For Andrew S. Natsios, every day is a crisis.
As the official in charge of U.S. assistance to the entire world, Natsios daily faces the challenges of how to rebuild war-ravaged Afghanistan, organize reconstruction in Iraq despite a deadly insurgency, provide famine relief for Sudan and distribute funding for Africa's AIDS pandemic -- to name but a few. Two weeks ago, it was the most daunting list of disasters and crises faced by any director of the U.S. Agency for International Development since USAID was created during the Kennedy administration, current and former USAID officials say.
Then South Asia's tsunami was added to the list. Now Natsios is also in charge of overseeing the $350 million in U.S. disaster aid to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other nations overwhelmed by the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed at least 140,000 and left more than 5 million homeless. He is the point man guiding the U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), through the region.
Andrew S. Natsios
Title: Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Georgetown University; master's degree in public administration, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Family: Married; three children.
Career highlights: Special humanitarian coordinator for Sudan; assistant administrator, Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance, 1991 to January 1993; director, USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1989 to 1991; chief executive, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority; secretary for administration and finance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts; vice president, World Vision U.S.; member, Massachusetts House, 1975 to 1987; chairman, Massachusetts Republican State Committee.
Pastimes: Fishing, writing, and cooking Italian and Greek cuisine.
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Natsios, the blunt-talking grandson of Greek immigrants, is getting credit from humanitarian groups for quickly looking beyond immediate relief to long-term reconstruction.
"From the beginning, he said, 'How can we provide relief assistance that lays the groundwork for recovery?' " said Nancy E. Lindborg, president of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian agency that works with USAID. "That means from the earliest days you move away from direct giveaways to try to help people recover their livelihood. . . . It's not just giving but enabling so victims can return to a life with dignity."
The difference underscores one of the most contentious issues for the U.S. global aid agency. The United States is the world leader in disaster relief -- usually providing 25 to 33 percent of all international aid. But it gives among the smallest amounts of aid among the top 30 wealthiest nations for long-term development, based on per capita gross domestic product.
In what has become the theme of U.S. aid in the tsunami zone, Natsios has pressed to use the aid in ways that mesh the two functions to ensure survivors are not indefinitely dependent on international relief.
"In the past, in natural disasters, there tends to be more money given than is required for initial relief response and then not enough money for rehabilitation and reconstruction, which is much more expensive," Natsios said at a State Department briefing last week.
"Most of my friends who are disaster managers say if they could redistribute stuff, it would be from the first phase into the second phase. . . . We [will] try to collapse as fast as possible the initial response and move immediately into rehabilitation."
In Sri Lanka, for example, USAID is using $10 million in cash-for-work programs to revive the local economy by getting survivors back to work in cleanup operations, thereby giving them funds to buy food and goods from local shops.
En route to Bangkok on Monday, Natsios said this approach also helps deal with the widespread sociological problems. "We are beginning to see real psychological problems among many of the survivors. . . . They are paralyzed, they can't act, essentially because they have lost, many of them, their entire families, their whole neighborhoods, their houses, their businesses, everything is destroyed. You see this in many emergencies, but not on this scale," he told reporters traveling with Powell.
"It is a sort of form of occupational therapy. If they are in shock and then they start getting a job to start cleaning up the mess, it does have an effect psychologically that gets their body functioning again, and they have some sense of hope," he said.
Natsios has used the same approach in Afghan reconstruction, focusing on how to channel aid into work programs that will jump-start Afghanistan's ailing economy and eventually wean the country from dependence on foreign assistance for daily survival.
Although South Asia's tsunami has brought U.S. aid into the spotlight, it has generally been a less visible instrument of U.S. foreign policy change in recent years, with the primary foreign policy focus on military campaigns.