I grew up in an age of international aid. Any time a disaster happens in the world, nations come together to provide medical, food, and other supplies to those effected. Earthquakes in Haiti, Tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia, or Hurricanes in New York or New Orleans. The newspapers report on it and share information on how you can help.
Such was not always the case. For most of human history, charity began and ended at the home or village. Word didn’t spread about events thousands of miles away or if it did it took too long to affect any real relief. Aid societies revolved around churches and the needy in the community or missions to far off places.
Then came wireless telegrams and telephones. News traveled from Europe to America in minutes not days or weeks. While shipping still took days, steamships no longer required months to cross the Atlantic. Food, blankets, and clothing could be sent from one place to another in real time.
And yet, it still took a terrible event for aid on an international scale to begin. It started when the Imperial German Army rolled into neutral Belgium. The Kaiser planned to use the amazing networks of railroads and canals to overrun France in 6 weeks. Instead, the Belgian Army resisted and weeks turned into months.
World War One had begun.
And with it, the second most populated nation in Western Civilization (Belgium) began to starve. The country imported over 75% of its food. Between the demands of the Kaiser’s Army and the British blockade, Belgium was predicted to run out of food by mid-October. Neutral emissaries were sent to buy food, but the British wouldn’t let the ships through the blockades and there were no guarantees the Germans wouldn’t requisition it.
Enter the neutral countries of Spain, America, and Holland, a young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium was founded. With the guarantees of the consulates of Spain, America, and Holland behind it, the Commission was able to pass the blockades and secure guarantees from the occupying Army.
Mr. Hoover kept the plight of the Belgians in the newspapers, forcing both the German and English governments to keep the Commission in operation through public pressure. While the funding for the food came primarily from England, France, and Belgium, there were a series of Christmas Ships whose cargo was donated by the people of the world from New Zealand and Australia, England, Canada to the United States.
Nine million people were fed and clothed in Belgium and Northern France during the Commission’s operation in the World War 1. But the work these pioneers laid continues to be the foundation many international aid organizations rest upon today.