What’s the Difference Between Relief and Development Programs?

The simplest breakdown goes like this:

Humanitarian relief programs are focused on rapid start-up, and rapid impact. Implementers of humanitarian programs need to gear up as fast as possible, and start providing necessary assistance as fast as possible. Their primary focus is not building local capacity, sustainability, or monitoring and evaluation. Their primary focus is getting help to people in need. They end when the emergency ends. Relief can come from the outside, and it is a response to some kind of breakdown or disaster.

Development programs are focused on achieving long-term change of some kind, with the intent of improving people’s lives and the lives of their descendants. They involve rigorous planning and ongoing operational research. They are rooted in local capacity building, because they are aimed at change which continues after the project ends. Even if it has outside support, development in the end has to come from inside.

In practice, however, it’s not that simple. (It never is, is it?) Sometimes the emergency doesn’t end. Situations that look like short-term humanitarian emergencies can go on for years, or even decades. Somalia, for example, Afghanistan, or Sudan. Programs designed to provide immediate assistance become a way of life for people in crisis. It would be nice if those programs could be converted into development programs, but it’s very hard to turn a relief program into a development program. The skill sets for the staff are different, for one thing. Building latrines and building community capacity can be a long, long way apart. You can hire new staff, though, or retrain your people. The other hurdle – usually the big one – is that relief programs and development programs have different donors.

Relief programs are generally funded by private donations and specific government donors. The US government, for example, funds emergency relief through the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Relief. Development programs are far less popular with private donors, and they’re funded by a different set of government agencies. If you want to change the focus of your program, you have to get different different donors, which mostly you can’t do. Donors don’t like to take over each other’s programs, you won’t be familiar with the new donor’s procedures and evaluation requirements, and development donors plan their financial priorities a long time in advance. They often won’t have money to pick up your newly transformed relief project.

Everyone’s perfect ideal for relief is to give aid that empowers the communities who receive it. Immediate assistance that also builds skills and improves quality of life for the long term. You could, for example, truck in water to a community struck by drought. Then you could dig wells and turn the wells over to local management. You could train a local engineering association or the Ministry of Water on well-digging and irrigation management and safe drinking water. We just need a funding structure that makes it happen.

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Alanna Shaikh, MPH

Alanna Shaikh is a global health professional currently based in Baku, Azerbaijan. She has managed projects all over the world on health, livelihoods, education, and emergency relief. Her technical specialties include health system strengthening, service integration, and behavior change.