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close this bookCommodity Distribution, A Practical Guide for Field Staff (United Nations High Commission for Refugee, 1997, 77 p.)
View the document3.1 The framework - an overview
View the document3.2 Advantages and disadvantages of the three categories of distribution
View the document3.3 Choosing the system
View the document3.5 How to distribute through groups of heads of families (one method)
View the document3.6 How to distribute through individual heads of family (three methods)

3.6 How to distribute through individual heads of family (three methods)


Commodities are handed over directly to each family head (or representative of the family) by the implementing agency staff.


Settled population.

Registered population with ration cards.

Beneficiaries living in camps, settlements or integrated within the local population.

Used in

Well established camps, ration shop.

Method one

Ration cards

Population figures have to be confirmed through registration and subsequent verification. Ration cards are issued to all family heads. The cards have a serial number, show the family size and have a box to record each distribution. Distribution registers, consisting of names of family heads, family size and breakdown and registration card serial numbers, are kept at each distribution centre and are updated regularly. Distribution registers can be computer generated using FBARS.

Establish distribution sites

The implementing agency, in liaison with others concerned decides the number and location of the distribution sites, which, according to the population size they are serving, are themselves divided into a certain number of distribution points.

Construct distribution points

A commodity shelter, with enough storage capacity for one distribution, is erected at every distribution centre. Shelters consist of a light roofed structure. If the security situation allows, the structure could be left without walls and fencing.

The distribution centre should consist of a limited number of chutes, i.e. narrow passages, (not more than ten). A corresponding number of corridors should lead to each chute. The corridors should be designed to allow a limited number of beneficiaries to queue at a given time. There should be a wide waiting area in front of the corridors in order to accommodate the waiting beneficiaries. They should be kept at a safe distance from the commodities in order to facilitate easy movement of the distribution workers and of the individual recipients (and also to reduce the possibilities of thefts). Fences, ropes, ash, or lines on the ground should be used to mark the distribution centre boundaries, and between each chute.

In the chute itself, the commodities should be lined up, starting with the smaller ones (e.g. soap, salt, sugar, oil) and ending with the heaviest (e.g. shelter material, cereals).

The chute exits should lead to paths or roads taking recipients away from the distribution centre.

Full use of the natural environment should be made to facilitate a good distribution. Commodities should be placed on a high ground, and shaded areas should be utilized for the waiting area. Uniformity of chute lay-out and adequate spacing between chutes are necessary for supervision of the centre.

An adequate number of trained staff should be positioned to manage the distribution centre; for instance, one distribution officer per centre, two supervisors per chute and casual workers/tippers and crowd controllers.

Distribution day

The right quantities of commodities should be pre-positioned at least one day before the distribution. The beneficiaries should be informed well in advance about the distribution date and time and the ration composition and size (for this purpose, an information board could be placed in front of each centre and announcements made).

Once the beneficiaries have assembled in the waiting area, family heads should be called by their names to enter the corridors. Before entering the chute itself, each family head has to present his/her registration card, which is checked against the list. He/she will then receive the different commodities according to the above described order. Before leaving the chute, the card is punched (or ticked). Weighing scales should be available after the chute exit at a place which will not impede the flow of beneficiaries. There, beneficiaries could check that they received the correct rations.


On-site distribution monitoring can be carried out at the exit points (see below).

Method two (sometimes called Demographic Distribution)

Distribution to an individual (in lieu of head of family).

Commodities are distributed through eligible females by the implementing agency.

Under this system, women are accorded a key role in channeling relief commodities to the beneficiaries.

Such a system was implemented on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s, where food and other relief assistance was distributed to some 250,000 displaced Cambodians living in a dozen border encampments. The distinct feature of this system is its selection criteria for eligibility to the ration cards - only females above a pre-determined age receive ration cards and they, in their turn, share the rations with other household members. The person selected by this criteria does not have to be the head of the household, and there may be more than one ration card per household.

The system was established because previous distribution methods were abused by the leaders and male population and food was diverted either to the “military” (the various resistance groups operating along the border) or sold to traders.

The system is based on a headcount of all eligible females, who are given ration cards by the implementing agency. The card holders are required to come and collect their rations. Hence, in societies where an active role of women outside the home is not the norm, this system would not work. It is also unsuitable if the camp population is predominantly male.

When considering using this system, examine carefully the composition of the population. Irregularities in the male/female ratio will result in inequalities in the distribution system, the greater these irregularities, the greater the inequalities that will result.

Before conducting the headcount and distribution of ration cards, two parameters have to be set:

1. criterion for eligibility
2. ration multiple


The criterion for eligibility for ration cards can be defined on the basis of minimum age. That is, all women above a certain age would receive a ration card. The lower age limit should be set based on the lowest age deemed suitable for females to participate in the distribution. In the case of the Thai-Cambodian border, the minimum age limit was set at 10 years.

A height can equally be used as an indicator of age. This is because people are often uncertain about their exact age, in the absence of official records. For processing large numbers it is easier to select on the basis of height than to interview about age.

The following table7 indicates reference heights for age between 10 and 17 years. This table is based on average heights and significant variation will exist within any group. This table can provide only a rough guide to height for age for any particular population and a survey is needed to plot height for age in any given population. This table can be used initially until an exact survey of the beneficiary population can take place. For example, using Table 1, if you want to select all females in a population who are 12 years and older then you select all females who are 152 cm or higher.

