Course 4 Why respond?

Relief is

You are wrong!

There are many reasons to help. They are not always that altruistic.

You might think that help is given to people in need just because it is the right thing to do. But when it comes to organised help, it is not always that simple,  humanitarian or kind-hearted.

Help might also not always look the same. Sometimes it comes in the form of money, food packages, or other resources. Other times, help can come in the form of information. Without information and awareness, it is more difficult to collect aid.

So, what are some of the other reasons and ways people help out?
Religious philanthropy

Inspired by their faith, churches and other religious organisations are often important sources of aid during times of hunger. Through their international and local networks, they collect and distribute charity. While such help is generally unconditional, it is often used as a way of promoting their religion.

Portrait of Thomas Harvey

Quakers, like Thomas Harvey, helped during the famines of Ireland and Finland because of their Christian faith. They drew attention to the government’s inaction and asked their international connections for donations to distribute aid locally. This approach to relief is still influential today.

Food for work

In 19th-century Europe, it was feared that charity would make people lazy, so governments required people to work in return for help. During famines, the poor could work at so-called ‘relief works’ in exchange for aid or (too little) money to buy food. Sadly, these often did more harm than good. People endured bad working and living conditions, got sick easily, and did not get enough food.

Arnold Boos
Construction of Taipale channel in Varkaus (1868).
Reproduction by Viktor Barsokevitsch (1916) © Kuopio Cultural History Museum

In Finland, construction work on the new and larger Taipale channel began in December 1867 and lasted until 1871. Construction work was done during the Great Hunger Years. Soon word got around about the possibility to work and be paid in grain. Workers arrived from all over Finland. In January 1868, 600 men worked on the channel. Many had brought their families with them. Many had to live in pits dug into the ground. The primitive living conditions along with diseases led to increased deaths. Between April and May 1868 alone, 281 deceased were buried.

Politics of Relief

Countries give help to build friendships with other nations. After World War II, humanitarian aid played a big role in early Cold War politics.

Berlin civilians watching an airlift plane land at Tempelhof Airport (1948)

After World War II, Germany and Berlin were divided into zones – occupied by the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain. To regulate the food distribution in the whole of Berlin, the Soviets instituted a blockade. Western media portrayed this as a plot for mass starvation, while the Airlift was represented as a way to prevent this supposed starvation. As such, the Airlift served political goals. By sending chocolate instead of bombs, Americans posed as friends of West Germany, ready to team up in the Cold War.

Allied bombers fly over The Hague at low altitude after dropping food parcels above Duindigt.
Photograph by Menno Huizinga (1945).
© NIOD Collection

On 29 April 1945, the legendary food drops ‘Operation Manna’ (by the British) and ‘Operation Chowhound’ (by the Americans) started. For ten days, Allied heavy bombers dropped supplies in the densely populated western provinces of the Netherlands. The role of these famous airdrops in ending the famine was largely symbolic, as most Allied relief came via land and sea. For the Allies, the food drops were a political tool, important for their status and post-war power relations as it contributed to marking an end to the war in a visible and spectacular fashion.

Spreading the news

Journalism is crucial in revealing and getting help for famine, but it can also be used to hide the truth.

Portrait of Voula Papaioannou
© Benaki Museum Photographic Archives

During the occupation of Greece in World War II, taking photos was banned, but some brave journalists and photographers still did it. Voula Papaioannou’s photographs of starving men, women and children were shared with the International Red Cross and other organisations in Switzerland, Britain, and the USA. These pictures stimulated public support for ending the Allied blockade.

A newspaper article on the famine written by Gareth Jones (1905-1935)
Published in The Evening Standard, 31 March 1933, London.

Stalin’s regime in Moscow denied the existence of famine in Soviet Ukraine and the wider Soviet Union. However, journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge and Rhea Clyman worked hard to share information about the famine. The Welsh journalist Gareth Jones is probably best known for reporting on the famine in Ukraine.

At the time Jones wrote, the USSR was commonly referred to simply as ‘Russia,’ but Jones wrote about ‘Soviet Ukraine’.

Kinship & community

A sense of kinship and community is vital in giving aid during crises like famines. When people feel connected to their community and see themselves as part of a larger social fabric, they are more likely to contribute time, resources, and support to help alleviate suffering and address urgent needs.

Poster advertising the play (1933)
© Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, Winnipeg

Canada is home to a large Ukrainian diaspora community. In 1933, during the famine in Soviet Ukraine, Ukrainian-Canadians living in Winnipeg organised a theatre play titled Hunger in Ukraine to spread awareness of the famine.

Kindred Spirits monument
Photograph by Lindsay Janssen

In 1847, despite enduring their own hardships from hunger and displacement during the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw Nation raised and donated $170 (equivalent to $5000 today) to support relief efforts in Ireland during the Great Famine. This act of kindness stemmed from a sense of solidarity and a shared experience of suffering. In 2017, a monument was erected in County Cork, Ireland, honouring this gesture known as the ‘Choctaw gift.’ During the Covid-19 pandemic, Irish citizens raised funds to aid two struggling Native American tribes, in remembrance of the aid they had received nearly two centuries earlier.

In conclusion

Aid comes in many forms, and for many reasons.

Responses to famine, like help, relief, and news coverage, have varied over time. Help can come from local groups, the government, or international sources. Local community aid is often just as vital, or even more crucial than help from other countries.

International humanitarian aid may not always be completely selfless. Just like food can be used as a tool, aid can serve political purposes. It can be used to make alliances, build political connections, or to gain popularity among the population. At the same time, we can see how important feelings of belonging and connection are in humanitarian aid. People are more likely to help those they feel a connection to, whether through shared history, culture, religion, or community.

What’s this like today?

Today, humanitarian aid prevents extreme food insecurity from turning into famine. In 2022, 160 million people received assistance from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, active in over 120 countries and territories. They provide short-term emergency relief that can mean the difference between life and death. They also work on long-term stability and sustainability, for a future without hunger.

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