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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 document4.1 Refugee participation
View the document4.2 The leadership may not truly represent the refugees
View the document4.3 Refugee committees
View the document4.5 Information to all the beneficiaries, the crucial factor

4.1 Refugee participation

A sense of control over all aspects of distribution can be illusory. Redistribution can occur independently of any official distribution system. The way a refugee community is structured socially will greatly influence the way in which commodities are redistributed and used. Therefore the question is not, should you have refugee participation in distribution but rather how to ensure that the participation works with rather than against programme objectives.

Refugee populations are rarely random collections of families or individuals. A degree of social organisation will be present from the start. You need to identify the existing structures and take account of them in the design of your system.

4.2 The leadership may not truly represent the refugees

The support of the refugee leadership will be important to success, but the leadership may not be properly representative of all the refugees. UNHCR and implementing partner staff will have a role to play to ensure that refugee representatives are as truly representative as possible of the whole community, its different social groups, women, the most vulnerable. This is difficult and will take time. It is rarely as simple as organising an election among the refugees. A thorough and subtle understanding of the social norms of the refugee community and how these may have changed in exile will be needed.

4.3 Refugee committees

In most refugee communities there are formal/informal structures or committees formed by refugees. These most often reflect those existing before flight. Ideally, the representatives in such structures should change periodically in order to limit the potential for abuse which can accumulate over time. Often, the leadership starts out predominantly (or totally) male. Through community development activities, women's participation can be increased in order to allow full community representation. How to implement this will depend on the social context and implementation is an ongoing process. It should start at once. In an emergency situation, directive action may be necessary to ensure the participation of women and any marginalised groups.


Family-specific factors include the demographic composition of the family: the number, age and health of children, the presence of men or other adult support, and the presence of dependent adults, for example, the elderly. Optimum use of the women's time is a key consideration. Some generalisations are possible: for example, on average some 10 % of the women will be pregnant or lactating and thus should be using MCH services. Other assessments require an analysis of the situation of individuals within the community. The health and the educational needs of children will help determine women's priorities for the use of their time. Health needs are likely to be most acute in the early stages of an emergency, demanding, for example, a mother's presence at selective feeding centres.

The role of men may also have changed

Many of the necessary practical decisions covered in these guidelines can and must take account of the needs of women. For some arrangements, however, there may be no choice, and the involvement of women will be conditioned accordingly. The implications of different approaches for the role of refugee men must be considered, and the possibility of their relieving women of some of their traditional and most time-consuming tasks investigated. Before flight, most heads of household were male and the providers or “bread-winners”, while the women bore the major domestic burden of work. With flight, refugee men have often lost much of their role, while the tasks of refugee women have both increased and become more difficult.

Deciding the nature of involvement of refugee women

All of the previously mentioned factors influence the type of involvement in food distribution that is possible and appropriate. The benefits for women of their involvement, and the advantages of using their expertise, must be considered against the additional burden and any attendant risks. The refugee womens own assessment of the relative importance of each factor should generally be determining. In some societies establishing this may not be possible unless those seeking the information are not only well informed and sensitive to these issues, but are themselves women (interpreters, if needed, should also be women).

Areas for women's involvement

There are three broad possible areas for the involvement of refugee women: in the decision-making processes and monitoring; in the food distribution itself (women supervise and/or hand out the commodities); and in collecting the food (where it is distributed to women not men).

¨ Women must be involved, through their own representation, in decision making and monitoring, from the elaboration of the system and the determination of their own participation in its implementation, to membership of the food or supervisory committees that should be established to monitor both the system's effectiveness and each distribution. In the great majority of refugee communities, the objective will be better served if refugee men are represented too.

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

¨ Women should actually collect, or at least be present at the distribution of, the food for their household (whether or not they are its head), if they themselves feel that this is the most effective way to ensure that they receive their fair share and retain control of its use thereafter.

The involvement of refugee women must be kept under review. As for other aspects of the design and implementation of the distribution system, constraints at a given time, and particularly in the early stages of a refugee emergency, may prevent optimal involvement. As soon as these constraints can be removed or are no longer present, the involvement of refugee women must be improved.

4.5 Information to all the beneficiaries, the crucial factor

Experience shows that one of the most important factors underlying the success of distribution systems is to ensure that all of the refugees are well informed. Otherwise, information and misinformation concerning the distribution system will circulate among the beneficiaries in a way which you cannot control, In particular, make sure that information reaches women. You must ensure that information is not monopolised and manipulated by special groups within the beneficiary population. Make sure that ordinary refugees have direct access to accurate information about the system.

Communication with beneficiaries

Set up a distribution committee to represent the refugees in discussions concerning the distribution system.

Keep in mind the cultural context but ensure that women are well represented on this committee.

Use local interpreters (women and men as appropriate) to inform refugees about distribution.

Hold community meetings in the place where the recipients are most at ease. Go to them instead of having them come to you.

Choose locations to which women have easy access.

Ask questions, listen to the answers.

Allow refugees to see commodities being measured and distributed.

Provide refugees access to measuring equipment.

Identify and create communication with specific groups which may not be well represented in the refugee leadership, women, elderly, handicapped or ethnic or social groups which may be excluded from the refugee mainstream.

Structures should be developed to allow direct communication with the mass of the beneficiaries. Field Officers should set up a schedule of regular, open, meetings with the beneficiaries so that information gets directly to the mass of the people. Information filtered through the leadership alone may be distorted. Even in the best functioning distribution system there will be complaints. Provide channels for these, and act quickly on those that are well founded.


Posters are one means of informing the refugees of their entitlements. This is particularly important in situations where the quantity or composition of the ration is changing. Posters should be designed so that they can be easily understood by the population, whether literate or not. Posters should be placed in locations where women will see them. They should be in a language and format which can easily be understood by the woman in the population. This will entail finding out which language is most easily understood by women. For example, among Rwandan refugees in Zaire, while many of the male refugees spoke French and Kiswahili, many of the women spoke only Kinarwanda. Posters should have an official stamp, or other sign of authenticity, to guard against bogus information.