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Foreign Aid Reform: Principles for United States Humanitarian Assistance Endorsed by 27 U.S.-based NGOs
February 13, 2009

Humanitarian response is a vital part of the United States foreign assistance program. Despite its importance, draft proposals and discussions of foreign aid reform to date have focused almost exclusively on modernizing U.S. development assistance. The purpose of this brief statement is to propose the core principles that should guide U.S. humanitarian assistance in the interests of ensuring that any foreign aid reform initiative encompasses both humanitarian and development aspects of U.S. international assistance.


At least since the end of the Second World War the United States has been a leader in responding to humanitarian emergencies. The U.S. helped design and has been the largest funder of the international humanitarian aid system, including United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Program and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international non-governmental organizations. The framework laid out in the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961 established and continues to govern the humanitarian component of the U.S. foreign aid program.

Major challenges face the United States in supporting humanitarian programs. Overall needs are increasing due to ongoing conflicts and the increasing number and scale of natural disasters in an era of climate change. Underfunding and misallocation of resources within the international humanitarian system are chronic. The U.S. is unable to meet all of the needs of internally displaced people, whose numbers are rising significantly compared to those of refugees. People recovering from large-scale and protracted emergencies suffer from insufficient support as they try to rebuild their communities. Women and children remain especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and other human rights violations.

While the U.S. has been a generous donor in absolute terms, it lags well behind other major industrial countries in per capita assistance and assistance as a percentage of the national budget. Like some other countries, the U.S. struggles to respond to humanitarian crises based on need alone, sometimes allowing itself to be driven primarily by consideration of foreign policy and national security objectives.


The purpose of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering, maintain human dignity and uphold rights through the provision of life saving support for the most vulnerable people in times of acute need. Effective humanitarian assistance lays the foundation for recovery and sustainable development. It cannot and should not substitute, however, for the diplomatic engagement required to create peace and stability.

Humanitarian crises present a moral challenge to the United States. A robust and coordinated response to humanitarian emergencies should be an obligation and a foreign policy priority. U.S. humanitarian assistance should have clearly stated goals for its operation, established principles for how assistance should be administered, and priorities that help identify where assistance and protection are most needed.


List of endorsing organizations (in alphabetical order):

American Joint Distribution Committee
American Red Cross International Services
American Refugee Committee
Brother’s Brother Foundation
Christian Children’s Fund
Church World Service
Food for the Hungry
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
Helen Keller International
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Islamic Relief USA
Jesuit Refugee Service USA
Liberty in North Korea
Mercy Corps
Operation USA
Oxfam America
Pan American Development Foundation
Pathfinder International
Plan USA
Refugees International
Relief International
Save the Children
Women’s Refugee Commission
World Vision

Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
202-462-0400 ext. 5946