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close this bookCommodity Distribution, A Practical Guide for Field Staff (United Nations High Commission for Refugee, 1997, 77 p.)
close this folderVI. SPECIAL ISSUES
View the document6.1 Common questions
View the document6.2 How much to distribute when numbers are not agreed?
View the document6.3 When you do not have enough to go around
View the document6.4 Trading rations
View the document6.6 Payment in kind
View the document6.7 Retroactive distribution
View the document6.8 Sacks and other empty containers

6.1 Common questions

Q. Should refugees who settle outside camps be eligible for assistance?

A. Generally the refugees living outside camps will be eligible for assistance on the basis of assessed needs. To live outside camps is often in the best interests of the refugees. Distribution outside camps will help the refugees to support themselves and reduce the impetus to congregate in camps. Constraints on distribution outside camps include the difficulty of accessing a scattered population and distinguishing them from the host population.

Q. Should refugees who arrived in earlier influxes be eligible for the same assistance as newcomers?

A. The needs of the new arrivals are often greater than those of the old caseload. However, needs assessment should decide on the level of assistance for each group. Constraints on providing differing levels of assistance include difficulty in distinguishing old from new refugees, undesirability of providing old refugees with a motivation for registering as new.

Q. Should local people, whose lives are disrupted by an influx, be eligible for assistance?

A. The local population is sometimes assisted, based on need, by UNHCR in order to alleviate the impact of a refugee influx.

Q. Should assistance be used to elicit the cooperation of officials, even where it is not really needed?

A. Ideally food and non food assistance should not be used to elicit cooperation of officials.

6.2 How much to distribute when numbers are not agreed?

It is assumed that you have a good estimate of the population based upon sound estimating techniques. However in the absence of formal registration, it may be difficult to convince everyone, particularly the refugees, that your estimation is realistic. You may well have to organise distribution in this situation of uncertainty.

One way to proceed is as follows

a. It is assumed that you have an estimate of the overall population size. If not it will be necessary to make one.12

b. Calculate the refugee leaders estimate of the total population by taking each individual leader's estimate of the group which they represent and add them all together. Try to reach a consensus with the leaders on the population figures.

c. The total supply of commodities will be based on your overall population estimate.

d. Assume that each group leader will exaggerate the size of their group by the same proportion. Therefore you distribute commodities in the proportion between your total population estimate and the leaders estimate.

e. Example:

Your estimate of the total population = 80,000
Leaders estimate of total population = 100,000

Quantity of commodities to be given to any group:

(Leaders estimate of size of that group) × (Ration scale) × (No. of Days) × 80%

12 See Registration, a practical guide for Field staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994 pages 4-31.

6.3 When you do not have enough to go around

There may be insufficient commodities on hand on the distribution day to meet the agreed basket of food and/or non-food items. This can happen in stable long term operations as well as in emergencies. At the same time there may be pressure to distribute whatever is in stock.

The options are:

· Postpone distribution until a full ration for the total population is available.

· Distribute an equal share of available commodities to all of the population.

· Give a larger or full ration to vulnerable groups in the population and a small (or no) ration to the general population.

Whichever option you adopt you will need to ensure that the population is properly informed. They will need this information in order to plan their consumption during periods of shortage. Security problems are less likely if the refugees know what is happening and why.

Options when there is not enough to go around


Equal share
(reduced ration)

Special groups only

· Can the refugees, especially vulnerable groups, support the wait without serious consequences?

· Is the monitoring system good enough to detect real hardship which could be caused by delay?

· Can the vulnerable people survive with reduced rations?

· Have you clearly identified the vulnerable groups?

· Do you have the means to deliver targeted assistance?

· How will the general population react when they get little or nothing, will they support this option?

6.4 Trading rations

A limited degree of trading in commodities at the household level may be accepted provided there is no evidence of large scale diversion of assistance or detrimental effects on the health/nutritional status of the community. Situations where a large volume of commodities are being sold by “leaders” is an indication that the commodities have never reached their intended target, the individual families.


Make distribution staff visible by providing them with hats, vests and other visibility material.

Carry out the distribution as quickly as possible, minimise waiting periods.

Deal quickly and fairly with cases of cheating or disorder.

Ensure that there is clear space between people waiting and the stacks of commodities.

Keep in mind the limitations of fences at distribution points: The type of construction usually available will not be able to stop a large determined crowd. Aim at creating an orderly process which will not attract large numbers of people at any one time rather than relying on physical barriers. If the process is well structured, people will respect even token barriers such as a line of stones or a single strand of rope. Convince people to sit down during waiting periods - the result will be much less pushing forward or jostling.

6.6 Payment in kind

Avoid payment in kind to distribution staff. This might seem like a simple and cost effective method but may in fact complicate the distribution procedure. It can be difficult to check if commodities in the possession of distribution staff are legitimate payments or pilferage. In situations of short supply, giving commodities to distribution staff in payment rather than to vulnerable people, would be inappropriate.

6.7 Retroactive distribution

This question arises most often in relation to food distribution but can also relate to the distribution of consumable NFI e.g. soap. There is no automatic retroactive entitlement when full distribution of the agreed ration has not been possible, In the case of food, the decision on any retroactive distribution will be made jointly by UNHCR and WFP, taking into account the nutritional status of the beneficiaries, measures taken by them, and any liabilities incurred in coping with the shortfall, its economic impact, and the future availability of resources.

6.8 Sacks and other empty containers

Beneficiaries are often allowed to keep empty food containers and sacks. For the first distribution following an influx, these containers may be the only way for the refugees to carry and store the commodities. Where rations are distributed in bulk (not scooped), it would in any event be impractical to retrieve them. Empty containers are often used as shelter material or as cooking pots etc. They can be sold to provide valuable extra support to the family. The costs of collection and storage of empty containers can be significant. It is useful however to maintain a stock of empty sacks and containers which can be used for re-bagging when food containers are damaged.

In cases where WFP wishes to retrieve empty food containers, responsibility for this rests with WFP, who will pay for their collection, storage and transportation. Collection of empty containers is normally only possible when they have been retained at the distribution point, and the commodities distributed without containers to the refuges. Where containers have already been distributed with the ration, it is usually impractical or causes too much resentment, to retrieve them.