Humanitarian Aid


In response to natural, economics, social, manmade or human disasters, humanitarian aid in the form of logistical, material, or professional assistance is provided to save lives, alleviate suffering and preserve human dignity. In many cases this aid comes from large, international emergency response groups such as the Red Cross or the United Nations, where funding originates from individuals, corporations, governments, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as nonprofit groups.

Humanitarian aid delivered by the United States Navy.

Humanitarian aid delivered by the United States Navy.
(United States Navy)


The Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship arrived at the port of Palermo, Italy on May 29, 2016 carrying about 600 african migrants.

The Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship arrived at the port of Palermo, Italy on May 29, 2016 carrying about 600 african migrants. Red Cross workers attended to the migrants that needed attention and medical care as they disembarked and went through screenings.
(Antonio Melita / Alamy Stock Photo)

There are many models for humanitarian aid. The most common is where individual donors give money or supplies to a group, and that group oversees the distribution of supplies to communities or individuals in need. Charitable organizations such as these can help with problems both small and large from one-on-one economic relief and education to responding to epidemics or administering peaceable governmental transitions. The primary needs of humans during a crisis are water, food, shelter, personal security, and medical care. Secondary concerns are clothing, communication, and sanitation. Tertiary concerns can range from education and job training to economic support or social organizing.

Certain organizations are designed only to provide one aspect of these operations. For example, the Fuel Relief Fund provides oil and gasoline to communities immediately after a natural disaster (to run generators and evacuation transportation vehicles). In combination with medical response groups such as Doctors Without Borders, various organizations work together. The Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provide rations and nonfood supplies. Other specialized groups may have specific yet quite different directives and operate in separate target areas. As these organizations share the response work, the burden of the emergency is dispersed. This arrangement insures that if one component fails, there are safeguards in place to continue the flow of goods and services to victims.

Additionally, many organizations are concerned with nondisaster operations such as economic stabilization, disease outbreaks, refugee relocation, or other ongoing problems. Organizations can maintain operations in a region long after a natural or manmade disaster subside.

In nonemergency situations, alternative methods of humanitarian aid are used. These include microlending, education-based aid, and single-issue response (e.g., disease response, sanitation construction, or food distribution). These models have undergone significant restructuring in response to increased technology and communication infrastructures. Modern organizations use technology and the Internet to increase their donor database and the impact of their response. For example, Kiva, founded in 2005, engages in microlending to increase small businesses in emerging economies. The organization provides crowdsourcing platforms for small-sum contributions then networks with banking institutions to administer loans and grants to entrepreneurs worldwide.


The United Nations Emergency Relief estimates that over $5 billion is spent for humanitarian crises each year, which was not an adequate amount in many instances. An estimated 220,000 individuals work to provide humanitarian aid around the world, responding on all continents. The United Nations, with its 193 member states, oversees and manages operations in most major global disasters as requested by the governments of those affected.

See also Disease outbreaks ; International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement ; Sanitation .



Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Actions (ALNAP). (accessed November 7, 2012).

Global Humanitarian Assistance. “Defining Humanitarian Aid.” (accessed November 8, 2012).

United Nations. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (accessed November 17, 2012).

Alyson C. Heimer, MA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.