Cover Image
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)

3.1 The framework - an overview

Distribution systems can be classified according to whom the commodities are given. In each of these categories of distribution the recipient can either be a woman or a man. There are three broad categories of distribution system (see Fig. A).

Distribution to groups of beneficiaries through the group leadership.

Distribution to groups of heads of family.

Distribution to individual heads of family.




System Description

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

All of the commodities for the group of families are handed over to a representative of the group. The commodities are then immediately redistributed to the individual family heads by the representatives.

Commodities are handed over directly to each family head.

Type of situation in which these systems have been used

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

When people are settled.
When registration is done and ration cards are available.
Homogeneous groups.
Can be used in camps with small or large populations.

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

Eastern Zaire, large influx, no registration or ration cards.

Somali refugees in Eastern Ethiopia.

Somalia, Malawi, Thai-Cambodian border, Cambodian repatriation.

Former Yugoslavia.

Rwandese refugees in Tanzania


3.2 Advantages and disadvantages of the three categories of distribution

1. Distribution to groups of beneficiaries through the leadership



· You need limited staff

· You can use community leadership structures already in place.

· The beneficiaries themselves can act as monitors of the distribution process.

· Gives responsibility to the community, places some responsibility for assisting at risk groups on the community itself.

· Gives possibility for community to allocate commodities according to their priorities including giving extra to at risk groups.

· Can be used in first stages of a large influx with limited space for distribution

· Can be implemented without registration or ration cards

· Distribution is relatively quick to get started.

· Easy for community leadership and/or the 'strongest' to abuse their position and discriminate against parts of the population.

· There may be many levels of re-distribution, from the leadership to many layers of “sub-leaders” until it reaches the individual household, this makes monitoring by outsiders difficult.

· Distribution may not be equal. Based on the communities' own norms, certain groups or individuals (not at risk) may receive more than others.

· Can be difficult for the most at risk to receive their share

· Lack of control on beneficiaries figures.

· Difficulty in monitoring the distribution.

· If women are not properly represented in the leadership, they may have difficulty of access.

2. Distribution to groups of heads of family



· Promotes social interaction within the refugee community and enhances social adjustment to the new situation and environment.

· You can have some influence over the selection of leaders, you can introduce new community leadership structures, ensure the representation of women etc.
Depending on how you select the family groups, this can be used to help replace an existing unrepresentative leadership.

· You can set up specialised groups of families e.g. all female headed in separate groups, all families of marginalised groups together.

· Shares responsibility for distribution with the beneficiaries.

· The beneficiaries themselves act as monitors of the distribution process.

· Requires a small number of distribution staff

· Because the food is handed over in bulk to groups, individual scooping by the distributing agents is avoided. Can be used when standardised scoops are not available while food rations are frequently changing.

· Quick implementation.

· Security problems related to crowd control are minimized by the presence of the family group representatives.

· Needs registration and substantial administration to organise family groups

· An extensive information campaign is needed.

· Needs homogeneous group of beneficiaries

· Needs reliable and verified population figures

· Abuses by family group representatives may happen.

· Monitoring of the final re-distribution within the groups is needed when this is taking place away from the agency distribution site.

3. Distribution to individual heads of family



· You retain control over the whole delivery process right to family level. This may be important in situations where there are inadequate community structures.

· Makes it possible to target at risk groups.

· Transparency.

· Commodities reach the beneficiaries directly.

· Easy to monitor that female headed households, and vulnerable families have proper access.

· Very staff intensive

· Needs a lot of infrastructure.

· Needs registration and a substantial administration.

· Takes away most of the responsibility for distribution from the beneficiaries themselves.

· Can be difficult for the beneficiaries
themselves to act as monitors of the distribution process.

· Not applicable in early stages of an emergency

· Standardised scoops are needed, these need to change every time there is a change in the ration.

· Scooping could prove difficult to monitor.

3.3 Choosing the system

Two basic questions which will help you to choose a system are: how much responsibility is it appropriate to give to the refugees themselves? How much resources do you have available to set up and run the system? (refer to Fig A). Resources include time, space, experienced staff as well as financial resources.

In case of food distribution the modalities of distribution as well as the reporting requirements will be set out in a tripartite agreement between UNHCR, WFP and the implementing partner.


Distribution day

a. Commodities are moved to the distribution point on the morning of the distribution.

b. The group representatives are called one by one to collect the commodities. The distribution agency uses its own staff to call up the group representatives using lists previously prepared.

c. Each group representative will come forward with a pre-arranged number of porters from the group. She/he will sign to acknowledge receipt of the quantity of the commodity. The distribution agency will have divided the commodities into separate piles by type and will have appointed adequate staff based on the quantity of the commodities. The staff will be responsible for handing over these commodities to the porters. The amount of commodities handed over is calculated as (ration/person/day) × (no. of people in the group) × (no. of days)

d. The representative and the porters will leave the distribution site and carry the commodities to a place nearby where the group's population is waiting for them. There, the group representative will use the name list of beneficiaries and will call them one by one to collect their share.

(Make sure that the self-distribution is carried out at a place to which you have access and where it can be monitored.)

If the group is a very large one, the representative will further share the commodities received among smaller groups. The final stage will be the distribution to individual families.

For sharing, the representatives will use their own scoops or utensils taken from their cooking sets.

e. The distributing agency should have monitors who will circulate among the groups.


Security is an important consideration for this method of distribution.

Security problems are more likely to occur in the afternoon, when people are getting tired of waiting and are afraid that commodities will run out before their turn comes. Try to distribute quickly, with no long delays.

