Susan Berresford has had a distinguished career in philanthropy spanning four decades. She served as President of the Ford Foundation from 1996 to 2007 and is currently Convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group. Her interest in Agent Orange began in 1993 on a trip to Vietnam. She was exploring opening a Ford Foundation office in Hanoi.
“I was on the way to the airport, and one of the government officials who had been sort of shepherding me around asked if I’d mind stopping in a hospital,” Berresford recalls. “He took me into a room where there were these jars with aborted fetuses, and they were all terribly deformed, and he said to me ‘this is something I want you to remember. This is a problem we have and we’d like your help with it.’”
So Berresford got to work. To begin, she hired Charles Bailey in 1996 to direct the new office in Hanoi. Berresford credits Bailey with leading the effort to solve the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam from those earliest days to the present.
It wasn’t easy. The issue of Agent Orange is sensitive to the governments of both the United States and Vietnam. But, in Berresford’s words, “as Charles began to work on it, we were able to show that if an American philanthropy could work on it, ultimately others could as well.” Over more than a decade the Ford Foundation supported scientific research to identify the ‘hot spots’ and public health initiatives to expand services to people with disabilities.
Then in 2007, Berresford, Bailey and other colleagues helped establish the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group, a bi-national committee of private citizens, scientists and policy-makers working to address the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. It was a bold experiment and a “youthful approach to philanthropy.”
“The Dialogue Group is a perfect example, I think, of where philanthropy can take a difficult topic, a sensitive or controversial topic, explore it, work on it, then bring more public groups of people together to legitimize and guide the work,” Berresford explains. She is very optimistic about the future. “I see increasing willingness on the U.S. side to be engaged in this issue. Our public officials understand it and recognize this is something we can do,” she says. “I think addressing this issue will be a huge step forward in terms of deepening and solidifying the relationship between our two countries.”