Institutions of Relief and Service
Quakers’ organisational arrangements for relief and service have evolved over time. During the seventeenth century, Friends set up Meeting for Sufferings to provide relief to fellow Quakers who were suffering persecution. Later, relief work was carried out in response to the concerns of individuals and ad hoc groups. Relief work was often followed by broader service, such as peace building and development, and Quaker organisations today have a broad remit encompassing relief and development.
The first official institution of relief set up by British Quakers was the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC). It was first established in 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War to relieve civilian distress in practical ways. It was revived twice more (in Bulgaria in 1876 and in the Balkans in 1912) before being formally reconstituted at the outbreak of the First World War. It was revived for a fifth and final time in 1940, before its name was changed to the Friends Relief Service (FRS) in 1941. The Quaker ‘star’ first used as an emblem during the Franco-Prussian war, has been used, in variations, by Quaker relief organisations around the world ever since.
The Friends Ambulance Unit was established at the outbreak of WWI and revived during WWII as a form of alternative service for Quakers and other conscientious objectors. It provided ambulance and other medical services on the front line and carried out civilian relief and reparation.
The first permanent service institution set up by British Quakers was the Friends Service Council (FSC) established in 1927. It took over the post-war relief work of the FRS in May 1948. In 1979 FSC became Quaker Peace and Service, and in 2001 it merged with Quaker Social Responsibility & Education and was renamed Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
In the USA, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was set up in 1917, initially to counsel conscientious objectors. Following WWI, the AFSC was heavily involved in the child feeding programme (the Quäkerspeisung) in Germany. During WWII, they were able to provide relief in refugee camps in the south of France after British Quakers were forced to withdraw. Unlike the FAU and the FRS, the AFSC remained as a permanent body. Today it describes itself as a ‘practical expression’ of Quaker principles of nonviolence and justice, working on conflict resolution and peace building alongside issues of economic, social and criminal justice.
Canadian Friends Service Committee (CSFC) is the peace and service agency of Quakers in Canada, founded in 1931. They took part in both wartime and post-war relief in Europe. Today they work with a wide range of partners at international, national and community levels, seeking to bring about long-term sustainable changes in our world.
Quaker Service Australia – originally the Friends Service Council (Australia) – is the aid and development agency of the Quakers in Australia. It began in 1959 as a commitment to support post war relief efforts and was largely a fundraising organisation run by volunteers. They sent their first volunteer overseas in 1967. Today their focus is on sustainable development and their biggest single project is in Cambodia.
In the US, the Friends Disaster Service, an outreach arm of the Evangelical Friends Church, assembles ad hoc teams of volunteers in response to natural disasters at home and abroad, providing tool and labour to help rebuild homes and provide emergency shelters.
In Africa, the Kenya Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT) provided relief when violence broke out in the aftermath of the 2007 elections in Kenya, focusing on the small refugee camps that tended to be overlooked by large NGOs. FCPT continues to work on peacebuilding in Kakuma refugee camp, amongst the different ethnic groups on Mt Elgon, and elsewhere.
Friends United Mission is primarily a mission organisation, but was very facilitative of FCPT and is also much involved with schools and hospitals, and economic development projects such as SEEDS.
As well as specifically Quaker organisations, Friends have been involved in setting up and running other organisations of relief. As Maggie Black puts it in A Cause for Our Times: Oxfam - The First Fifty Years, Oxfam was “always a broad church, and no one denomination prevailed.” However, many Quakers were prominently involved in Oxfam from its foundation, and Quaker values influenced the way the organisation conducted relief work from the outset.