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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 folderII. GETTING STARTED
View the document(introduction...)
View the document2.3 Beneficiary ration/registration cards/kits4
View the document2.4 By whom
View the document2.5 Where - How many distribution points, their location
View the document2.7 Equipment for distribution


Agreement on a population figure is essential

A planning figure for the population in need of assistance is essential in order to implement any commodity distribution. Ideally, the number in need of assistance should be known and agreed to by all key partners (government, WFP, NGOs, donors and refugees). It is important that all understand that, while exact population figures will not always be available, the assistance programme must continue for an agreed number of beneficiaries. At the same time, steps should be taken, through registration and monitoring, to improve the accuracy of the population figure. It is critical to the cost-effectiveness and credibility of an assistance programme that the planning figures used for distribution are realistic.

Your distribution strategy should be based on these agreed assumptions, rather than on an ad hoc basis. As the programme develops and more information is available, assumptions will change and distributions will more closely align with the verified needs.

Where a satisfactory registration has not been possible within three months, UNHCR and WFP will jointly determine the number of beneficiaries in need of food assistance. Should there be disagreement between the country offices of UNHCR and WFP on the number of beneficiaries, the problem shall be referred to the headquarters level for resolution. Pending such resolution, WFP will provide food to the number of beneficiaries it estimates are in need of assistance.

2.3 Beneficiary ration/registration cards/kits4

4 See Registration - a practical guide for field staff, UNHCR Geneva 1994 and MOU UNHCR/WFP 1997

Ration cards are a key tool in the provision of assistance. However, in new situations, particularly in emergency situations, you may need to begin distributions before ration cards have been issued. Registration and issue of ration cards requires considerable resources of time, people and security.

¨ Registration establishes an agreed number of beneficiaries.

¨ Registration also provides the profile of the refugee population, making it easier to target special groups.

¨ Ration cards identify the beneficiaries and make monitoring and control easier.

The use of standard UNHCR registration software (Field Based Registration System - FBARS) makes it easy to produce printed lists and cards from registration data.

Obtaining registration/ration cards

Standard UNHCR Registration cards, which can also be used as ration cards, are contained in UNHCR registration kits. Each kit contains all the items (wristbands, forms, tokens, cards, etc.) needed for registration of 30,000 people (10,000 families). The kit includes 10,000 temporary ration/registration cards and 10,000 permanent ration/registration cards. (1 card per family). If the whole kit is not needed, registration cards, and/or other specific items, can be ordered separately. It takes the supplier in Geneva 17 working days to produce and deliver these separate orders. So add transportation time from Geneva to your location to estimate how long a separate order might take to arrive.

How to obtain registration kits

Registration kits are stockpiled at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva by GSS. Requests for kits should be addressed to the Desk, while the Food and Statistical Unit of PCS authorises their deployment. GSS deploy the kits on the basis of a purchase authorisation (PA) raised by the Desk.

Each kit comes in two boxes measuring 112 × 52 × 53 cm each and weighing a total of 400 kg per complete kit of two boxes. Each kit costs US$ 9,000 (in mid-1997) and the cost of the kit, plus transportation, usually by air, must be charged to the relevant operational project; provision must be made in your budget for this.

How to use the registration cards as ration cards

Both the temporary registration card and the permanent registration card from the kit have been designed for distribution purposes. They both have numbers printed around the edge which should be punched to record each distribution. A block of numbers in the middle of the card should be punched to indicate family size. Numbers 1 through 30 should be used to record food distributions and 31 through 36 for non-food items. See the instructions with the kit and the registration guide.

2.4 By whom

Distribution of food and non-food assistance is a UNHCR responsibility

UNHCR normally discharges this responsibility through an implementing partner. To select implementing partners you must have the information which can guide you in that process5. For general food distribution, the designation of the agency should be jointly agreed by UNHCR and WFP. The responsibilities of this agency should be set out in a short tripartite agreement UNHCR/WFP/Implementing Partner, separate from any UNHCR implementing partner sub-agreement.

5 See UNHCR Manual Chapter 4, Section 5.1 for more on Implementing Partner selection.

Information needed for the selection of a distribution agency:

¨ Their past experience in relief operations, especially in refugee/returnee/IDPs situations, and distribution.

¨ Their previous experience in the country or location of operation.

¨ Their capacity to contribute their own resources to the programme.

¨ The acceptability of the agency by the host government.

¨ Their readiness and ability to respect UNHCR's policies, and in particular their ability to incorporate the needs of women into their distribution project implementation.

¨ Their time frame for mobilisation, especially in an emergency situation.

