Relief in Response to Famine and Natural Disasters

Friends have a long history of responding to famine and other natural disasters. When possible, relief and development have gone hand in hand, both rooted in a desire to reduce the conditions that create conflict.  As Harold Evans, former head of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) put it after the First World War:

(The) permanent value (of relief) depends not merely on the number of children fed or on the group who carry it on, but on the extent that it cuts at the root of the world’s ills.

In 1814 Friends sent help to the Scilly Isles in the wake of a tempest and shipwreck.

In 1824, Quakers sent money for the victims of the Rhine floods in Germany, to be distributed “without any distinction with regard to religion.”

When Ireland suffered a terrible famine (1846-1850), Irish Friends appealed to Quakers in England and America to provide food and clothing. Soup kitchens were set up and a model farm was established to demonstrate efficient crop cultivation and help people to manage their holdings better - probably the first example of working to make future famine less likely.  Altogether, during the Famine, Friends raised £200k in aid, a huge sum of money at the time.

In 1866, a series of bad harvests spread famine across northern Europe.  In Finland, where Quakers had been carrying out post-war relief efforts following the Crimean War (1856-58), more than two million people were starving, with families wandering from place to place in search of food.  A Finnish Famine Appeal, launched by British Quakers, raised £2k which was distributed through the Quakers’ established networks.

In 1891, the Volga and Don valleys in Russia were suffering famine.  In such a vast country, the problem was as much one of distribution as supply.  British Quakers Edmund Brooks and Francis Fox travelled to Russia and reported back that if the railways could not deliver grain by March, “thousands upon thousands, if not millions of people must perish from starvation.”  Quakers raised money in response and made particular efforts to reach religious minorities such as the Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim communities.

Throughout the late 19th Century, Quakers faced much criticism in the British Press for focusing efforts on relieving famine in distant lands to the neglect of problems nearer to home. But that was to change in the face of Quaker response during and after the two World Wars.

Between 1918 and 1924, American and British Friends provided food for children in Germany suffering from malnutrition. At its peak the Quäkerspeisung, as it was known, was feeding half a million children daily.

During the Depression, in 1922, miners in Virginia, USA, were evicted from company houses.  Mine owners used intimidation to prevent welfare organisations distributing aid, particularly to unionised workers.  The AFSC sent representatives to investigate and found 28,000 people dependent on charity. The Quakers set up feeding stations to provide for any child more than 7% underweight.

In 1943, in response to wartime famine in Greece, Friends in Oxford helped to set up the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (renamed Oxfam in 1965), initially as a campaign to pressure the British government to lift the naval blockade and allow aid in.  The following year, more than £10k was raised for the Greek Red Cross.  After the War, under the leadership of Quaker Leslie Kirkley it became a major aid and campaigning organization.

Small Quaker missions in India and China gave what help they could when famine struck.

Friends supported flood relief in India in 1955, in Pakistan in 1957 and in Madagascar in 1959.  In 1960, the AFSC set help to Morocco after the earthquake in Agadir killed 15000 people and left another 35000 without homes.

In 1974, the Friends Disaster Service was set up after a tornado destroyed a town in Ohio. Today it coordinates volunteers who give their time to clear up after disasters such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010, providing labour, tools and expertise.

Work teams from Friends United Meeting helped to rebuild meeting houses in Cuba damaged in the 2008 hurricane season.

Further Reading and Credits

further reading

  • Greenwood, J.O, Quaker Encounters, Volume 1, Friends and Relief, William Sessions York 1975