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When disasters strike, Australians have demonstrated time and time again that they are happy to lend their support to humanitarian aid efforts around the globe. We spoke to ChildFund Australia’s Emergency Response Advisor Michael McDonald to find out more about how humanitarian aid works in practice, and its benefit for children and families living through crisis.

What is humanitarian aid?

This is a form of assistance that is used to respond to disasters that can be natural, biological (as with COVID-19) or conflict related.

Generally, it is provided over a short period ranging from 3 to 12 months, and funds the provision of shelter, food, household items, health services, and water sanitation and hygiene.

Humanitarian aid is different to development aid as the latter is provided on a longer-term basis, and builds government and civil society systems in areas such as health, education, and child protection.

Development aid is focused on achieving sustained improvements, rather than meeting the needs of an affected population in the short-term.        

What types of organisations typically provide humanitarian aid?

Governments, different agencies within the United Nations, international non-government organisations (NGOs) such as ChildFund Australia, local NGOs in the affected country, and private businesses provide humanitarian aid.

It is important to note that governments are the most legitimate actor among those mentioned and so, ideally, all actors should be working in coordination with government according to agreed disaster response plans.       

When a disaster strikes, how is humanitarian aid coordinated?

Governments will often have a National Disaster Management Office that has the role of coordinating a disaster response plan. This plan will be based on an analysis of the situation and include feedback from other government departments and often the Red Cross.

The government will often consult with the different agencies of the United Nations, as well as local NGOs, to ensure that the disaster response plan is both comprehensive and representative.

When the number of affected people, and loss of life or injury is high, governments can easily be overwhelmed.

If so, they may request international assistance. The United Nations will coordinate the many international organisations that arrive to assist with the response.

This system sits parallel to the government system and will comprise of working groups which focused on areas such as:

  • food security,
  • nutrition,
  • health,
  • education,
  • shelter,
  • non-food items.

Each of these working groups will be co-chaired by a United Nations representative and, ideally, by a government representative to ensure a link to the government response is maintained.      

Is humanitarian aid only provided to developing countries, or do countries like Australia also benefit from international assistance when disasters strike?

All countries are sovereign, meaning that their governments can either accept or reject any humanitarian aid that is offered.

Australia is no different. When a disaster strikes in Australia, the Australian government can decide whether to request international assistance or not.

If it decides to do so (most likely because it is overwhelmed), then humanitarian aid will arrive in Australia.

A good example of this is the US water bombing aircraft that were provided during the Bushfire Disaster in 2020-21. This assistance would have been requested by the Australian government as our own resources were being pushed to the limit at that time.

This goes to show that both wealthy and less wealthy countries will at times request humanitarian assistance.          

Is it possible to measure the impact of humanitarian aid?

As with many sectors, the humanitarian aid sector has indicators of success. These indicators have been developed through extensive consultation with actors from within the sector and are updated periodically.

A well-known universal indicator among those who work on water, sanitation and hygiene in disasters is that every member of the affected population should have access to 15 litres of water per day for drinking and domestic hygiene.

What do you think are some of the most pressing humanitarian aid issues of the 21st century?

In big disasters, such as that unfolding in Myanmar now, the United Nations together with other UN member governments will develop a humanitarian response plan.

We are seeing a significant increase in the number of large disasters occurring around the globe. This includes the displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingya people; war and conflict in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan; and more recently, escalating ethnic tensions in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Unfortunately, many of these humanitarian response plans lack funding, with obvious consequences for the affected population.

As per international law, when someone is being persecuted in their own country, they have a right to claim asylum in another country. Unfortunately, given the number of people claiming asylum today and the hardening of politics within many countries, asylum seekers are not being allowed to pass through due process to access their legitimate rights to asylum.

This recognition would allow them to access the services they need to live a dignified life in a country in which they feel safe and secure. Rather, these people are being pushed from one country to the next.

In areas such as the Pacific Rim, climate change is exacerbating the frequency and severity of natural disasters.

ChildFund Australia works in Fiji where, over the last 12 months, the country has been hit by COVID-19 as well as five moderate to severe tropical cyclones.

These disasters cause significant community disruption, great material loss, injury, and loss of life. They also have the potential to cause economic hardship, given the cost of the disaster response. It can also put at risk many of the hard-won development advances in recent decades.

About Michael McDonald
Michael McDonald is ChildFund Australia’s Disaster Risk Reduction/Emergency Response Advisor and is based in Sydney. Prior to joining the organisation in 2018, Michael held a range of humanitarian response positions internationally. As an example, he worked on the Syria Crisis in Jordan with asylum seekers from Syria and from Jordan cross-border into Syria with the affected population in southern Syria. Currently, Michael works in close partnership with ChildFund Australia’s country offices in the Asia-Pacific region to reduce the vulnerability of children and their families so as, when natural disasters strike, they are less likely to be severely impacted. Michael also supports any disaster response efforts in the region when natural disasters do occur.

The diversity of people and culture enriches the human experience around the world, but one thing that is common across all, is the importance of family. 

This National Families Week we are celebrating the many different ways of life and conceptions of family across the globe. By shining a light on countries such as Australia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, India and Kenya, we hope to expand your understanding of what family means not only to you, but the billions of others we share this earth with.


