A ministry of sharing: shifts in MCC humanitarian aid programming over 100 years

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Collecting humanitarian resources provides the opportunity for MCC supporters to actively and physically engage in the work of MCC, serving as a tool to connect diverse people around a common goal to demonstrate God’s love by sharing from our abundant resources.

In the summer of 1920, men from Mennonite relief organizations gathered in Elkhart, Indiana to hear of the urgent need for food, clothing and medicine among Mennonites in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). Compelled to take unified action, they formed Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to collect and ship food and clothing from the United States to distribute to Mennonites in need. Nearly 100 years later, MCC now serves communities worldwide through relief, development and peace. Since 1920, MCC has shipped an estimated 1.5 million tons of humanitarian resources to over 100 different countries. Shipments have included items such as: new and used clothing and shoes (1920-2012); assorted food, including milk powder, dried fruit and canned chicken, pork and beef, as well as beans, corn, soybeans and wheat donated by farmers (and shipped via Canadian Foodgrains Bank); medical equipment and medicine; “Christmas Bundles” with toys, hygiene supplies, a New Testament and other items for children (1946-78); United States government surplus commodities, including powdered milk, butter and cheese (1954-68); bedding and blankets (1946-ongoing); infant care kits (1961-ongoing); “Leprosy Bundles” (1963-80); and school kits (1979-ongoing). MCC currently collects and ships canned meat, blankets, comforters, soap, hygiene kits, relief kits, infant care kits, sewing kits and school kits.

MCC’s humanitarian assistance program has evolved over the past century in response to the changing contexts of its U.S. and Canadian constituencies and changes in the international context. MCC’s program has also responded to developing perspectives and best practices within the broader humanitarian and development sector. A 1957 report produced by the Material Aid Study Committee stated that MCC had to “seek ways of becoming more effective in this ministry of sharing. As world needs change, we must constantly seek to adapt the resources of our people to meet these needs in the most effective and permanent way.” MCC has shifted toward providing cash grants to local organizations and now ships significantly fewer in-kind kits and blankets and less food from Canada and the U.S. MCC continues to reflect on how it can best deliver humanitarian assistance while at the same time engaging MCC’s constituency in a hands-on ministry.

Humanitarian aid as an appropriate response to human need

Photograph of a young boy on his grandmother’s lap holding a MCC-supplied can of meat taken in Germany in 1947-48. In 1947, forty-three workers were responsible for the distribution of 4,538 tons of food, clothing, and other supplies in Germany. In the summer of 1947, MCC was reaching approximately 80,000 people in feeding operations. (MCC photo/ Deutscher Zentralausschuss)

A key characteristic of MCC’s current humanitarian assistance program is that it is needs-driven rather than supply-driven, with requests from local partner organizations and a careful analysis of local needs informing MCC’s response. This approach grew from the recognition that in order to be most effective, the items MCC collects and distributes need to align with the priority needs of communities and the capacity of MCC staff and partners. For example, in 1946 MCC shipped more than three million pounds of food and fifty thousand pounds of clothing to France, completely overwhelming the need for these items and the capacity of the program to distribute them. In another example, as MCC increasingly distributed humanitarian aid outside of Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cold-climate styles of clothing collected from supporters were not appropriate for the mild climates of the Global South and efforts were made to send clothing more suitable to local needs and styles. Clothing collection and distribution gradually tapered off and were discontinued in 2012 because shipping used clothing was no longer in keeping with the best practice of providing quality assistance.

MCC first formalized the principle of needs-driven humanitarian programming in 1957, when a Material Aid Study Committee was appointed to find out what the actual need for humanitarian aid was in the world. Upon recommendation of the committee, MCC committed to adapting the collecting of resources to effectively meet the present need. Again in 1978, an internal report on the role of humanitarian aid concluded that “the nature of the need . . . must influence the response.” Continuing discussions that culminated in 1989 resulted in MCC adopting several principles to guide its humanitarian aid work, including the principle of local partner involvement in planning the distribution and use of humanitarian assistance to ensure that the items shipped met local needs and were an appropriate response within the local context. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, MCC moved to be more deliberate about the assessment, monitoring and evaluation of its disaster response programming, conducting assessments in Ethiopia, Mozambique, El Salvador and other countries to guide its work there. Since 2004, MCC has worked to strengthen project planning in all sectors, including the distribution of gifts-in-kind, to ensure programming is relevant, appropriate and an effective response to human need. As with all MCC relief and development programming, humanitarian aid shipments are carried out at the request of local partners and are based on a prior assessment of needs and priorities.