7 From Measuring Change in Nutritional Status, WHO, Geneva 1983.

Table 1 - Reference heights for age





































Ration multiple

Since the commodities are distributed exclusively to a selected group of females, a multiple is applied to the basic ration entitlement in order to cover the needs of all the beneficiaries. In order to determine the ration multiple it is necessary to calculate the ratio of eligible females to the total population. This figure can be obtained in different ways.

If the population has been registered, then the total population size will be known. The eligible females are then registered separately and issued with a ration card (see below). The ration multiple is then calculated by dividing the total population number by the number of eligible females. For example, if the total population is 90,000 and the number of eligible females is 30,000, then the ration multiple is 90,000/30,000 or 1:3.

If the total population is not reliably known then estimation techniques have to be used. The best is to have data from the population directly. For example, this can be through nutrition surveys, immunisation, or MCH activities, which give a representation of the entire refugee population. A random sample of household size and number of females older than the cut-off age (or higher than the height) per household can be taken. From the sample, extrapolate the ratio of eligible females to the population as a whole.

Another method is through the use of average age/sex distribution figures.

Table 2 8 can be used to estimate the proportion of the total population represented by a particular age group. For example, for a population in Sub-Saharan Africa, if you want to distribute to all females who are 13 years and older, what proportion of the population do they theoretically represent and how many rations each should they receive? Referring to Table 2 you will see that females 13 years and older represent 30% of the population and the ration multiple would be 3.3, i.e. each female 13 years and older would receive 3.3 times the basic ration.

8 From The Sex and Age distribution of the World Population, UN, New York 1994

Table 2 - Age Distribution in a Population

Group 1: Sub-Saharan, Eastern, Middle, and Western Africa
Group 2: Northern and Southern Africa, and South Central Asia
Group 3: Eastern Europe

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

Female >=

% of total population


% of total population

Ration multiple

% of total population

Ration multiple

10 years







11 years







12 years







13 years







14 years







15 years







Accordingly, estimates can be obtained when other age limits are chosen. It should be noted that refugee populations often do not follow the standard population distribution. This table should therefore be used only when more accurate data is not available.

Different methods can be cross-checked, the exact number of eligible women will finally be determined in the screening exercise.

In the Thai-Cambodian border encampments, field surveys carried out revealed that the ratio of eligible females (> 10 years) to household size was 2:5, this therefore gave a multiple of 2.5, which was applied to the basic ration entitlement. This implies that one ration card provides food assistance to two and a half persons.


When setting the ration multiple, it must be borne in mind that the multiple denotes an estimated figure of the total camp population (i.e. estimated camp population = total number of eligible females × ration multiple). For instance, if the ration multiple is set at 2.5, the issuance of 20,000 ration cards implies that the total beneficiary population is 50,000. Raising the multiple to 3 would raise the camp population estimate to 60,000.


That period corresponds to the number of days covered by the ration. If a 10 day ration is being distributed, then the ration can be collected any time in that 10 day period. Rations which are not collected in that period cannot be collected later.

A distribution shop is constructed at each distribution site, see Fig 2. Aim to have each shop cater for about 4 - 5,000 refugees (i.e. about 1,000 family heads).

The distribution shop should be located away from crowded areas, markets, health centres etc. Each shop can be designated to cater for a certain family size with each family head always collecting their ration from the same shop.

Shops are organised according to family size

In order to match each ration shop to family size, the family size distribution of the population must be determined. For convenience, single individuals may be grouped and treated as a 2 or 3 person household. Each shop serves two or more family sizes: the aim is to have similar numbers of rations distributed from each shop to avoid a concentration of beneficiaries at some, leading to excessive queuing.


Ration shop distribution to a camp with a total population of 4,185 families and the following family size distribution:

Family Size

No. of Families

























With four ration shops, the family distribution per ration shop could be as follows:

Family Size

1, 3

2, 5

6, 7, 8, 9, 10

4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

3,842 rations
1,476 family heads

4,202 rations
1,32 family heads

4,149 rations
559 family heads

3,440 rations
829 family heads

Shop A

Shop B

Shop C

Shop D

1. A signboard should be posted at each shop indicating the family sizes assigned to that shop as well as the commodity and quantity to be distributed. The information should be displayed in writing and pictorially.

2. Sufficient commodities for the distribution period should be pre-positioned in the ration shop in advance of the distribution.

3. The family head can collect her/his ration from the designated shop on any day in the distribution cycle. Upon presentation of the ration card the number is checked against a tally sheet of all cards allowed to collect rations at that shop (the tally sheet can be computer generated if FBARS is used). The card number is crossed off on the tally sheet and the ration card is punched at a predetermined number at the edge.

4. The refugees then move to the commodity distributors while the Storekeeper passes the punched card to the Scoopers which shows the family size of the beneficiary.

5. At the end of the day the tally sheet contains a record of the cards presented and thus the quantity of commodities issued. Actual stock balances can then be verified against the opening stocks, minus the amount distributed according to the tally sheet.

Physical layout of the Ration Shop

The ration shop distribution site is divided into three zones and a waiting area.

Zone 1: Delivery and storage area.
Zone 2: Distribution area.
Zone 3: Entry, documentation, collection & exit lane.


Each ration shop should have one Storekeeper/Registrar, who will have overall responsibility for the functioning of the shop. This person will punch the ration cards and mark off the refugee on the tally sheet as having received the ration.

She will supervise the scoopers and account for all commodities delivered to and stock balances at the shop.

This system requires about 6 staff (excluding security staff) for the whole distribution period, for a population of approximately 5,000 beneficiaries.