The very term "humanitarian" denotes caring and compassion. It's intrinsic to our nature; we want to help those less fortunate. That can be manifested in myriad ways, from lending a hand to our neighbors to writing a check to provide food and shelter for those struggling half a world away. And it feels good.
The face of humanitarian aid has changed dramatically over time, even though the core values of giving have changed very little. Today, there are thousands of organizations established to offer assistance to those in need, providing a conduit for those who want to give. Those entities can be an extension of a government, such as the United States Agency for International Development, or founded in the private sector, such as Mercy Corps International. A good number have a religious component. Many work on various levels, ranging from direct assistance to lobbying world leaders to increase aid. Most, though, have the singular goal of helping people directly.
Sadly, there are also scams, run by disreputable individuals looking to take advantage of your good will. To avoid those, consult a watchdog agency, such as Charity Navigator, which ranks the financial health of more than 5,500 United States-based charitable organizations at work worldwide [Source: Charity Navigator]. Most of the organizations on the following pages have received high marks from Charity Navigator.
There are many casualties in war, including the well being of soldiers. These are the men and women who, when they enlist for a tour of duty, do so with the knowledge that they're putting their lives at risk for their country. Giving back to those who protect us is a laudable cause. When you consider that soldiers are also often at the front lines of humanitarian aid efforts, it's difficult to imagine a group more deserving.
Outreach programs range from providing cell phones and addressing medical and housing needs to assistance for dependents. In the United States, highly regarded groups such as Homes for Our Troops, Armed Services YMCA, Army Emergency Relief, Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and Special Operations Warrior Foundation are fighting the good fight for these brave men and women.
Internationally, the issue can be infinitely more complex. When NATO soldiers return to developed counties, there are often government-sponsored programs that provide assistance. But in places such as the Sudan, in Africa, where youngsters are often forcibly enlisted to fight, international organizations such as the United Nations World Food Programme provide support for those child soldiers hoping to return to civilian life, while the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, lobbies governments to commit more funding to social programs [Source: Baddorf].
Not all humanitarian aid targets Third World countries. The ongoing global economic crisis has families in many developed countries reeling. Despite the almost comical number of TV ads promoting individual bailouts, for many the debt problem is real and severe. Those living on extended credit can rarely afford to lose their jobs. If unemployment hits home, the threat of foreclosure or medical emergencies can translate into a downward spiral that leads directly to poverty. In colder climates, that can mean choosing between food and heat.
Most aid missions addressing poverty in the United States are locally based. Among the most highly rated by Charity Navigator are the Central Dallas Ministries in Texas, the Dollar Energy Fund in Pittsburgh, Penn., the Heat and Warmth Fund in Detroit and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Portland, Ore.
Abroad, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is actually a compilation of 186 organizations that deliver significant aid in the event of a crisis. Although the group's stated focus is disaster relief, its overriding goal is to "improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity" through promoting humanitarian principles, public education for better preparedness and supplementing youth activities. Another preeminent player in the field is the World Bank. This worldwide organization, which is "working for a world free of poverty," has contributed roughly $40 billion in disaster management in 500 operations since 1980 [source: the World Bank].
According to the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), sub-Saharan Africa continues to be a minefield of deadly disease. In 2009, an estimated 22.4 million peoplein the region were living with HIV, more than two-thirds of the world's total [source: United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS]. In 2008, roughly 1.4 million died from AIDS, and 1.9 million became infected with HIV. Since the epidemic began, more than 14 million children are estimated to have lost one or both parents to the diseases [source: Africa Files].
With numbers so vast, it's difficult to imagine that contributions have much impact. But the international charity AVERT maintains that every dollar is needed to improve prevention, treatment and care efforts. Without a "massive expansion" of programs, say AVERT officials, the AIDS toll will increase dramatically. Presently, for every two people who begin treatment for HIV, another five contract the virus [source: AVERT]. Prevention, therefore, is crucial, and the focus of most efforts. Additional efforts address treatment, and the mind-numbing fall-out of the existing death toll.
In addition to UNAIDS and AVERT, major players in the fight against AIDS in Africa include the Global Fund, Population Services International and Partners in Health.
Hunger is a silent killer. According to UNICEF, a person dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds, and that victim is often a child under the age of 5 [source: UNICEF]. Hunger can strike both suddenly, in the case of swift-moving disasters, or slowly, such as withered crops and barren soils following long, uninterrupted droughts. Climate change, in fact, is one of the great emerging trends in humanitarian aid. Oftentimes, aid to areas affected by famine comes in the form of direct supplies, led by such quick-response organizations as UNICEF, Oxfam America, the World Food Programme and the International Red Cross.
