What is humanitarian aid? Peanut butter, WiFi, and other life-saving supplies.

The exact kind of aid depends on the crisis, but certain resources are always needed.
UN worker checking humanitarian aid trucks crossing into the Gaza Strip
A United Nations employee checks humanitarian aid on a convoy of lorries entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on October 21, 2023. The United Nations says Gaza needs about 100 aid trucks a day to meet the needs of its 2.4 million people. Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

The war between Israel and Hamas has displaced at least 1.4 million Palestinians from their homes in Gaza and throttled water, food, electricity, and medical supplies. Some aid-carrying convoys have made their way into the conflict zone from Egypt, but without a temporary ceasefire, the humanitarian situation is expected to worsen. More than 8,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have died since the conflict began on October 7. 

One of the biggest causes of death in war is not bullets and bombs, but civilians dying from malnutrition, says Nathaniel Raymond, the executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health. Delivering life-saving supplies at speed can prevent a crisis from turning deadlier. 

Setting up humanitarian aid is like playing in an orchestra, Raymond says. Workers, funds, transportation, and other resources need to be tightly coordinated for a powerful, effective response. 

What is humanitarian aid?

Disaster can strike at any moment. In the aftermath, international agencies and nonprofits bring in different services to prevent further casualties and hardships. Humanitarian aid usually involves access to clean water, food, and medicine that can sustain survivors for a good period of time. Without safe drinking water, Raymond says contamination and infectious diseases become major concerns. “Cholera kills more kids in a war than tanks and planes.”

The exact amount of aid depends on the type and intensity of the crisis, says Danielle Mutone-Smith, managing director of the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). For instance, after a large-scale earthquake (6.1 in magnitude or above), the goal might be to provide safe shelter and emergency medical care. During a drought, on the other hand, the top priority would be to deliver food.

While basic human needs haven’t changed much over time, there are some ways experts have streamlined emergency assistance.

Easy calories 

The tasty filling in PBJs can satisfy hunger when other food is hard to come by. Peanut butter is a calorie-dense product high in protein and packed with nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin E. In the lab, scientists have formulated peanut butter packets that squeeze in more nutrients while maintaining a savory flavor to entice children to eat them. They’re also cost efficient, shelf stable, and easy to transport, which makes them all the more appealing for disaster relief.

“We can bring back the most food-insecure children from the point of starvation,” says Mutone-Smith. During the Niger famine in the early 2000s, more than 63,000 youth returned to a healthy weight after incorporating peanut butter packets into their diets for just a few weeks. Mutone-Smith adds that the World Health Organization is currently working on simplifying its guidelines to recommend a single product that’s usable for all acutely malnourished kids.

Camouflaged SpaceX Starlink kit used by Ukraine army
A camouflaged Starlink satellite internet system during military exercises in the Chernihiv region, Ukraine. Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images


When natural disasters and armed conflicts result in a communication blackout, internet access vaults to the top of the must-have list. “Across all types of disasters, people often identify connection to the internet as one of their primary needs,” says Raymond. Reliable cell signals and broadband are important for sharing news and helping residents track down loved ones displaced by the crisis. Not to mention, it’s critical for organizing emergency efforts on the ground. Tech companies and small WiFi hotspot devices can fill in with on-the-fly access to the internet until infrastructure is rebuilt.

Financial aid

Cash is king in an emergency. While providing food or food vouchers can be useful, research suggests plain old money is the most effective in getting people to eat diverse and high-calorie meals. It also gives them the flexibility to use the resources as they see fit, which in turn, “respects the dignity of populations by giving them the power of choice,” Raymond says. Over time, it can help stabilize local markets and restore self-sufficiency. 

The International Federation of Red Cross, one of the largest humanitarian networks for cash and voucher assistance, relies on donations to financially support devastated populations. Less than one percent of the US federal budget goes to foreign aid, which includes but isn’t limited to humanitarian aid programs. USAID has the power to award funds to partners like the World Food Program, UN Children’s Fund, and other private volunteer organizations.

How technology plays a role

One challenge with delivering aid to countries in war is being able to physically deliver the goods safely. In Gaza, humanitarian aid has stalled because of strict border control from Egypt along with a lack of ceasefires from both parties. Wireless money transfers can expedite humanitarian support while countries work out a way to allow convoys safely through.

“It’s a new development over the past 10 years,” explains Mutone-Smith. Nowadays, people can use cards to electronically draw funds or upload cash vouchers; some services like MoneyGram allow near-instant transfers. But the system isn’t perfect. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas, there’s been an uptick in scams by people trying to imitate charity organizations or steal personal information.

Satellite imagery is another technological tool that’s changing the landscape. Mutone-Smith says US organizations like NASA track the migration of displaced people and whether they will be in an area with access to aid. What’s more, tge tool can assist with preventing or lessening the impact of crises. For example, experts can leverage satellite imagery to predict when a country or region might experience food insecurity from low harvests and deliver aid in preparation for this event.

Meanwhile, on the ground, humanitarian aid organizations have been turning to biometrics like digital fingerprints to verify survivors’ identities and make sure supplies go to target communities. “This emerged partly because of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan following the Syria conflict,” says Mutone-Smith. “ The pilot program was considered successful with only 5 percent of individuals failing to verify their identities. However, there are concerns over how this sensitive data is stored and what countries have the right to access this information.

Red cross handing out diapers and other humanitarian aid in Armenia
A Red Cross employee hands out diapers at the humanitarian hub set up by the Armenian Red Cross in Kornidzor, Armenia. Astrig Agopian/Getty Images

Why humanitarian aid matters

With so many problems at home, people may question why the US is spending time and money aiding others overseas. Beyond a moral imperative to help fellow humans, it can benefit public health, the environment, and global supply chains and financial systems.

Mutone-Smith says that offering support during international crises can strengthen national security. When a country experiences chronic poverty or hunger from rising food prices, there is a risk for political instability. This could threaten neighboring countries and potentially expand to a more violent outbreak that could draw in the US for combat. Additionally, foreign aid is a sign of diplomacy that further strengthens relations between countries. 

And while America is usually on the giving end, Mutone-Smith notes that the tables can turn. We received an outpouring of financial and emotional support when the country was attacked on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

The best way to help in a disaster

Some of the best ways to support humanitarian aid missions is to volunteer or donate cash. Giving money before a disaster lets organizations have more flexibility to spend on resources that matter the most. Despite the good intentions, Mutone-Smith says clothing and other donated goods can actually take up space for food and critical medical support. “That was a big issue in Haiti after the earthquakes and when it clogged the ports,” she explains. “We couldn’t get the things we needed.”

If you are gifting cash, make sure it’s to a trustworthy organization. USAID has a list of vetted organizations working on ongoing crises and the kind of support they are looking for from the public. To help Gaza refugees specifically, you can donate to places such as the UN Crisis Relief fund or the International Rescue Committee.