The role of humanitarian resources in MCC’s relief and development programming

Germany 1948, Lohfelden Camp. The children in a refugee camp at Lohfelden near Kassel, Germany pose with grain sacks from different international aid agencies. In addition to MCC, far right, are CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) and CRALOG (Council of Relief Agencies Licensed to Operate in Germany). (MCC photo)

Another source of significant discussion within MCC centered on the role of humanitarian resources gathered in Canada and the U.S. in relief and development programming. MCC increasingly saw the importance of pairing the distribution of humanitarian resources with development programming, such as vocational training or agricultural extension, to address long term needs. MCC was also concerned about creating dependency among communities on outside help and sought to increase self-reliance through a greater emphasis on development and disaster mitigation work. In the 1960s and 1970s, the role of humanitarian resource distributions shifted from entirely emergency response towards additionally supporting MCC development projects like sewing centers and food-for-work projects. Until the late 1980s, however, humanitarian resource distributions represented the primary mode of MCC’s emergency relief programming. Over the prior decades, internal conversations swirled within MCC about when shipping humanitarian resources from the U.S. and Canada was appropriate and when purchasing food and other items locally was a more effective and efficient emergency response.

Those in favour of continued significant humanitarian resource programming argued that humanitarian resources were a practical way to express care for people in need and build bridges between people and churches. Arguments for decreased emphasis on humanitarian resource shipments highlighted the need for longer-term solutions, stimulation of local economies through local purchase of emergency items and concern for creating dependency on outside aid.

During this time, MCC was gaining an awareness that poorly directed humanitarian resources were ineffective at best and harmful at worst. A key concern was the potential for large food imports to disrupt local markets and impact the livelihoods of small-scale producers. In response to this concern, MCC in 1978 defined a philosophy and strategy for the use of humanitarian resources collected in Canada and the U.S. The resulting guidelines helped MCC make decisions about what type of humanitarian aid to deliver in response to crises, considering factors such as the price of different items, MCC’s ability to gather and deliver those items, the timeliness of responding to emergency needs and the impact imported items would have on local markets. Substantial increases in the value of MCC’s humanitarian resource shipments in the 1980s, primarily due to increased food shipments from the newly formed Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), prompted ongoing internal discussion on the matter of local purchase versus import of goods from the U.S. and Canada. The discussion came to the forefront in 1988 during what was dubbed by MCC staff as “the Great Debate”—what was the value of MCC’s humanitarian resources program and what priority should it have in MCC’s programming in the coming decade?

Those in favour of continued significant shipments from the U.S. and Canada argued that these resources were a practical way to express care for people in need and build bridges between people and churches. Arguments for decreased emphasis on the shipping of humanitarian resources highlighted the need for longer-term solutions, stimulation of local economies through local purchase of emergency items and concern about creating dependency on outside aid. The reevaluation of the humanitarian resources and shipping program at this time led MCC to further define its vision for the humanitarian resources it collected and to adopt guidelines for when such programming was appropriate, with the acknowledgement that “there will continue to be situations where purchasing material resources locally is more appropriate than sending material resources.” This was a turning point for MCC’s relief programming, spurring a gradual shift throughout the 1990s and early 2000s towards locally purchased food and other relief items. In 1999, MCC shipped a record number 120 containers with a value of over US$10.5 million compared to 49 containers with a value of nearly US$5 million in fiscal year 2019.

A Japanese family received this MCC quilt sometime around 1950. MCC and 12 other church agencies joined to provide rehabilitation assistance in Japan through a consortium called LARA (Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia). LARA distributed about $400 million worth of relief supplies to 14 million people from November 1946 to June 1952. (Chinese newspaper photo)

Currently, MCC’s humanitarian assistance programming most frequently includes locally purchased items. Most significantly, the Canadian government completely untied food aid in 2009, meaning that MCC could now purchase all food locally for projects funded by CFGB and the Government of Canada. MCC’s food assistance program through CFGB represents the largest portion of MCC’s humanitarian assistance program, with MCC purchasing food locally while using vouchers and cash transfers to meet emergency food needs. Kits, blankets and canned meat shipped by MCC primarily support institutions (orphanages, hospitals, elderly care centers) and are distributed by local partners in times of disaster or crisis. MCC prioritizes shipments in cases where quality items are not easily available for local purchase at an affordable price. While the role of humanitarian resource shipments in relief and development programming has changed, these resources continue to play an important part in responding to crises, supporting longer-term development work and building bridges between MCC supporters and the communities in which MCC works.

Inset: A family in Moscow, Russia, opens a box of food shared with them by Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in Canada and the U.S. In March 1992, MCC shipped 9,000 food boxes to Moscow and St. Petersburg for distribution by an interdenominational relief committee. (Photo/Richard Lord)

Over nearly a century of striving to meet urgent human needs, MCC has continually reflected on how it carries out this work in order to use its resources effectively and efficiently. While the appropriateness and role of humanitarian resource shipments in the context of MCC’s work have been the subject of much discussion in decades past, MCC has consistently concluded that collecting, shipping and distributing such resources are vital to its mission and vision. These resources provide the opportunity for MCC supporters to actively and physically engage in the work of MCC, serving as a tool to connect diverse people around a common goal to demonstrate God’s love by sharing from our abundant resources.

Amy Martens is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in Winnipeg. Tom Wenger is MCC’s material resources coordinator, based in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Fountain, Philip. “Development Things: A Case of Canned Meat.” Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies and Mennonite Quarterly Review. 11 (2014): 39-73.

Hostetler, John. “Mennonite Central Committee Material Aid, 1941-1969.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 44/3 (July 1970): 318-323.

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