2.5 Where - How many distribution points, their location

As a general rule, it is best to have the distribution points close to the beneficiaries and located in such a way as to minimise the numbers of people who attend any one distribution point at any one time. This makes it easier for them to carry the commodities home (a typical one month food ration for a family of 5 can weigh 75 kg), reduces their exposure to theft and harassment and minimises the time spent away from home - a particularly important consideration in female headed households. For dispersed populations, refugees should not have to travel more than a maximum of 10 km to distribution points.

In selecting distribution points, factors affecting women's access should be taken into consideration, e.g. physical security of women may be threatened if they have to pass through a military/police camp; traveling a long distance may also be threatening, especially if women have to travel while it is dark.

Minimising the number of beneficiaries at any one distribution point is important for crowd control reasons. Fewer people also helps to ensure fairness in the distribution - everyone can see what everyone else is getting. For camp situations you should aim to have at least 1 distribution site per 20,000 people.

Organise the distributions so that the number attending the site at any given time is as low as possible.

The earliest possible distribution of shelter material will help to organise the population

The provision of plastic sheeting, tents and other shelter materials is very important for the structuring of refugee sites. The distribution of shelter material reduces the movement of the population. Once shelter material has been issued the population can settle. Even if full scale site planning is not yet possible you can use the distribution of shelter material to begin a rough lay-out of the site, organising refugees into blocks and using this as an incentive for people to move from areas which could be used for distributions. Keep in mind that populations can increase and it is wise to plan for more distribution sites than are currently needed to allow for increases. In situations where people have moved on to a site in an unplanned way, it is better to rearrange them without delay if they are occupying areas which are needed for distribution. This will create short term problems, but the alternative might be long-term problems and lasting inefficiencies.


How often, distribution cycles

There is usually a single distribution of the main non-food items, e.g. shelter material, kitchen sets, blankets. Timing of the distribution cycle is dependent on food distributions for which there is, normally, a continuing need.

The distribution cycle should be:

1. Predictable and known to the refugees.
2. Set so as to ensure simultaneous distribution in neighbouring camps/communities.

Irregularities in the distribution cycle undermines the confidence of the beneficiaries and increases their need to circumvent the system.

Shorter intervals between distributions allows greater flexibility in adjusting the ration size to compensate for delayed deliveries/shipments. Scarce commodities can be included periodically in more frequently distributed smaller rations, rather than waiting until enough is on hand for larger, less frequent, distribution. Smaller quantities take less time to distribute and are easier to carry home. Low bulk items such as sugar or salt might be distributed less frequently.

Longer intervals between distribution frequently lead to greater delays, as more commodities must be pre-positioned prior to distribution. However, longer intervals may suit some people better, as they will travel at less frequent intervals to collect rations. The weight of the ration and distance from site to household and household level storage capacities are important factors to consider. Long intervals with relatively large amount of commodities distributed each time may make it more likely that refugees will sell commodities, particularly when whole sacks or other containers of food are distributed.

2.7 Equipment for distribution

Non-food items usually need little or no equipment for distribution. Food, however, may need various items of equipment.


Scooping gives scope for significant variation in the weight of portions measured out. The basic problem is that food rations are calculated by weight but scooped by volume. The actual weight of the food delivered will depend on whether the scoop is filled below or level with the top, or the food is piled high to overflow. Even a small amount of under scooping can result in a significant total amount of food being misappropriated. Scooping is also very staff and supervision intensive. Even when closely supervised, it provides an easy opportunity for cheating.

Scooping (sometimes called “tipping”), i.e. measuring of individual rations, by volume, using containers is often seen as the natural way to ensure fairness in distribution. This can be a dangerous assumption as there are many difficulties associated with this method. Scooping has even been described as “a notorious means for cheating the beneficiaries”.

The composition and quantity of the individual ration may change considerably from one distribution to the next depending on food supply. The same volume measuring cups will give different weights of, for example, cereals, depending whether the cereal is maize, sorghum etc. whole grain or milled. Different shipments of the same commodity may have a different weight to volume ratio.

Scooping can be used when bulk distribution is not possible. Provision of scoops is a UNHCR responsibility. When scoops have to be used they should be standard, marked with the commodity and weight, regularly checked and provided from a central source. The team of scoopers should include adequate proportions of women and men, should be rotated randomly between distribution points and should be chosen at random just prior to the distribution.

Weighing scales

These should be available at each distribution point in order to carry out spot checks on unit weights. Scales capable of weighing up to 100 Kg are needed.

Scales should also be available at distribution points for use by the refugees to check the weights of their own rations, these scales should be suitable for the convenient weighing of the ration distributed.

Other equipment related to food preparation/consumption

The provision of non-food items essential for the preparation and consumption of food such as fuel, grinding equipment, cooking utensils and stoves will influence, substantially, the amount of time and labour spent by women in food preparation and should therefore receive priority.