The Humanitarian Imperative

This week LWR staff from across the agency gathered together to learn about the humanitarian standards that guide our disaster response work.  Among the various themes and issues we discussed was the “humanitarian imperative” as articulated in the Principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programs.

“The Humanitarian Imperative” sounds kind of fancy but it’s pretty basic. It recognizes the right to receive humanitarian assistance as a fundamental principle that should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries.  The “Good Samaritan” in the Bible was practicing the humanitarian imperative long before LWR or the Red Cross were on the scene.

The prime motivation of our response to disaster, states the Code, is to alleviate human suffering amongst those least able to withstand the stress caused by disaster.  When we give humanitarian aid, it says, it is not a partisan or political act.

But the irony of what was happening in the U.S. House of Representatives while we were learning about these principles, was never far from my mind.

Two nights ago a series of amendments were introduced that would have eliminated the vast majority of U.S. Government emergency food assistance for disaster-stricken communities.  And a preliminary voice vote on one of them indicated it could pass.

Luckily, it did not pass.  But it could have and for several hours yesterday, we thought it would.

Why were we so concerned?

For starters, the United States is the largest contributor to the World Food Program (WFP), the humanitarian agency that responds to the world’s most serious and complex disasters.  The WFP estimates that this year 4 million people will rely on that U.S. contribution for critical life sustaining nutrition.

We don’t love everything about the way U.S. food aid is currently administered, but we do know it can still make the difference between life and death for those who suffer from war and natural disaster.  LWR’s Public Policy and Advocacy unit is working to change inefficient food aid mechanisms, but we also believe that to suddenly gut the U.S. contribution without a contingency plan in place for the millions of people who rely on it, would be unconscionable.

When emergencies do strike, governments currently play a critical role.  They often provide pre-positioned emergency food assistance quickly and are able to coordinate with the other life-saving services offered by agencies like LWR.  This is happening in Sudan right now.

And although long term changes are needed, there is undoubtedly a humanitarian imperative at play when it comes to emergency food assistance.  We have an obligation, as a society, not to inflict greater harm on the most vulnerable by pulling out too early and too quickly – with no alternatives in place.

Interested in following issues like this, and working to make sure our elected representatives understand the stakes?  Want to ensure that government policies help and don’t harm the most vulnerable?   Go to the Advocacy page on our website to get involved.  Or shoot us an e-mail at and tell us how you’d like to be involved.