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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder13. Commodity Distribution
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOverview
View the documentWhen to start distribution
View the documentChoosing a Commodity Distribution System
View the documentComponents of Distribution Systems
View the documentThe Role of Refugee Women
View the documentMonitoring
View the documentKey References





Emergency situations are characterized by an urgent need to distribute life sustaining commodities such as food, shelter materials, cooking implements and fuel. The fair distribution of commodities is often problematic and groups and individuals from among the refugees can use the confusion of the emergency to obtain unfair control over the resources which are distributed.


To provide life-sustaining commodities to the refugee families, fairly, according to specified rations, selection criteria and priorities.

Principles of response

· The design of the distribution system should be based on a thorough understanding of the social structure of the refugees;

· The refugees should be kept continuously informed on the design of the distribution system, on the timing of distributions and on the quantity of commodities to be distributed;

· All groups among the refugees should be appropriately involved in the design and operation of the distribution system. Particular care must be taken to involve women;

· The family as the basic social unit plays the key role in meeting basic needs of individuals, therefore, the family unit should be the target of commodity distribution;

· The commodity distribution cycle should be regular and predictable. Irregularities in the distribution cycle increases the tendency of the refugees to circumvent the system.


· Use community services structures (or set up new structures if necessary) to consult the refugees on the design and operation of the commodity distribution system;

· Select and implement a commodity distribution system;

· Set up a system by which information on the operation of the commodity distribution system can be regularly conveyed to the mass of the refugees;

· Allow the refugees themselves to monitor the fairness of the distribution system.


· Distribution passes control over a commodity to the intended beneficiaries. Distribution must be fair, and commodities must be distributed according to specified rations, selection criteria and priorities;

· Distribution must be monitored to ensure that it is fair and reaches vulnerable groups;

· However ingenious the distribution system devised, it is unlikely to work fairly without the support of the refugees themselves;

· UNHCR's distribution systems should provide material assistance to and through families.

1. The principles in the chapter apply to the distribution of both food and non-food items, although food often forms the bulk of the commodities distributed. This chapter provides brief guidance on the subject. The handbook "Commodity Distribution: A Practical Guide For Field Staff" is essential reading for those who plan to set up and run a commodity distribution system (see Key References at the end of the chapter).

When to start distribution

2. There is usually a degree of uncertainty when planning distributions. Ideally, distribution of commodities should start only after a full needs assessment has taken place and when the size of the beneficiary population is accurately known. However, the reality of almost all emergency programmes is that distributions must start prior to these ideal conditions being reached. Try not to start distribution until there is at least a minimum framework in place to build upon, and a plan as to how subsequent distributions will be improved.

Choosing a Commodity Distribution System

3. Two basic issues are:

i. How much responsibility should be given to the refugees themselves; and,

ii. What resources are available to set up and run the system (including time, space, experienced staff as well as financial resources (see Table 1).

4. There are three broad categories of distribution system (see Table 1). Note that the head of family can either be a woman or a man.

Distribution systems can be classified according to who receives the commodities.

5. There will probably be a period in the early stages of an emergency when it will not be possible to register or issue ration cards. However, effective distribution of commodities is possible without ration cards.

Table 1 - Commodity Distribution Systems

Group Leadership

Groups of Heads of Family

Individual Heads of Family

System Description

Commodities are given in bulk to
a representative of a large group
of beneficiaries who further
divides it among the group.

All of the commodities for the
group of families are handed
over to a representative of the
group. The group usually con-
sists of about 20 heads of family.
The commodities are then im-
mediately redistributed to the
individual family heads by the

Commodities are handed over
directly to each family head.

Types of situation in which these systems have been used

· Early days of an emergency.
· Mass influx of refugees.
· No formal registration.
· Large populations.

· When the population is
comparatively stable, and/or
have ration cards.
· Where the beneficiaries are
living in camps.
· Where the population is
comparatively homogeneous.

· When the population is
comparatively stable, and/or
have ration cards.
· Where the beneficiaries are
living in camps, settlements
or integrated within the local

Amount of resources needed increases

Degree of self regulation by refugees increases

Components of Distribution Systems

General Considerations

6. The ideal distribution system should be safe and easily accessible to the intended beneficiaries.

Safe: Distribution should be organized in such a way that the system is safe for all who use it. Particular attention should be given to women and the vulnerable;

Accessible: Distribution points should be close to where people live and located so that the access of particular groups is not restricted. The timing of distributions should suit the beneficiaries.

7. The refugees themselves can provide the most effective monitoring and control of the distribution system. In order to do this they must be informed as to the type and quantity of commodities to be distributed and method and timing to be used.

A system needs to be put in place whereby the refugees can be continuously informed of changes in the quantity, type or method Of distributions.