Other programs are making amazing strides by empowering local farmers, giving them the knowledge and the tools to reap the benefits of modern farmland techniques. For example, Sustainable Harvest International has partnered with more than 2,000 families and helped plant almost 3 million trees in Belize, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua while overseeing the conversion of almost 14,000 acres for diversified land use, primarily farming [source: Sustainable Harvest International].
The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a man-made disaster of unequaled proportion, surpassing even the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989, and will likely have an impact for generations. Even conservative government estimates peg the spill at more than 4.9 million barrels of oil [source: Robertson and Krauss]. The spill not only threatens the marine ecosystems and birdlife for thousands of square miles, but potentially the region's food chain and many Gulf Coast businesses [source: Associated Press]. With so many conflicting reports, some organizations, such as Greenpeace, have launched independent investigations to better understand the scope on this catastrophe.
Donations can be targeted to protecting threatened wildlife, the recovery of tarnished ecosystems or assisting area economies. Some organizations that provide broad environmental support include Greenpeace, EarthShare, Oceana North America and the Center for Biological Diversity. Among the leading agencies focusing on wildlife affected by the oil spill are the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Nature Institute and the American Bird Conservancy. A different, but equally effective tack is to support Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest law firm first founded in 1971 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which has challenged several government assertions regarding the spill in court. Local charities assisting businesses and residents include Catholic Charities, Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Civil war in developing countries is a grim impediment to humanitarian aid. Infighting between warring factions can be so vicious that the very act of delivering necessary supplies -- food, clothing, medical and building materials -- can be a life-threatening proposition. According to a recent report issued by the London-based Overseas Development Institute, an average of 95 foreign aid workers were killed in each of the past three years, up from about 66 each year between 2003 and 2006 [source: Humanitarian Policy Group]. In one particularly brutal attack in August 2010, 10 members of a medical team sponsored by the Christian-based International Assistance Mission -- including six Americans -- were massacred in Afghanistan [source: Associated Press].
The rate of kidnappings of aid workers is also skyrocketing, climbing from about 18 a year between 2003 and 2006, to roughly 57 a year since 2007. Afghanistan, Sudan's Dafur region and Somalia account for 60 percent of the attacks, while Chad, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Iraq also pose significant threats. In March 2009, five aid workers in Darfur were kidnapped from a Médicins Sans Frontières compound after the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes. All were later released, but the action was chilling [source: Walt].
Another stark reality of philanthropic efforts is that even the best intentions can be waylaid if aid falls into the wrong hands. Over the years, humanitarian aid has even come under fire as a political tool, used to wield influence in a relentless power struggle between governments, guerillas, tribes and clans.
The death toll from massive flooding in Pakistan is relatively small -- estimated at between 1,300 to 1,600 -- when compared to the more than 70,000 killed in the country's 2005 earthquake [source: The New York Times]. Still, the sheer scale of the population affected by the Pakistan flooding -- estimated at 20 million -- "establishes an unfolding humanitarian crisis that demands a massive response from the international community" according to the Connecticut-based foundation AmeriCares.
Epic floods and the mind-boggling scope of devastation that comes with them have always prompted a strong philanthropic response. Following the carnage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Americans gave $6.5 billion in aid. And when a giant tsunami crashed ashore in Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, American donors contributed $1.5 billion in relief funds [source: Charity Navigator]. In northwest Pakistan, where a swath the size of California is now underwater, the need is great, but the donations have been slow to materialize (roughly $102 million by the end of August 2010) [source: Reuters]. To make matters worse, Pakistan suffered flooding again in August and September 2011, killing more than 400 people [source: USAID]. The most pressing needs immediately after flooding such as this include food, clean water, medical supplies and shelter. AmeriCares, Mercy Corps, Action Against Hunger, Concern Worldwide and ActionAid International are among the groups spearheading the relief efforts.
Mother Nature is not always benevolent, but this matriarch's dark side can highlight our good side. The catastrophic earthquakes in Chile and Haiti in early 2010 are a prime example. On February 27, Chile was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, measuring 8.8 on the Richter Magnitude Scale. Leading the aid response were several well-established organizations, including AmeriCares, Oxfam America, Habitat for Humanity International and Doctors Without Borders.
In Haiti, the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake claimed more than 222,570 victims and rendered 1.5 million people homeless. A year later, 810,000 people were still homeless [source: United Nations]. The American Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration partnered in a $7.5 million initiative to aid communities hosting residents displaced by the January 12 earthquake, with the goal of assisting 60,000 people [source: ReliefWeb].
