Policy Brief

Policy for Humanitarian Action

Publication Year:
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

This Policy for Humanitarian Action outlines the context in which USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) operates, the fundamental principles and core values which underpin OFDA’s humanitarian activities, and the approach OFDA takes to address the critical humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable disaster-affected populations around the world. The policy derives from OFDA’s mandate, which encompasses the fundamental aims of humanitarian action—saving lives, alleviating human suffering, and mitigating the economic and social impact of disasters. It recognizes the links between independent humanitarian action and broader aid policies. In the context of this policy, humanitarian action includes protection and disaster assistance, disaster risk reduction, and efforts to build resilience. As part of the U.S. Government (USG), OFDA works to advance U.S. national interests, recognizing that needs-based humanitarian assistance is an important U.S. interest in its own right. OFDA’s authority and mandate flow from the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, in which the U.S. Congress confirmed that “prompt assistance to alleviate human suffering caused by natural and manmade disasters is an important expression of the humanitarian concern and tradition of the people of the United States.” This policy outlines how OFDA’s core values and strategic goals shape its work around the world.



Each year, over 300 million people are affected by natural disasters and man-made crises around the world. In recent years, the scope and intensity of disasters has increased, challenging the capacity of the international community, local governments, and civil society to meet humanitarian needs. Global climate change, the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, rapid urbanization, and intractable conflicts pose difficult challenges for humanitarian actors. Populations are on the move: by the close of 2014, 59.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, the highest figure in 70 years1 . The erosion of humanitarian access further compounds these challenges. Humanitarian action is rarely considered sacrosanct, and humanitarian workers are increasingly being targeted by both state and non-state actors, dramatically increasing the risks involved in the delivery of high-quality assistance in progressively more challenging and complex environments. The humanitarian landscape is also increasingly complex, and at times, crowded. Poorly coordinated responses can waste precious resources and imperil lives. Reforms in the international humanitarian architecture, initiated in 2005, have helped bring much-needed improvement. However, recent large-scale emergencies, including the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods in 2010, the ongoing Syria crisis, and the Ebola crisis in West Africa, have all demonstrated the need for significant further improvement and reform. In addition, new humanitarian actors continue to emerge, offering fresh challenges and opportunities for collaboration. The U.S. is committed to working with partners throughout the world to address these challenges. OFDA is dedicated to being a global leader in providing needs-based humanitarian assistance. This commitment stems from a humanitarian tradition deeply rooted within American history and culture and is embodied in OFDA’s mandate. OFDA was created in 1964 in response to a lack of coordination in USG humanitarian assistance provided to the survivors of a major earthquake in Skopje, a city in the former Yugoslavia. What initially began as a small coordination office housed at USAID has evolved into a team of hundreds of humanitarian and disaster response professionals based in Washington, D.C., and in field locations throughout the world. OFDA, which remains an office within USAID, serves as the lead federal coordinator for international disaster response and is charged with coordinating USG international humanitarian response activities and developing knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned to continuously improve these efforts. OFDA’s legal authority flows from Section 491 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, which authorizes OFDA to provide assistance for natural and human-caused disasters. There are multiple agencies and offices within the USG that provide different aspects of humanitarian assistance. In pursuit of its mandate, OFDA leads the USG in responding to disasters overseas by coordinating efforts, partnering with a range of humanitarian actors, providing rapid and flexible funding, deploying personnel to assess vulnerability and evolving situations on-the-ground, providing technical guidance, coordinating within the international humanitarian architecture, and making strategic programming and response recommendations. OFDA has strong programming, operational, and logistical capacities, a robust field presence, advisors in key coordination hubs globally, and a vast network of partners. This Policy for Humanitarian Actions details OFDA’s humanitarian commitment, core values, strategic humanitarian drivers, and overall policy goals.


Humanitarian Commitment and Values

OFDA upholds five core values. These values are inspired by overarching and fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, and operational independence. These humanitarian principles and the core values outlined below underpin all of OFDA’s work—both in designing and delivering humanitarian programming and in conducting all professional duties, in the field and at headquarters.

Core Value 1 -

Needs-Based Assistance OFDA is first and foremost focused on people who have been affected by disasters. The Foreign Assistance Act directed the President to “ensure that the assistance provided by the United States shall, to the greatest extent possible, reach those most in need.” As a direct result of this legislative requirement, OFDA strives to provide assistance on the basis of need. OFDA will ensure that people who are more vulnerable to disasters due to age, gender, disability, or other factors can equally benefit from assistance provided to the community.

Core Value 2 -

Commitment to People Affected by Disasters OFDA believes that people affected by a disaster should be at the center of the response and, as such, should be actively involved from start to finish. Recognizing that communities and governments are often best placed to respond to disasters, OFDA seeks whenever possible to build upon country capacities at all levels to prepare for and respond to emergencies. Assistance can have adverse side effects on those affected by disaster or conflict, but OFDA seeks to mitigate any adverse effects by working closely with partners to consult with impacted populations. International humanitarian assistance strives to be principled and “do no harm” since assistance may provide one side in a conflict an advantage over another, make a community or a portion of the community a target for attack, or create further conflict within a community. OFDA’s policies, approaches, and programming will always seek to mitigate these risks.

Core Value 3 -

Transparency and Accountability OFDA seeks to be transparent and accountable to the American people who fund its work, to the affected populations we serve, and to the partners we work with on a daily basis. OFDA is committed to transparent and open decision-making within the bounds of USG regulation and policy. As a learning organization, OFDA constantly seeks to improve programming to the benefit of those in need. OFDA strives to apply industry best practices in monitoring, evaluation, and reporting to ensure that it meets its accountability and learning responsibilities.

Core Value 4 -

Professionalism and Integrity OFDA strives to conduct itself in a professional manner, making decisions based on technical knowledge and in support of program quality and continued innovation. OFDA draws on the experience of professional humanitarians and technical specialists, often from the very communities which are experiencing disasters. OFDA also seeks to conduct itself with integrity in its interactions with all parts of the humanitarian community.

Core Value 5 -

Adaptability and Flexibility The needs of the community and the resources available to respond can change very quickly after a disaster or during a conflict. OFDA prides itself on being an office of open-minded problem solvers who can adapt to a myriad of complex situations, contexts, organizations, and cultures. As a part of its commitment to placing the needs of those affected first, OFDA places a high value on remaining flexible and adaptable to the changing situation during a response. OFDA works with the broader humanitarian community to respond to changing needs as quickly as it can.


OFDA’s overarching goal is to excel in international humanitarian response. OFDA focuses on excelling on three levels—OFDA’s own operations and programs, broad USG coordination as lead federal coordinator, and leadership within the international system. To this end, OFDA has adopted the three Strategic Goals below to guide its work.


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