Friends have often helped to relieve the suffering of those in urgent need. The immediate causes of the suffering have ranged across conflict, poverty, natural disaster, and persecution due to religious or political beliefs. As well as relieving immediate needs, Quakers have also contributed to building a better future for those affected.
Friends’ approach to relief work is underpinned by the belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, and the testimonies that follow, notably equality and community. This has meant assisting everyone in need, with no discrimination. Relief has to be for everyone who needs it, not only for Quakers, and not only for people ‘on our side’ in some way. It has also meant respect for the recipients’ beliefs and way of life – relief should be provided in ways that are compatible with these.
Silent help from the nameless to the nameless …[the Quakers’] contribution to the promotion of brotherhood among nations...
The first substantial example of Quaker relief work concerned people suffering for their beliefs. Early Friends suffered greatly on this account themselves, both in Britain and in Puritan New England, and supported each other as best they could. Drawing on their own experience, Quakers could readily empathise with the plight of others suffering in this way. They have supported them where they could, whether as persecuted minorities or prisoners of conscience, or both. Quakers helped found Amnesty International, and many are involved in its work.
Relief of poverty was another early need, and this extended beyond Friends from the beginning. There are records of Quakers in Fox’s time giving bread to the local poor. Poverty is often long term, rather than temporary as the result of a crisis, so Friends have been part of the endeavour to understand poverty and its alleviation, and have taken poverty reduction initiatives in the light of the knowledge they have gained.
During the nineteenth century Friends became more and more aware of famine and natural disasters. During the Irish famines of the 1840s Friends undertook their first large-scale intervention, providing supplies and also training for farmers, so as to make future famines less likely. There have been many other examples since, around the world.
Quakers have long coupled their refusal to bear arms with relief work for victims of conflict. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Quaker star (shown in the picture above) was created and has been used as the badge of many Quaker relief workers ever since. At the same time, the policy of giving aid equally to both sides was formally adopted. Friends have also undertaken many reconciliation and development projects, to rebuild and strengthen post-conflict communities.
Conflict, persecution and poverty often result in refugees fleeing their own countries, or in internally displaced people within their own countries. Slavery in its historic form resulted in many refugees, and Quakers did much to help them. Support for refugees of all kinds continues to be a Quaker concern.
Relief in the sense of meeting immediate needs has often been complemented with efforts to build a future where the needs are less likely to recur. Sometimes Friends have taken community development initiatives involving combinations of education, health, employment, and community reconciliation. Quaker work on wider contextual factors, such as peace and nonviolence, economic and social justice, education and health, and human rights, also plays a part.
Quakers’ organisational arrangements for relief have varied. During the seventeenth century, when persecution was common, Friends set up a specific body, Meeting for Sufferings, to manage this work. Later, such relief work as there was arose out of the concerns of individuals and ad hoc groups. It was not until the late nineteenth century that ‘official’ bodies began to be set up again, and even then they was disbanded when the immediate need was over. Only in the 20th century did Friends in several countries set up permanent Quaker service agencies, with relief as part of their work. The logos of all of them use versions of the Quaker star. Many Friends are also active in broader relief organisations such as Oxfam, which Quakers helped to establish.