IFRC

Services for the disaster-affected: Relief


Relief refers to the provision of essential, appropriate and timely humanitarian assistance to those affected by a disaster, based on an initial rapid assessment of needs and designed to contribute effectively and speedily to their early recovery. It consists of the delivery of a specific quantity and quality of goods to a quantified group of beneficiaries, according to selection criteria that identify actual needs and the groups that are least able to provide them for themselves.

The Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies through their presence in the communities are the front line providers of relief. The International Federation brings all its resources together to ensure relief is provided as rapidly as possible.

Relief can be sub-divided into three categories:

  • Food: Food supplies are frequently part of the Red Cross/Red Crescent response to emergencies. However, it is essential in each situation to first establish that food supply is a correct response and then that the composition is defined and described after an adequate comprehensive survey. In every instance it is necessary to ensure that food donations are culturally and nutritionally appropriate for the affected population and that the costs of their purchase, transportation, storage and distribution is kept to a minimum.

    Food assistance will not be needed where disasters have no major effect on food stocks or crops, or where the effect is very localised, and when people are able to draw on their own savings or food reserves. There are three main types of food assistance for the most common situations:
    • Short-term assistance. The need for short-term food relief, rapidly followed by rehabilitation and development activities, is typical of many “sudden” disasters, including floods, earthquakes, high winds, fires, pest attacks, short-term civil disturbances etc. Food stocks can be destroyed, normal food supply and marketing systems disrupted, and crops damaged or lost. The aid might be required for only a few days – which is the case with many earthquakes – or up to the next harvest, when subsistence farmers and agricultural labourers have totally lost food stocks and crops;
    • Deferred assistance. Assistance deferred – until just before the next harvest, for example – will be the case following events which have damaged but not totally destroyed crops or food stocks, as in many floods, storms and localised droughts;
    • Long-term assistance. Here, assistance is provided over a long period and combines both relief and self-reliance development activities. Over time, the balance shifts progressively away from relief. This type of assistance applies to emergencies due to successive crop failures and most situations involving refugees or displaced people.

The balance between relief and more productive applications of food assistance, and the rate at which the balance can be shifted towards the latter, depends on many factors. These include the initial health and nutritional condition of the people, the possibilities for growing food or engaging in other income generating activities, government policies, security situation etc.
For more information please consult the International Federation food security and nutrition policy

  • Shelter: Shelter is a critical determinant for survival in the initial stages of a disaster. Beyond survival, shelter is necessary for security and personal safety, protection from the elements and resistance to ill health and disease. Shelter assistance is provided to individual households for the repair or construction of dwellings or the settlement of displaced households within existing accommodation or communities. When it is not possible to provide individual shelter, collective shelter is provided in suitable large public buildings or structures, such as warehouses, halls or barracks, or in temporary planned or self-settled camps.

  • Non-food items: When people have lost everything in a disaster, they require basic and culturally appropriate goods and supplies to maintain their health, privacy and dignity, to meet their personal hygiene needs, to prepare and eat food and to achieve necessary levels of thermal comfort. These might include clothing, blankets, bedding, stoves and kitchen sets, water containers and hygiene products.

Cash and voucher programmes:

Although the type of emergency assistance required after a disaster is often fairly easy to identify (for instance, earthquake, flood and hurricane victims almost always need emergency shelter), how it is delivered to the intended beneficiaries can make a huge difference to their level of vulnerability, by allowing them to gain more control of their lives and improving their survival chances. Large-scale emergency response often relies heavily on the channelling of emergency aid from outside the affected area, requiring significant logistics, infrastructure and human resources. Sometimes this can increase vulnerability by stifling local coping mechanisms (for example, by fostering dependency) and undermining local markets. In some cases, urgently needed relief items can be bought locally and do not have to be brought in from outside.

In certain circumstances, therefore, a more appropriate, efficient and effective way of delivering emergency aid might be to distribute vouchers (to be exchanged for a limited range of essential items) or even cash to victims of disasters, where local markets are able to provide the required items. This method of assistance has the advantages of being

  • relatively inexpensive to implement (hence more money can go directly to the beneficiaries);
  • more flexible for the beneficiaries, since they can choose what to spend the money on;
  • supportive of the local economy.

In practice, voucher or cash programmes can have drawbacks. The distribution of cash presents security risks for both the distributing agency and the recipient. Such programmes are most secure where recipients have a bank account (not always the case in many countries). In addition, the cash or voucher must be given to the right person in the family to ensure it is used for essential purchases. The control of family resources is a social, cultural, religious and gender issue, which needs to be taken into account in the planning of voucher or cash programmes. Voucher programmes usually take a certain amount of time to set up administratively, making them of limited use at the beginning of the emergency phase.


Documents available:



The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright