International Relief and Development: Definitions, Differences, and Making Impact

Every day, hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations, government entities, and philanthropists work to solve problems around the world. From feeding the hungry to ending violent conflict, people are changing lives for the better.

There are two distinct categories in which this philanthropic work falls: international relief and development.

What is International Relief and Development?

The definition of relief is the “urgent provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering during a crisis.” This is defined in Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.”

Relief, for example, is necessary when a hurricane strikes and many people are displaced from their homes or in urgent need of basics no longer available, like food and water. International relief is needed when refugees are fleeing war and in any situation in which immediate action and aid is the right answer.

International development, however, is a long-term process whereby individuals and communities sustainably improve their quality of life. Development is necessary to solve a likely long-term, complex problem for good. Providing a safe water well in a remote village that draws from a pond is development; it’s creating a sustainable solution to a decades-long (and even centuries-long) problem.

“When you provide relief in a situation where development is needed, you are just addressing symptoms and not getting at the root of issues.”

– Lindsay Lange, Lifewater’s Director of Programs

The difference between relief and development is that development solutions always include great participation and engagement with the beneficiaries. It almost always includes training, education, and long-term planning for maintenance of resources.

Relief tends to be more one-sided, with the government, charitable organizations, or a philanthropist providing the emergency necessities outright.

international relief and development
Local Lifewater staff meeting with community member in Ethiopia.

The Responsibility of International Charities

International charities and local charities have a responsibility to provide the right solution in the right situation.

According to Fikkert and Corbett, one of the biggest mistakes international charities, governments, and philanthropists make is to apply “relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”

When relief is given in a non-emergency situation, it becomes problematic for a number of reasons.

  • It bandages the problem with a short-term solution.
  • It disempowers the poor by creating dependency.
  • It fails to take into account the skills and resources already available in a community.

For example, hygiene products, shelter, and food given to those experiencing homelessness are valuable gifts. However, these relief products given for too long can actually hinder progress. To really serve those communities well, immediate relief of suffering—from hunger, from the cold—must be coupled with programs that help that person develop important skills and take action to come out of homelessness altogether.

These include job training programs, mentorship, access to health care, and more. This is development.

Lindsay Lange, Lifewater’s Director of Programs, said, “When you provide relief in a situation where development is needed, you are just addressing symptoms and not getting at the root of issues.”

“Ultimately, it is debilitating to the people you are serving,” she added.

However, development isn’t always the right solution to a problem. Let’s take the global water crisis as an example. There are many places and people groups in need of safe water. But, not all of those people should have a long-term solution to the water problem.

International Relief and Development
A child in Cambodia drinking safe water from her community’s well.

Many of these groups are refugees living in temporary camps. Some communities are nomads that travel with the seasons, so constructing a piped system for safe water won’t work for them.  In the case of natural disasters, people can’t wait for long-term solutions like a drilled well. They need safe water immediately.

But, in communities that are settled and aren’t in regions experiencing war or a natural disaster, the water crisis deserves a long-term solution. It’s critical that relief and development organizations wisely decide which areas to serve.


Making an Impact with Lifewater International

For over 40 years, Lifewater has brought safe water and improved sanitation and hygiene practices to communities with the greatest long-term need. Lifewater seeks the most remote communities in the world, the places that aren’t near the main towns and places that don’t have roads; these communities are in extreme need.

To find these places, Lifewater starts with Least-Developed Countries (LDC)—those experiencing the highest percentages of extreme poverty and lowest human development index—then systematically identifies settled, rural regions and villages with low water coverage.

When you give safe water with Lifewater, you give to one of those specific villages. You’ll know the village name, see their photos, and follow along with their progress towards lasting safe water and generations of transformation.

Lifewater is considered one of the best international development charities by Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). Give with Lifewater, and make change possible.


Choose a Village. Change a Life.