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Policy Podcast: Higher Education Summit; Humanitarian Disaster in Burma

Henrietta Fore, Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator
Sean McCormack, Department Spokesman

May 8, 2008

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MR. MCCORMACK: Henrietta Fore, thank you so much for joining us.

MS. FORE: My pleasure, Sean.

MR. MCCORMACK: I'd like to talk about a couple of things; one, the Higher Education Summit that you are sponsoring and that is also an important part of the G-8 initiative. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about something that is on everybody's radar screen right now and that is the humanitarian disaster in Burma. And you are at the forefront of the United States' response to that disaster.

I'd like to, first of all, get your assessment of what's the situation here. Can you give us a reference point for this, say, versus several years ago, the tsunami or other humanitarian disasters that AID has dealt with?

MS. FORE: Well, it is certainly on everyone's mind right now, Sean. It's a tragedy of enormous proportions. It's on an individual level, on a national level, and on an international level. I think we are all very concerned because time is starting to run out. It is now five days since the cyclone hit and there are people who have been without water, without food, medical kits are not available, so that there are people in great need throughout Burma.

So, our hope is to be able to get our DART teams, which are teams that are professionals who work in the world of international relief -- they're currently prepositioned in Bangkok ready to go in - and to get more of our aid supplies. We've got blankets and plastic sheeting. We've got Jerricans for water, health kits, all of which is just very important right now for the people of Burma.

MR. MCCORMACK: And what has been the reaction thus far of the Burmese Government to these offers, not only of assistance from us, but from the rest of the world?

MS. FORE: Well, I think all of us are hoping that the Burmese regime will issue visas and let our international relief workers in to try to help the Burmese people. A few shipments have gone in, so food is beginning to trickle in, food and water and medical supplies. But we need a river of international relief going in. There isn't enough capacity for distributing the food, so boats and helicopters will be very important and we just need more of that. So, we're hoping that some of our specialists who know food, sanitation, water can go in and try to help the people.

So, we're poised, we are ready to be part of a very large international coordinated effort and the American people really want to respond. The President said it very well yesterday and Secretary Rice, and they were saying that the American people want to help now and they want to help the Burmese people. So, that's what we're looking forward to.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me touch a little bit on the diplomacy. What are we doing to try to convince the Burmese Government to allow in this international assistance?

MS. FORE: Well, we're working on all fronts, diplomatically with a number of countries, but also with the UN and multilateral organizations. It's a very difficult problem, but it is one that, when you compare it against the tsunami that you mentioned earlier, many countries had not wanted a large international relief effort to come in. It disrupts, it changes life, but they have found that it was enormously useful. This is difficult for any country to deal with alone, but with an international relief effort, you have much more chance to reduce the death toll, to reduce the amount of sickness and disease that will no doubt come.

We're also very concerned because the rains are due to start again. This Irrawaddy River delta is inundated with water and it looks like we may have lost much of the rice crop. And this is very important for feeding the people in Burma. Rice prices will rise, the water prices are rising, fuel is low, so at this moment in time, every diplomatic effort needs to be made from all countries to try to get relief supplies into Burma.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me switch gears to our other topic, Higher Education Summit. Talk a little bit about the significance of this summit, who is going to be coming, and what's your focus?

MS. FORE: The Higher Education Summit grows out of the President's Initiative for Higher Education for Africa. And the hope is to have many, many linkages between universities around the world, in the developing world, with American universities. And so the summit gathered 90 presidents and chancellors from developing country universities from all around the world, and a hundred from universities here in the United States, as well as some corporations and foundations. The theme was innovation, but they were looking for joint research, ways to exchange students and professors and administrators, ways that we could think about joint curriculums.

So during the summit, many new connections were made. We ask everyone to at least (inaudible) two partnerships. And so we announced two, one with the National Science Foundation in which joint research will be available for universities who want to pair up and choose subjects where they'd like to do research. So, it can be in development; let's say the food crisis. It could be in humanitarian disasters. It could be on Ebola or on avian influenza or any other subject of their choosing.

We also announced a partnership with the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the Gates Foundation. And this is for planning grants that you would do jointly.


MS. FORE: So we're trying to encourage the flow of knowledge --


MS. FORE: -- of innovation, of technology and of ideas throughout the developing world. And we're focusing on development, ways to make societies and people more prosperous and to live in societies that are more stable and peaceful.

MR. MCCORMACK: And what was the receptivity from these foreign university and governmental officials to this?

MS. FORE: They were enormously excited. It's the first time it's been done anywhere in the world. It was a historic gathering. They felt that it - it was a feast before them. It was hard to know where to start, but they were also thinking about their students and professors and societies at home. Because if you can focus on better ways to educate, better technologies, better ways to look at health systems and economies and infrastructure and engineering, the world opens up and you can build your own lives, your own nation, and you can join the world economy.

So, it's very exciting. They've decided they want to do it again next year, and so the Indian delegation raised their hand and said that they wanted to host it next year. So we'll look forward to more of it. There will be regional meetings. The first regional meeting this fall will be in Bangladesh, then there will be a meeting for Africa, a meeting for Asia, et cetera.

MR. MCCORMACK: And you said - we were talking earlier and you said that this relates also to an initiative that the G-8 countries are planning. How does - explain that --

MS. FORE: Yes.

MR. MCCORMACK: -- linkage a little bit to us.

MS. FORE: In the G-8, there's been a focus by the member countries to look at ways that they can encourage and help the development of countries around the world that are less well off. And so help to poor people is what our President has been focusing on and the G-8 has been focusing on. There are special initiatives for Africa and on education, so as we look at education in Africa, the ability to have linkages with the rest of the world, with their higher education institutions means that African students and professors will stay home in their universities to teach, to do research, and to do connections around the world so that they can stay very much involved in their countries. And that is part of the President's initiative for literacy and for linkages for higher education around the world.

MR. MCCORMACK: Henrietta Fore, thank you so much for joining us here.

MS. FORE: Thank you, Sean.

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