Crowd control staff should be a mix of beneficiary representatives and agency staff, preferably those able to speak the refugee language. Where possible staff should not be paid in kind (remember commodities could be scarce at the early stage of the emergency).

Another element, important for crowd control, is to make sure that the commodities are unloaded in a place away from the crowd of beneficiaries. An area of minimum 50 × 50 m is required. The waiting beneficiaries should be at least 20 m from the bulk of commodities.

The area should have boundaries. If there is not time or resources enough to build fences then stones, ropes etc. should be used to delimit the area. Crowd control staff should surround the area and be close to the stock of commodities.

How to implement for dispersed populations in towns, villages

Geographical division

The country is sub-divided into regions based on existing administrative boundaries. A needs assessment is made for each of these areas. These assessments result in the establishment of food and non-food items targets for each area.


Together with the local authorities in each area, establish categories of individuals prioritised in regard to their need for assistance. Categories include sick, elderly, handicapped and others.


The commodities are transported to a central warehouse in the region by UNHCR (or WFP in the case of food) where they are handed over to the local authorities. When the total amount available for that month is known, a distribution plan is worked out jointly between UNHCR and the authorities. Information on the quantity of commodities to be distributed is made available to the beneficiaries.


Commodities are transported by the local authorities from the regional warehouse to distribution points in towns and villages from which the beneficiaries collect their rations.

3.5 How to distribute through groups of heads of families (one method)


The commodities for the group of families are handed over to a representative of the group by the implementing agency staff.

The commodities are then re-distributed to the individual family heads by the group representative.


When people are settled.

When formal registration is done and cards are available.

Homogeneous groups (same tribe, culture,...)

Used in

Large camps, can be used in smaller camps.

There are two ways in which this can be implemented.

1. Distribution to groups of families of the same size (preferable)


2. Distribution to groups containing different family size.

1. Distribution to groups of families of the same size

Organise families into groups

Request refugees to organise themselves in groups of 206 heads of family (HOF), each having a family ration card. Each group of 20 comprises families of the same size. Head of families can be women or men. For example one group would have heads of family size 2, another of family size 3 etc. You may decide not to allow family size 1 so as to prevent families splitting up in order to maximise their allocation of non-food items. All those claiming to be alone and be of family size 1 should be asked to join together with others in the same situation to form households of 2 or 3 persons (depending on what minimum you decide). These groups are maintained for future distributions.

6 20 is used here as an indicative size, actual circumstances may demand bigger or smaller groups, it is usually better to keep groups small, not more than 50 families per group.

Make sure that the size of the group remains relatively small. This allows for easier self monitoring by the beneficiaries.

Each group of 20 selects a representative, who can be a woman or a man. Having groups of the same family size means that each household should receive the same quantity. It will be easier for all to see if some households are being more or less favoured than others. It also makes life easier for the distribution staff who do not have to make a different calculation as to quantity for each household.

Divide the Camp into Zones

In the case of large populations it may be useful to divide the camp into zones (or blocks). Within each zone, groups of families of the same size are formed by the refugees. It is recommended to prepare a list (computerised) per group indicating name of HOF, card numbers and family size.

A distribution enclosure is constructed at each distribution site, see Fig 1.


Distribution day

Pre-position supplies

Sufficient commodities for the distribution are pre-positioned in the distribution enclosure the day before distribution. The quantities are based on prior calculations considering number of beneficiaries to be served and the ration agreed upon. Up to 5% extra commodities should be pre-positioned to allow for damages and short-weight.

Inform the beneficiaries

A signboard is posted, in advance, outside each distribution point advising the quantities of commodities to be received according to family size. The PA system should also announce this.

The beneficiaries assign a representative within each group who, on the day of distribution, collects the cards of all HOF within the group.

The group representative collects the commodities

The group representative goes to the counter corresponding to her family size. A checker retrieves the cards and verifies them against her list. Cards are punched and the group representative signs for receipt against her name on the list.

The commodities are handed over to the group representative who, together with some assistants from her group, carries them to the distribution area where all the HOF of the group are waiting.

Each group member receives the same quantity

The actual handing over of the commodities to the HOF takes place with the participation of all group members. The principle is that every group member (HOF) has to receive the same quantity, since all the families are of the same size. This puts the responsibility for fair distribution in the hands of the refugees themselves. The division of the commodities should take place in full view of the family heads so that all can see that everyone receives the same amount.

While the distribution within the group is going on, monitoring is done by the staff of the implementing agency. This distribution system also allows for on-site food basket monitoring.


Have more distribution points for those family size groups which are most frequent (e.g. groups 3 and 4). However, distribute to one family size at a time.

Have one combined counter for family size groups that are less frequent (e.g. combine size 9 and 10)

In cases where distribution takes place over several days, designate particular group sizes for particular days, e.g. mix groups of frequent family size with groups of less frequent size: e.g. day one: family size 2 and 5, and so on.

2. Distribution to groups containing different family size

Sometimes it may be difficult to organise the families into groups of the same family size. Same family size groups do not follow normal social groupings and there may be resistance from refugees to joining with other families of the same size who are strangers to them. It may be easier to form groups of families from pre-existing structures following the administrative or social organization coming from the refugee country of origin. This can allow the refugee community to maintain security and social aggregation. People from the same place in the country of origin will know each other and be able to self-monitor the distribution and prevent ‘infiltrators’ from joining the group. Prior to complete registration, it is faster to organise than by same family size.

Experience shows, however, that distribution to groups of the same family size has more advantages in the long run.

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.