Responding to Humanitarian Crises

U.S. agencies provide humanitarian assistance to foreign nations every year to save lives, alleviate suffering, and reduce the economic impact of natural or manmade disasters. Responding to humanitarian crises is time critical and requires synchronized effort between U.S. government responders, the host nation, and non-governmental and international organizations. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (Sections 491- 493) establishes the President's authority to respond to humanitarian crises, and includes criteria for when and how the U.S. government responds and basic guidance on how the interagency should be organized to provide humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. Chief of Mission is responsible for requesting U.S. assistance in a humanitarian crisis via a disaster declaration cable, coordinating with the host nation, and defining the goals for U.S. assistance. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID is responsible for providing foreign disaster assistance and coordinating the response of the U.S. Government to disasters abroad. Other U.S. agencies contribute capabilities and expertise, as necessary. The OFDA Director, or designee, is responsible for overseeing Washington-based support, coordinating interagency contributions, and supporting field operations. Often the relevant State Department regional bureau coordinates interagency contributions. The State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration also administers U.S. refugee assistance and admissions programs. At times one of the NSC interagency coordinating bodies will chair recurrent meetings during a crisis to resolve issues and provide direction. A crisis must exceed the host nation’s ability to handle and they must formally request assistance before the United States can respond.


Pakistan: Catholic Relief Services distributes supplies in Purri

At the beginning of a crisis, OFDA dispatches an assessment team to determine the scope of the disaster’s damage, identify initial needs of victims, and recommend U.S. assistance, if necessary. The decision to use U.S. capabilities is made through the Washington interagency coordination process. For large or extended operations, OFDA deploys a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to assist the Chief of Mission with management and coordination. The DART is comprised of specialists trained in a variety of disaster relief skills (e.g. health, nutrition, water and sanitation, engineering, logistics, communications, disaster management) and is organized into six functional areas: management/liaison, operations, planning, logistics, administration, and communications. Disaster relief may include relief commodities, services, transportation support, grants to relief organizations, and/or technical assistance.

OFDA may request support of other U.S. agencies, most often DOD, to supplement the relief efforts of the affected country’s civil authorities or humanitarian relief community. For instance, OFDA may request use of DOD aircraft to airlift relief commodities or support nongovernmental organizations when commercial aircraft are unavailable. DOD may also provide logistical support, supplies, infrastructure repair, transportation, airfield management, communications, medical support, distribution of relief commodities, search and rescue, and/or security. When DOD is involved in disaster relief, OFDA will assign liaisons to work at various levels of military organizations to ensure that relief efforts are mutually supportive and not duplicative.

Funding to respond to humanitarian crises can be provided through appropriated foreign assistance funding, supplemental funding, DOD Operations and Maintenance accounts, and DOD’s Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster and Civic Aid.

OFDA’s Foreign Operations Guide

More about search and rescue operations

DOD Directive 5100.46 Foreign Disaster Relief