8. In the early stages of a new operation, particularly in large emergencies, effective control over distribution may not be possible. However, from the start, each action taken should contribute to a process whereby control by UNHCR is progressively established. For example the provision of plastic sheeting, tents and other shelter material is very important because it reduces the mobility of the population. Once it is issued, the population can settle and commodity distribution and other services will be easier to organize.

Refugee Involvement

9. Ensure the refugees are well informed (both women and men). They must know what they should receive, how much, when and how. This information should come to them directly rather than through their leadership.

The refugees should be able to see the distribution process for themselves as they are the best monitors and controllers of the process.

Ensure that the refugees participate at all levels of the distribution process. However, be aware of the dangers of non-representational leadership (see chapter 7 on coordination and site level organisation).

10. Irregularities in the distribution cycle undermine the confidence of the beneficiaries and increase their need to circumvent the system.

Logistical Considerations

11. In camps, the distribution system should allow beneficiaries to collect rations close to where they live (not more than 5 km away) and at regular monthly intervals. For dispersed populations refugees should not have to travel more than 5 to 10 km to distribution sites.

12. In the case of food distribution, it is usually preferable to distribute dry uncooked rations in bulk. Avoid mass cooked food distribution for the general ration (see chapter 15 on food and nutrition).

Managerial Considerations

13. Distributing relief commodities involves several organizations and many individuals, for example, the government, WFP and NGOs. Co-ordination structures must be put in place, including regular meetings of all interested parties. The frequency of these meetings will depend on the situation. At the start of an emergency daily meetings will probably be needed. As the situation normalizes the frequency of meetings can be reduced to one per month.

14. It is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of the main actors involved at various stages of commodity distribution. In the case of food distribution the modalities of distribution as well as the reporting requirements are set out in a tripartite agreement between UNHCR, WFP and the implementing partner. The respective roles of UNHCR and WFP in relation to food aid are set out in their Memorandum of Understanding (Appendix 3). See Chapter 15 on food and nutrition for more information on food distribution and on of the role of WFP.

15. The family, as a basic social unit, is the target of distribution. This applies to food and non-food items. Providing assistance to and through families is effective as the basis for the distribution system and also supports the family unit. However this does not mean that the ration has to be handed to each family directly. In some situations distribution can be more effective through groups of families or other community structures.

16. Avoid payment in kind to distribution workers. It makes monitoring difficult and, in times of shortages, vulnerable people may be deprived of commodities in order to pay staff.

17. In camps, aim to have at least 1 distribution site per 20,000 refugees.

18. Plan to have a minimum of 2 distribution staff per 1,000 beneficiaries.

The Role of Refugee Women

UNHCR Policy

19. UNHCR's policy is to ensure the maximum possible appropriate involvement of refugee women in all aspects of distribution. Determining the nature of this involvement requires consultation with refugee women and men and a careful evaluation of the totality of the needs and responsibilities of refugee women and their families. Failure to take these considerations into proper account can have negative implications that go well beyond the distribution system itself.

20. In the great majority of refugee communities, the objective of fair distribution will be best served by having an appropriate balance of men and women. However, it is normally women, and in particular single female heads of household, who are either under-represented or excluded.

Areas of Women's Involvement

21. There are three areas where refugee women can be involved:

In the decision-making processes and monitoring;

In the distribution itself (women supervise and/or hand out the commodities); and,

In collecting the commodities (where they are distributed to women not men).

22. Women must be directly involved in decision-making and monitoring, including being involved in planning the system and determining their own participation in its implementation. Women should be members of the commodity distribution or food committees.

23. Women should choose representatives who will be involved in the distribution itself. The extent and nature of this participation will depend on factors specific to that situation.

24. If women themselves feel that the most effective way to ensure that they receive their fair share and to retain control of its use thereafter, is by actually collecting, or at least being present at the distribution of food and non-food items for their household (whether or not they are its head), this should be ensured.


25. Monitoring the distribution system is an important management responsibility of UNHCR. General principles of monitoring are described in chapter 8 on implementing arrangements. Monitoring distribution includes monitoring the actual distribution of the commodity and spot checks in the camps on distribution days. See chapter 15 on food and nutrition, and "Commodity Distribution: A Practical Guide For Field Staff", for more details about monitoring distribution systems.

Key References

Commodity Distribution: A Practical Guide For Field Staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1997.

Memorandum of Understanding on the Joint Working Arrangements for Refugee, Returnee and Displaced Persons Feeding Operations, UNHCR, Geneva, 1997.

Model Tripartite Agreement: UNHCR, WFP and the Implementing Partner, WFP/UNHCR, March 1998.

UNHCR Training Videos: Under Watchful Eyes, UNHCR, 1995 - Sorting it Out, UNHCR, 1993.