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Know your aid: Humanitarian aid types.

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Helpful principles to ensure good intentions lead to great outcomes when helping others.

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Aristotle said it best when he concluded “to give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” This statement is over two thousand years old and is still something that even the best of today’s NGO’s and philanthropic foundations struggle with in their own decision making.

Our willingness and desire to help others in their time of need or who are struggling with disadvantages is one of the most beautiful things about our society. But, how do we help in ways that ensure our involvement leads to more good than harm when even large organizations have difficulty with these same decisions? Fortunately, there are several principles, tools, and techniques that any willing supporter can use to help make sure our charitable aid leads to the positive impact that we intend. This series of posts titled "Know your aid" will discuss several of these ideas and provide practical ways to apply them.

The first helpful principle of aid is the classification of humanitarian aid types. This kind of differentiation helps supporters know what type of aid is needed and when, depending on the current condition of those they wish to help.

Types of Aid

Figure 1. Sub-types of aid

Aid is a very broad topic of providing assistance to someone or something else that includes everything from helping a neighbor with yard work to reducing your carbon footprint. Humanitarian or charitable aid is a large sub-type specifically dedicated to providing material or logistical assistance to people in need; typically, in response to natural/ man-made crisis' or lower socioeconomic development.

As pointed out in this research, there are no clearly agreed upon definitions of types of humanitarian aid in working principle; however, most agree that there are two main, time-based areas of focus: 1) short-term relief (post-crisis) and 2) long-term development (post-relief or non-crisis). These areas are then frequently broken down into sub-types such as emergency, relief, rehabilitation, and development aid. Authors of When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert help visualize these time-based focus areas and sub-types by placing them on the following graph (modified):

Figure 2. Stages of Humanitarian Aid (When Helping Hurts)

Emergency/Relief (Post-Crisis) Aid

Emergency/relief aid is the triage form of humanitarian aid. All other societal needs are sacrificed in order to focus on meeting immediate basic physical needs. The primary goal of relief aid is to figuratively or literally "stop the bleeding" as quickly as possible. The best way to identify if emergency/relief aid is appropriate is to ask the question "Are human lives at immediate risk of death or great socioeconomic destruction?" The most common events that require relief aid are natural or man-made environmental disasters (e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, oil spills), global pandemics (e.g. COVID-19 of 2020, Ebola of 2014-16), or personal emergencies such as death in the family, job-loss, or abuse.

The primary items to note on emergency/relief aid are:

  • It must happen quickly

  • It must be temporary

  • Giver/receiver relationship

  • Only administered post-crisis

  • Knowing when to stop and exit or shift to long-term aid is key

When you feel led to support with emergency/relief aid, here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Even if it feels uncompassionate, money is the best form of emergency aid. You can focus your compassion on making sure your donation goes to an effective organization.

  • If you are unable to give monetary support, consider supporting non-material basic needs like hope and appreciation. One of the most beautiful outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the global outpouring of appreciation for all the front-line and essential workers doing their part to control the crisis.

  • Listen to the experts. Each crisis is unique requiring very specific needs to stop the bleeding and begin the recovery process. Before sending either yourself or donated goods and risking burdening the already constrained resources, contact an on-site relief organization to find out what specific volunteer skills and materials are needed.

Rehabilitation (Post-Relief) & Development (Non-Crisis) Aid

Rehabilitation and development aid are long-term, partnership-based efforts with the goal of local sustainability. They focus on the restoration and development of human and social capital through methods such as mentoring, workshops, skills training, and injustice removal to increase a community's holistic well-being [Kopinak].

The primary items to note on rehabilitation & development aid are:

  • Long-term goal oriented

  • Requires collaborative relationships built on trust

  • Empowers local communities for sustainability

  • Administered either post-relief or in non-crisis

  • Must identify root causes and maintain long-term investment

When you feel led to support with rehabilitation or developmental aid, here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Your time and understanding are more important than materials. Development requires the discovery of root causes. The best way to find them is to work with the community by building relationships based on trust. Above all, you must withhold judgement.

  • Let others own the solution. As much as you to want to solve the problem yourself, it's not yours to solve. For one, unless you are willing to provide the solution in perpetuity, the solution must come from the individual or community. Second, a major part of restoring and developing human capital is the incredible learning of discovering what does and does not work [Sowell]. You are there to provide information and guidance of potential solutions to hopefully shorten the learning-curve and support the solutions the individual or community decides to pursue.

  • Know the goal. There are no quick-fixes to long-term sustainability. Development aid takes time. There will be ups and downs. There is high demand for compassionate visionaries from both the supporters and beneficiaries who can see through the rough patches and keep all efforts on the path to success.


Knowing the different types of aid can be incredibly valuable in making sure our efforts and resources are effective at achieving intended goals. In later posts, we will take a deeper look at each of the main focus areas and explore how and when to apply these different aid types.

If you have any comments or additional principles/techniques that you use in your own humanitarian aid efforts, I’d love to hear about them! Please contact directly or provide in the comment section below.

#nonprofits #charity #givingtuesdaynow #humanitarianaid #reliefaid #outcomesoveroutputs

A note from the author:

"The opinions in the article are from my own experiences and/or developed from the cited resources. These opinions and resources are based entirely on secular evidences; however, my passion and effort in this area are attributed wholly to my non-secular, Christian beliefs and values."

Joel Kern has over a decade of experience in local and international humanitarian relief and development efforts as well as for-profit business modeling. He is also a co-founder of, a consulting group that provides data capture and analytic tools to increase outcome performance of non-profits.

Know your a

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