Humanitarian assistance and politics

by Xin-Dee Low, international affairs intern at the MCC U.S. Washington Office, Summer 2018


Sanctions, economic embargoes and withholding humanitarian assistance are sometimes seen as effective foreign policy tools. Many policymakers believe they can indirectly twist the opposition’s arm into carrying out their interest. But civilian lives should not be put in jeopardy because the people in power are unwilling to reconcile.

In January the United States announced it would freeze funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees. UNRWA has been working hard to gather political and financial support around the globe to fill the vacuum left by the U.S., but this new support will only provide a temporary solution to the problem and “will not be sufficient to fully close the funding shortfall,” according to the United Nations.

Around the world, U.S. maximum pressure on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) has rendered humanitarian work there extremely challenging. UNICEF reported that 60,000 North Korean children may starve as a result of heightened sanctions.

“After experiencing the famine in the 90s, North Koreans feel that they have survived the worst and nothing else can top that. They learn to buckle down regardless of how harsh the situation is,” says Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC). But vulnerable groups, such as children, remain at high risk.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has been providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 1996, but sanctions make this work difficult. Because they are metal, needed medical equipment cannot be provided, nail clippers have to be removed from health kits and small tools must be removed from clean water bucket kits, delaying critical aid for tuberculosis patients and children at pediatric hospitals.

A cook prepares a meal using MCC canned meat at a provincial pediatric hospital in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)*. The hospital cooks like using the canned meat for soup, mixing the meat into broth with vegetables, like cabbage, and fermented bean paste, a traditional ingredient for soup broth. MCC sent 560 cartons of canned meat in 2017 and is exploring more ways to partner with pediatric hospitals in DPRK where most of the patients are children under four, accompanied by their parents. The canned meat is used to primarily support children with digestive problems and nursing mothers during their stay in the hospital.
The canned meat is convenient for the hospital staff to prepare because it is fully cooked. Children eating canned meat are able to thoroughly absorb the food and receive all the nutrition. A container of canned meat was sent in June 2018 for the hospitals.
*Names and locations withheld for security reasons.

Enabling further humanitarian assistance to DPRK would send a message that the U.S. is serious about a peace process with North Korea and is willing to help them integrate into the international community.

These two countries present two different, complex situations that require individual attention. In both cases, a political solution is needed to resolve the conflicts—but we are not there yet. Until a peaceful resolution is reached, we must attend to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Luke’s gospel reports that John the Baptist instructed his followers, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11).

Our primary response to divine love should be generosity. We are called to love our neighbors, to care for the ones in need. Just as God’s love transcends all boundaries, so should ours. As Christians, we should ask our policymakers to also extend basic humanitarian services to all who are in need, regardless of politics.