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Calling the Ex

What can Bill and George possibly do for Haiti?

Last Saturday, President Obama tapped the unlikely duo of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a massive campaign to help Haiti. It isn't the first time former presidents (and political rivals) have led major relief efforts: Clinton and George H.W. Bush worked together after the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Ike. "This is a model that works," Obama noted. But how, exactly, does that model work? Why do we call on former presidents to help after disasters?

1) They Get People's Attention. They're presidents. They have high profiles. People listen to them. And having both a Democrat and a Republican on the case reminds people that humanitarian aid should be a nonpartisan issue.

A week after the tsunami slammed Southeast Asia, when then-President Bush placed his father and Clinton in charge of the relief effort, the two ex-presidents immediately began appearing on television to encourage Americans to donate. "[I]f somebody can give $1 million, we'd like to have it, but, if you've got $5 or $10, if you're eight years old and you're listening to us, don't think your dollar doesn't count," Clinton said on Fox the day that the effort launched. Four days later, the former presidents appeared in a public service announcement asking people to give. In February, the pair visited Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives, bringing further media attention to the need for aid. (That same month, the UN appointed Clinton as its special envoy for tsunami recovery, giving him an even larger role in relief; he is also special envoy to Haiti.) Clinton and Bush were similarly visible after hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and, earlier this week, Clinton and Bush 43 appeared together to rally support for Haiti.

After all four disasters, the former presidents set up private funds to dole out grants for specific relief projects--and, in each case, early media appearances and appeals seriously kick-started donations: The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that, as of Tuesday afternoon, the Haiti fund had already collected $11.7 million.

2) They Sustain Relief Efforts. But former presidents can do more than convince people to open their wallets right after a disaster; they can keep a crisis in the philanthropic spotlight for longer than the fickle public and press might otherwise allow. "There is a window of opportunity for educating the population and keeping the public engaged," says Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser. "What you will see is that the media attention to these events shapes the length and duration of the window, and what the [presidential] team is able to do is extend the window because they are traveling or meeting with philanthropies or getting on TV and talking about the issue."

The tsunami fund that Clinton and Bush 41 set up continued to raise and distribute money for years after the immediate crisis. In December 2005, the ex-presidents announced that they would distribute an initial $90 million from their new Katrina relief fund, and they continued to seek donations until July 2007. Spokesmen for the presidents' efforts told The Houston Chronicle in late 2008 that the tsunami fund had raised a total of $1 billion, while the Katrina fund had raked in $135 million. And, already, Clinton and Bush 43 have said long-term efforts are a priority for their Haiti fund. "Bill Clinton and I want the people of Haiti to know that once the immediate crisis [has] been stabilized, we won't forget you," Bush told Voice of America.

3) They Raise A Lot of Money. It's hard to say "no" to a former president who asks for help in the wake of a disaster. "Getting the big donations--they've got the contacts and the leverage to do that," says Patrick McCormick, emergencies communications officer for UNICEF. Indeed, ex-POTUSes have vast networks of supporters--corporations, wealthy individuals, foundations--that they can tap into for large contributions. (There is, however, typically a division of labor when it comes to talking to other heads of state. While former presidents might get in touch with big-time donors, Offenheiser of Oxfam America says the sitting president and secretary of state are the ones who call on foreign governments for assistance.)

After the tsunami, for instance, connections proved vital for contributions. Within five months of the disaster, the former presidents' fund had garnered $10 million in Houston alone. Among the 14,000 mostly local contributors from the largest city in the Bush family's adopted home state were cash-cow organizations like the Astros and the Rockets.

4) They Apply Their Leadership Experience. Diplomatic and governing expertise gleaned from former presidents' time in the White House can also be crucial in relief efforts. After the tsunami, for instance, while pulling double-duty as a UN and U.S. representative, Clinton communicated with relief organizations and regional leaders to make sure that aid was distributed. This was particularly tricky in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, since the governments there were concerned that resources might go to insurgent groups. "There was a lot of tension [in Indonesia] between the people on the ground needing the aid and the military that was concerned about how it was distributed," Offenheiser says. "Obviously, international aid agencies can't address that in a public way, but a diplomat and a former U.S. president can. President Clinton was able to raise a whole range of issues." In subsequent years, he also met with aid groups to discuss ongoing projects. "He told NGOs some of the things we didn't do that well," says Rigoberto Giron, CARE's associate vice president for strategic initiatives. On the list? Improving accountability to relief beneficiaries and making sure on-the-ground opinions were considered as projects were designed.

Humanitarian groups now hope that Clinton and Bush 43 will be able offer their full range of support in Haiti, a country whose already weak government was all but decimated by last week's earthquake. Ideally, this would mean keeping close tabs on how grants from their new relief fund are spent and whether the resulting projects are successful; using their contacts and influence to help with reconstruction when possible; and even advising the Haitian government as it plans to rebuild from scratch.

Seyward Darby is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

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