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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

International Crises and Disasters: U.S. Humanitarian Assistance Response Mechanisms

Rhoda Margesson
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy

The majority of humanitarian emergencies worldwide stem from natural disasters or from conflicts. Congress has consistently supported humanitarian efforts as a means of responding to crises in the short term, taking the lead, and promoting a U.S. presence. Intervention results in varying amounts of relief and recovery assistance and can have an important impact not only on the relief operation itself but on broader foreign policy issues. In the 113th Congress, international humanitarian and refugee assistance is expected to continue to have a strong measure of bipartisan support, with key policy issues focused on budget priorities, levels and types of funding, the sources of other support available worldwide, and the ways in which operational assistance is delivered.

Factors that may impact decision-making include the type of humanitarian assistance required, the impact of conflict and refugee flows on stability in the region in question, and the role of neighboring countries in contributing to the relief effort. Examples of issues likely to remain of congressional interest include competing aid and budget priorities, reimbursing U.S. government agencies for their expenditures (to replenish the emergency accounts or other accounts that have been used to provide assistance), and civilian and military coordination, including the evolving role of the Department of Defense in humanitarian assistance. Other priorities may include an examination of the disparity between numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees worldwide and the available funding for these groups; physical protection of refugees and other vulnerable populations in addition to the protection of human rights; programs to address gender based violence; and the creation of durable solutions for displaced populations.

The President can provide emergency humanitarian assistance through several sources whose funding is authorized and appropriated by Congress. These are funds currently appropriated to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) through the International Disaster and Famine Assistance (IDA) account; U.S. Department of Agriculture food aid programs under P.L. 480 Food for Peace and Section 416 (b) of the Agriculture Act of 1949; the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) and the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund (ERMA) accounts; and funds appropriated to the Department of Defense, Overseas Humanitarian and Disaster and Civic Aid (OHDACA) account.

In addition, the President has the authority to draw down defense equipment and direct military personnel to respond to disasters and provide space-available transportation on military aircraft and ships to private donors who wish to transport humanitarian goods and equipment in response to a disaster. Finally, the President can request other government agencies to assist within their capabilities. The FY2014 Foreign Operations budget request for global humanitarian accounts, which does not include OHDACA, totals $4.1 billion.

This report examines U.S. humanitarian assistance in international crises and disaster situations. It considers the sources and types of U.S. government aid, the response mechanisms of key U.S. agencies and departments, and possible issues for Congress—including competing aid and budget priorities, burdensharing and donor-fatigue, the transparency and efficacy of U.S. humanitarian assistance, consequences of such assistance, and potential links to broader U.S. foreign policy goals.

Date of Report: May 24, 2013
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: RL33769
Price: $29.95

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