Our history

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Mercy Corps' Founders

Since 1979, we have helped people grappling with the toughest hardships survive — and then thrive. That’s the heart of our approach: We help communities turn crisis into opportunity.

Throughout our history, Mercy Corps has demonstrated innovation, timeliness and the ability to adapt quickly to changing realities.

1979: The organization is founded as Save the Refugees Fund, a task force organized by Dan O’Neill in response to the plight of Cambodian refugees fleeing the famine, war and genocide of the “killing fields.” The fledgling organization raises $1 million to provide lifesaving aid to hundreds of thousands of people in Cambodia and helps focus America’s attention on the humanitarian crisis.

1980: Dan O’Neill meets Ellsworth (“Ells”) Culver. The two men immediately strike up a strong, enduring friendship — and find that they share a commitment to provide more innovative, sustainable aid and development to poor communities.

1982: Culver and O’Neill incorporate as Mercy Corps International in Seattle, Washington, and begin focusing on long-term solutions to hunger and poverty. The agency’s first development project is launched in Honduras, partnering with a local group called Project Global Village (PAG, in Spanish), which teaches soil conservation and watershed management. Mercy Corps also begins working in Lebanon, helping to rebuild houses and provide job training.

1984: Mercy Corps shortens its name and establishes it headquarters in Portland, Oregon. PAG becomes an independent organization which by 2010 grows to employ 190 people in six offices that serve 650 Honduras villages.

1985: Mercy Corps begins work in Sudan, with projects to improve food security and accelerate development.

1986: Mercy Corps launches programs in Afghanistan, assisting 2.5 million people with agriculture and development projects.

1988: Mercy Corps distributes $7 million in supplies, including seeds to people in Ethiopia and medicine to people in Afghanistan.

1989: Mercy Corps begins lending programs that by the mid-2000s evolve into 12 microfinance organizations (MFIs). To date our MFIs have lent $1.5 billion to help low-income customers build small businesses to support their families.

1990: Mercy Corps provides medical supplies and relief to refugees in Jordan.

1991: Mercy Corps and Scottish European Aid provide medicines, supplies and services to Bosnians during the Balkans wars. In Iraq, Mercy Corps ships food, medicines and blankets to Kurdish refugees. Mercy Corps also ships medicines, food and clothing to 12 million people in Sudan.

1993: Mercy Corps uses a $3 million grant to assist 175,000 people in war-torn Kosovo.

1994: Neal Keny-Guyer joins Mercy Corps as chief executive officer. Keny-Guyer forges new directions at Mercy Corps, implementing global mergers and strategic alliances, placing human rights, civil society and social entrepreneurship at the forefront of Mercy Corps’ humanitarian mission, and building an organizational reputation for groundbreaking, innovative programming in the world’s toughest environments.

1995: Mercy Corps distributes $20 million in supplies to people in need in Bosnia and Kosovo. Mercy Corps’ work on the ground is carried out by a diverse international team. Around the world, 93 percent of our field staff are from the countries where they work. They personify our core belief in finding local solutions to local problems. Our programs are led by people of the region who speak its language, know its history, and actively invest in developing its human network. Our field teams work with local residents — who deeply comprehend the challenges and have the greatest stake in how they are solved — in designing and pursuing the best strategies for their communities.

1996: Mercy Corps merges with Scottish European Aid to launch its European operations and opens its European headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland. Mercy Corps also ships food to avert widespread malnutrition in North Korea.

1997: Mercy Corps provides clothing and bedding to thousands of people in Azerbaijan who lost their homes during war with Armenia.

1998: Hurricane Mitch strikes Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; Mercy Corps provides $3 million in assistance. Mercy Corps joins with Pax World Service to expand its peace and civil society initiatives. Mercy Corps also establishes Mercy Corps Northwest, its first initiative in the US, which helps low-income populations in Oregon and Washington through microenterprise development and self-employment.

1999: Mercy Corps delivers food and supplies to 250,000 people in Kosovo and helps 100,000 refugees in Macedonia.

2000: Mercy Corps provides shelter and medical supplies to families displaced by war in Eritrea. The agency also ships 71,000 apple trees from Oregon to North Korea. Mercy Corps’ growth is made possible in part thanks to support from institutional donors including the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the U.S. Dept. of State and U.S. Agency for International Development; the UK Dept. for International Development; the European Commission and the European Community Humanitarian Organization; the United Nations; and the governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, among others.

2001: Mercy Corps provides $1.4 million in aid to survivors of a massive earthquake in India. The agency also installs water pipelines and rehabilitates schools in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In response to the attacks of September 11, Mercy Corps launches a first-of-its-kind effort, called Comfort for Kids, to provide social and psychological support to affected children in New York. In China, Mercy Corps launches school-to-work programs, small loan projects and farmer training.

