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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).