Disaster relief supplies provided by USAID are hauled away from an airport in Bangladesh, following severe flooding in that country (1988).
National Archives
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The Origins of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance

It has long been an important element of U.S. international affairs.
In the twenty-first century, the U.S. government is among the world’s leading donors of bilateral disaster assistance. In an average year, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)—the branch of USAID charged with coordinating the government’s response to international catastrophes—responds to some seventy disasters in more than fifty countries. The Department of Defense, the State Department, and other federal agencies regularly participate in global disaster relief and recovery efforts. In addition to providing aid through its own channels, the U.S. government maintains official partnerships with scores of private firms and voluntary (non-governmental) organizations that are active in the field of international humanitarian relief.

How did the U.S. government become such a central player in global disaster response? When—and why—did U.S. officials adopt foreign disaster aid as an instrument of foreign policy? Although the formal bureaucratic structures and legislation that undergird contemporary U.S. international disaster assistance date to the mid- to late-twentieth century, the roots of this system extend deep into the past. Tracing these origins, this essay charts the U.S. government’s role in responding to overseas natural disasters during three periods: the years before 1900, the early twentieth century through World War II, and the three decades following that conflict. As this overview shows, the U.S. government’s gradual entrance into the field of international disaster aid closely paralleled its growth as a global economic, political, and military power, and was driven by multiple and evolving diplomatic aims, economic calculations, and moral considerations.

The beginnings of the U.S. government’s involvement in international disaster assistance date to the early American Republic. In March 1812 a major earthquake occurred in Venezuela, leaving the city of Caracas in ruin. In response, Congress appropriated $50,000 to aid survivors of this catastrophe while authorizing president James Madison to purchase and ship food to Venezuela.[4] But if this episode marked an important early instance of U.S. foreign disaster aid, it was in many ways an exceptional event. It would be decades before official responses like this one became commonplace. For the rest of the century, U.S. governmental aid for overseas natural disasters—and for any humanitarian crisis, for that matter—remained limited at best.
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