2003: In Iraq, Mercy Corps begins to help vulnerable families displaced by the war. More than 1 million people flee to Jordan and Syria, where Mercy Corps helps thousands of refugees with humanitarian aid, education and job training. The agency also founds one of the first microfinance institutions in Afghanistan.

2004: Mercy Corps is one of the first responders to the Indian Ocean tsunami. Within hours of the deadly waves, Mercy Corps mobilizes the largest and most comprehensive emergency response in our history. Dozens of staff are sent to devastated areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India to provide lifesaving relief and supplies. Our tsunami recovery programs touch 1 million lives through emergency relief, cash-for-work, loans and longer-term projects that focus on economic development and community-building. In Ethiopia, Mercy Corps administers 1.2 million vaccinations to animals. Mercy Corps delivers food, water and shelter materials to thousands of displaced families in Darfur, Sudan. The agency merges with the Conflict Management Group, founded by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, to strengthen its peacebuilding work.

2005: Mercy Corps assists in recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in the United States, providing water, food, bedding and tools to deconstruct houses and re-use building materials. In Pakistan, Mercy Corps provides medical supplies, food and shelter after a massive earthquake. In Niger, the agency helps feed 4,000 children and trains health care workers.

Mercy Corps was among the first humanitarian groups to use relief and development programs to strengthen civil society. Simply handing out food, building a school or immunizing a child is not enough — especially in countries torn by ethnic conflict and economic transition. Just a few weeks of armed conflict can destroy roads, schools, businesses and health systems that took years of traditional development work to build. Working side by side with the poor but hard-working families, we bring diverse groups together to create societies that are more peaceful, open, democratic and economically strong.

2006: Mercy Corps provides 155,000 residents of Darfur, Sudan with health services, household supplies and education for their children. In Indonesia, the agency helps more than 1,000 farmers restore rice fields ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. Mercy Corps merges with NetAid to educate and empower young people to fight global poverty.

2007: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mercy Corps delivers water for drinking and hygiene to 50,000 people a day.

2008: Mercy Corps wins the Fast Company Social Capitalist Awards for its innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to tackling some of the world’s most challenging problems. The agency is becoming known for its leadership in social innovation as an engine for sustainable development — where creativity, powered by business discipline and the imperative of a social “return on investment,” effect transformative change for the poor. For instance, in Indonesia, Mercy Corps developed a wholesale bank that’s transforming the country’s microfinance industry and connecting millions of previously unbanked low-income people with the financial services that can change their lives. Mercy Corps is working to replicate the model in the Philippines and considering how to expand it to other countries.

2009: Mercy Corps helps 2.2 million people in 14 countries combat the global food crisis through innovative programs that feed hungry people — while making longer term investments to prevent future food shortages. We also respond to conflict and displacement in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and earthquakes in Indonesia.

2010: Mercy Corps is on the ground just two days after the massive earthquake in Haiti. We provide 1 million people with emergency food, clean water, household necessities and shelter materials, and reach hundreds of thousands more with post-disaster trauma support for children, temporary jobs, and health campaigns to combat cholera. Looking for ways to protect communities from future devastating disasters, Mercy Corps partners with Haiti's largest microfinance institution Fonkoze to found the Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organization (MiCRO), pioneering a unique hybrid insurance product to low-income microentrepreneurs who otherwise have no safety nets.

2011: Mercy Corps responds to the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in 60 years, to help families survive the crisis, while focusing on innovative rebuilding efforts and large-scale strategies that would help families in East Africa build resilience to future droughts and food shortages in the region. After Japan’s terrible earthquake and tsunami, we deliver lifesaving supplies to thousands of people living in shelters and help people reopen small businesses to speed recovery. We also support the people of the Middle East and North Africa, where a wave of uprisings comes to be known as the Arab Awakening and energizes a movement to build more fair and inclusive societies.

2012: Mercy Corps helps refugees fleeing the burgeoning civil war in Syria by building safe places for children to play and providing clean water. In rebel-torn Congo, we meet urgent needs for food, clean water and sanitation. Across Africa's Sahel region, where drought brings on a severe hunger crisis, we provide food to vulnerable families and help keep livestock — their most precious assets — healthy.

2013: Mercy Corps' response to the Syria crisis grows quickly to meet the needs of millions of refugees who continue fleeing the war in their country.

2014: During a year of unprecedented humanitarian crises, Mercy Corps reaches 42.5 million people with urgent assistance and lasting solutions to save and improve their lives.

2015: Today, Mercy Corps is working in more than 40 countries to help people recover from disasters, build stronger communities and find their own solutions to poverty. The agency consistently ranks as one of America’s most effective and efficient charitable organizations. Over the last five years, more than 87 percent of resources have been allocated directly to programs that help families turn crisis into opportunity in some of the world’s toughest places.