The most innocent are often the most vulnerable. Children often bear the brunt of disasters and war in disproportionate numbers. According to the group Save the Children, more than 8 million children perish every year before the age of 5 for reasons ranging from disease to malnutrition. And an estimated 358,000 women will die due to pregnancy or childbirth complications [source: Save the Children]. Just as alarming are reports indicating that although child mortality rates overall have declined worldwide, the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest children continues to grow. Further, children -- some as young as 9 years old -- are often exploited during war, forcibly enlisted to fight for competing factions [source: Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers].
Fortunately, there are many relief organizations both home and abroad with the primary goal of helping those who are most helpless. In addition to the Connecticut-based Save the Children and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), other leading groups include Children's Hunger Relief Fund, ChildFund International, Children's Defense Fund and Childcare Worldwide. Many child-related organizations allow donors to "adopt" a child, giving them a more rewarding personal relationship with their beneficiaries. Others, such as Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, look to end the practice of recruiting children to fight.
With thousands of worthwhile causes that need help, there's a good chance that the one that strikes a specific chord for you isn't mentioned here. That's OK. The important thing is to find the right match. That's not always easy, given that the existing causes are often as complex as the world we live in. For a road map to humanitarian aid, visit Relief Web. This Web-based resource, operated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, tracks emergencies around the globe. Another solid clearinghouse is InterAction.
To make certain the organization you decide to work with has the same lofty goals, and to assure that your donations are doing the most good, use an evaluation organization such as Charity Navigator or GiveWell. As mentioned earlier, these agencies assess charities to determine how capably they distribute donor contributions. And while these organizations often recommend donating to established foundations, there are examples of long-time organizations that aren't operating efficiently. In short, it pays to do your homework. Especially if you're putting your money where your heart is.
For more about humanitarian efforts and related topics, turn your attention to the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks profiles three charities that need knitted items, including the Snuggles Project, Knitted Knockers and Wildlife Victoria.
More Great Links
- Africa Files, "HIV/AIDS epidemic update, Sub Saharan Africa" Nov. 24, 2009. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.africafiles.org/article.asp?ID=22348
- Associated Press, "Evidence of oil tainting Gulf food web," Aug. 10, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/08/blue_crabs_provide_evidence_oi.html
- Associated Press, "Six Americans on medical team killed in Afghanistan" Aug. 8, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/afghanistan/2010-08-06-nato-bombings_N.htm
- Baddorf, Zack, Inter Press Service, "Children Too Hungry to Return to Civilian Life," Aug. 13, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=52479
- Humanitarian Communication Group. "Haiti Earthquake Response (as of 8 Jan 2011)." United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Jan. 8, 2011. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minustah/documents/ocha_haiti_one_year_factsheet.pdf
- Humanitarian Policy Group, "Providing aid in insecure environments," April 2009. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/3250.pdf
- InterAction, "InterAction Members Respond to Floods in Pakistan" Aug. 23, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.interaction.org/article/interaction-members-respond-floods-pakistan
- InterAction. "InterAction Members Respond to the Earthquake in Chile." (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.interaction.org/crisis-list/interaction-members-respond-earthquake-chile
- The New York Times. "2010 Pakistan Floods." Nov. 16, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/f/floods/2010_pakistan_floods/index.html
- ReliefWeb, "Haiti - American Red Cross and IOM Support Communities Hosting Displaced Haitians" Sept. 14, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://reliefweb.int/node/367679
- Robertson, Campbell and Krauss, Clifford, "Gulf Spill is the Largest of its Kinds, Scientists Say," The New York Times, Aug. 2, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/us/03spill.html
- Save the Children, "World Leaders Must Act to End Child Deaths" Sept. 20, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://reliefweb.int/node/368073
- Sontag, Deborah, "Haitians Cry in Letters, 'Please Do Something," The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/world/americas/20haiti.html
- UNAIDS, AIDS epidemic update, 2009. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://data.unaids.org/pub/Report/2009/JC1700_Epi_Update_2009_en.pdf
- UNICEF, Millenium Development Goals, "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.unicef.org/mdg/poverty.html
- U.S. Agency for International Development. "Fact Sheet #1, Fiscal Year (FY) 2012." Oct. 3, 2011. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/10.03.11%20-%20USAID-DCHA%20Pakistan%20Floods%20Fact%20Sheet%20%231%20-%20FY%202012.pdf
- U.S. Geological Survey. "Magnitude 8.8 - OFFSHORE BIO-BIO, CHILE." Dept. of the Interior, Magnitude, Chilean earthquake. Feb. 27, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqsww/Quakes/us2010tfan.php
- Walt, Vivienne, "Report: Attacks on aid Workers on the Rise," Time magazine, April 9, 2009. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1890311,00.html
- World Health Organization. "Public health risk assessment and interventions - Earthquake: Haiti" Jan. 21, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://reliefweb.int/node/340949