Home to desert and rainforest, drought and rain, Australia is built on mateship, optimism and a good sense of humour. While taking out sixth place for the largest country by geographical area, we are also the world’s least densely populated country, too. 

Since the end of the Second World War, Australia’s identity has developed a strong sense of multiculturalism. This is owing to the very diverse range of ethnic groups who have settled in the country over recent decades, including people of European, Middle Eastern and South East Asian origins. 

More recently, perhaps in the last 50 years or so, the Australian identity has begun to place a greater emphasis on reconciliation and recognition of the Australian First Nations people. This is a process which has seen greater interest among Australians in First Nations culture and history, as well as significant campaigns for the reform of government policy. 

Population of Australia Statistics

  • Current Population: 25.7 million
  • Fertility rate: 1.66
  • Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live babies): 3.6 
  • Life expectancy: Males: 80.7 Females: 84.9
  • Average household size: 2.6 
  • Unemployment rate: 5.6%

What is family life like in Australia? 

In 2020, Australia was home to 7.2 million families, which is an increase of 1.1 million in the last decade. While the nuclear family is the cornerstone of Australian family structures, it does not necessarily comprise the same household members as we might have seen in the traditional nuclear family of the 1950s. 

Family structures in Australia might now include single parent families, same-sex families, defacto or non-defacto arrangements, extended relations residing within the same household, and various other arrangements that make Australian families so diverse.


World-renowned for its beaches, delicious cuisine and buzzing cities, Vietnam is one of Asia’s most populous countries. Despite having a history marred by many prolonged cultural invasions, this hasn’t impacted the Vietnamese sense of national identity.

Vietnamese population statistics

  • Population: 95 million
  • Fertility rate: 2.05
  • Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live babies): 19.9
  • Life expectancy: Males: 71.2 Females: 79.4
  • Average household size: 3.6
  • Unemployment rate: 2.37%

What is family life like in Vietnam?

The Vietnamese consider family as the most important facet of their lives and often more interdependent than other cultures, such as those in the Western world, are familiar with.

The family unit’s health and cohesiveness are paramount and consist of many relatives beyond the parents and their children. It is common for uncles, aunts, grandparents and extended relatives to have close relationships with the unit. It is also not uncommon for three generations to reside in the same home and independent living is less common for Vietnamese people.

Papua New Guinea

Located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, Papua New Guinea is a melting pot of diversity spread across over 600 islands speaking over 800 different languages. Group-based land ownership is the norm. Individuals typically don’t own their property, but rather they are granted tenure to it by birth into a family or through some relationship with that group.

Population of Papua New Guinea statistics

  • Population: 9.1 million
  • Fertility rate: 3.4
  • Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live babies): 45
  • Life expectancy: Males: 64 Females: 66
  • Average household size: 5.4
  • Unemployment rate: 2.74%

What is family life like in Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea is a country that values family. Families are the main source of support and this can be seen in various ways including expectations, respect, duty and reciprocity between members. Families usually consist of nuclear families along with the husband’s parents. Extended relatives also live nearby which act as secondary parental figures to children.


India is an incredible country with diverse geography and climate. In the north, there are mountains such as the Himalayas which snow year-round, while in southern India you can find tropical jungles, rainforests, coastlines, beaches and islands. Nature plays a large role in Indian culture here, for example, rivers like The Ganges or Ganga, which provide irrigation to farmlands or transportation methods that many people believe have sacred importance.

Indian population statistics

  • Population: 1.4 billion
  • Fertility rate: 2.2
  • Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live babies): 34.3
  • Life expectancy: Males: 68.2 Females: 70.7
  • Average household size: 4.6
  • Unemployment rate: 7.70%
  • Family insights: 29% of households have three generations living under one roof.

What is family life like in India?

For many Indians, family is a very important institution. As a collectivistic society with strong loyalty and interdependence among people, the needs of individuals are often put aside for those of their families. Decisions about an individual’s life such as marriage or career paths will usually be made in consultation with one’s parents or other elders from his or her community to promote harmony within the group.

Family is more than just a nuclear unit. It can mean financial security for individuals as well. Large multigenerational families are often essential to providing work and economic stability.


Kenya is a country rich in its culture and wildlife. It borders Somalia to the north, Ethiopia to the east, Uganda on its west side and Tanzania to the south. And a fun fact, the equator runs right through Kenya.

Basic statistics

  • Population: 52.6 million 
  • Fertility rate: 3.4
  • Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live babies): 43.2
  • Life expectancy: Males: 63 Females: 68 
  • Average household size: 3.9
  • Unemployment rate: 2.98%

What is family life like in Kenya?

In Kenya, the family is one of an individual’s most important priorities and a great source of pride. The Kenyan family unit includes both the immediate as well as extended members and fosters a closer bond between relatives.  In some ethnic groups, children may refer to maternal relatives by “younger mother” or “older mother”, depending on how old they are in relation to the child’s mother.

Stronger families, stronger communities

The National Families Week’s theme for 2021 is stronger families, stronger communities. You can help support families around the world with ChildFund.

You can support ChildFund’s work by donating to one of our current appeals or by sponsoring a child in a developing community to help ensure every child and their family has access to tools, knowledge and basic services to give them a brighter future. 

If you’d like to plan an activity or work on some craft with the children in your life, here’s our ideas for how you can get involved with National Families Week this year.