oil-rich Arab countries and very slow coming across. Isn't that --
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I don't --
QUESTION: This is not an Arab country entirely.
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Yeah, I'm not up to speed specifically with the status of exactly where all of these commitments are. I do know that there was some visibility of things that are happening. But I'm told that there are a number of pledges that have been made that have not yet been turned into action on the ground.
QUESTION: In the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a lot of publicity about Hezbollah coming into the south with like blocks of U.S. currency, spreading money around. The objective, most people thought, was to try to avoid having the populace there blame them for wreaking the havoc in the area. To what extent do you think they've succeeded in that?
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I think -- I think clearly that's had some impact in the early stages, but at the same time I think what people are really appreciative of is our long-term commitment and the fact that we are committed to being there and to helping with projects that are really going to change peoples lives. You know, $50 or a $1,000 or something to help solve an immediate problem with a house I'm sure is appreciated. But the things that we're doing that will really help change peoples lives over the long-term, I think, are very critical here and very much appreciated, I think, by the Lebanese people.
QUESTION: Siniora's government is really struggling at the moment to keep control. Do you think that your aid efforts and the efforts of others are helping to boost that government? I wonder if you'd give an assessment because you touched on it by saying that part of your work is democracy promotion and encouraging institutions. So I just wondered whether you think that's making a difference and countering Hezbollah's rather public --
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, yes, I do think it's -- I do think it's making a difference. And as with all of our foreign assistance, as I'm fond of saying, you know, we need to go back to the principles that Secretary Marshall put in place in 1947 when he announced the Marshall Plan. And if you go back and read that speech, you'll be reminded that he said rebuilding Europe after World War II was not about the United States developing a plan to rebuild Europe, it was about the European nations themselves developing a plan and the United States to plug into that in the best way to help them do that.
That same principle applies to what we're doing in Lebanon. It's not about us, it's about the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese people and our effort is not -- of course, we'd like to be visible and we'd like to have both the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese people understand what the American people are doing to help them, but it needs to be seen, and I think is being seen, as an effort to help the legitimate government of Lebanon, the Siniora government, help address the needs of the people. And our efforts are very focused on helping that government build capacity and ensuring that the programs that we are funding are really driven by the strategy that that government has put in place for the rebuilding of Lebanon, and I think we are making a difference in that regard.
QUESTION: Part of the problem in Iraq was that the reconstruction programs actually didn't manage to improve the lives -- the daily lives of Iraqis who are getting more and more annoyed at the sort of daily problems that they're facing.
AMBASSADOR TOBIAS: Well, I think some of that probably relates to the management of expectations. Because if you look at the facts of what our programs have done in Iraq in terms of the numbers of the megawatts of electricity that didn't exist before that do now, the fact that water and -- I don't -- I think there was hardly -- in Iraq there was hardly under the Saddam Hussein regime -- there was hardly a sanitation system anyplace that was working. And, you know, we've made enormous progress.
Now relative to expectations -- and if you're an ordinary citizen in any country and all these things are happening but they haven't impacted you personally, you know, then your reaction is probably related to what you're seeing personally. And we're trying to be sure that the things we are doing are, in fact, reaching as many people as possible. And I really think that we're making good progress in Lebanon.
Thank you all very much.
Released on November 16, 2006