The Difference between Disaster Relief and Community Development

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on May 11, 2017 | Print

Baptist Global Response is both a relief (disaster relief) and development (community development) organization. About 1/3 of the work we do is responding to disasters around the world. These are our disaster relief projects. The other 2/3 is related to responding to long-term, chronic needs. These are our community development projects.

We distinguish disaster relief from community development by identifying the type of need to which we are responding.

Basically, in the relief and development world, there are two types of human needs:

Acute Needs: These are needs arising from disaster events such as earthquakes, famine, floods, and war and are somewhat unpredictable as to when or where they happen. Here are some general characteristics of acute needs:

  • ‌Short-term and life threatening
  • Require an immediate response that is critical to saving lives through providing basic lifeline services (food, water, medical care, shelter).
  • Some disaster events are man-made (such as an armed conflict) and others are classified as natural (earthquakes, floods, etc.).
  • Magnified or diminished in scope based on things such as poverty, population (density), environmental factors, and placement of event.

These needs are generally dealt with through emergency and/or disaster relief responses.


Chronic Needs: These are needs including human suffering due to hunger, poverty, and poor health, among others. They are generally much longer-termed and often massive in proportion. Here are some general characteristics of chronic needs:

  • These problems are deeply rooted in human societies and cultures.
  • Usually require long-term, transformational, education-based solutions.
  • The strategies addressing these problems generally seek to involve communities in the process of assessing, implementation and solving of the causative agent.

These needs are generally dealt with through development or community development strategies.

What are some common needs that you see in your experience? What is the number one need you see? How would you classify that need: acute or chronic?

AARON 7 years ago

Thank you for the eye opening piece. The community we serve and assist in rural Zimbabwe faces the scourge of HIV/AIDS and the resultant problems associated are a cause for concern. Some educational based solutions as you say are required to address deep seated attitudes and cultural practices to end it . Sadly Poverty is also rampant.

Jeff 7 years ago

Aaron, thanks for the comment. There are many situations like Zimbabwe that are complex and usually a combination of both acute and chronic needs. Throw other issues in the mix such as HIV/AIDS and poverty and you get the perfect storm. Thanks for your efforts in a tough situation!

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