Regardless of where a disaster occurs-whether in developing countries or in highly developed ones-the arrival of aid from outside the affected area can pose a serious challenge. News of major disasters can reach a global audience in minutes and in some cases, foreign aid is mobilized in a matter of hours. This outpouring of assistance can greatly help a disaster-stricken country if it meets real needs. However, it can just as quickly clog the system and become a burden if it has not been requested, is inappropriate for the situation or diverts personnel from other more pressing tasks to deal with it.

Some principles of humanitarian assistance include:

Don't stereotype disasters. The effects of disasters on the health sector differ according to the type of disaster, the economic and political situation in the affected country

Observe communication and coordination procedures and lines of supervision already in place. This is best accomplished through regular meetings as part of the disaster-planning process between national authorities and representatives of donor agencies, NGOs, and other organizations involved in humanitarian assistance.

Potential donors must be informed of what is and what is not wanted or needed. Guidelines should be circulated to all potential suppliers of assistance and diplomatic and consular representatives abroad to prevent ineffective contributions.

Donors should not compete with each other to meet the most visible. The quality and appropriateness of the assistance is more important that its size, monetary value or the speed with which it arrives.

It is unlikely that medical personnel will be required from abroad. Unsolicited foreign medical teams and volunteers usually arrive unprepared or too late to be of real assistance to disaster victims. On the other hand, teams from neighboring countries or regions that share a common culture and language can provide valuable assistance.

The need for search and rescue, life-saving medical attention is short-lived. Special caution is urged when considering international assistance that is useless once the acute emergency phase has passed-including personnel, specialized equipment, mobile hospitals and perishable items This type of assistance.

Don't overreact to media reports for urgent international assistance. Despite the tragic images we are shown, get the complete picture and wait until pleas for aid have been formally issued.


  • Read more and download a copy of the booklet Humanitarian Assistance in Disaster Situations: A Guide for Effective Aid.
  • Consult or download a pamphlet on some of the do's and don'ts of international aid, suitable for widespread distribution.