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Common Terms



Short for Non-Food Items:  Any non-food article, tool, utensil..., which contributes to the physical and/or psychological health of populations affected by a significant deterioration in their environment which threatens their survival.



Short for People with Specific Needs: People that we can expect could have special needs are particularly older people, small children, those with impaired mobility or breastfeeding mothers among others that could require any other special assistance or at risk.



a set of items used for a particular purpose or activity, generally package and/or distributed together.



This term covers both food and non-food items given in mass distribution


Short for Heads of family:  a member of a household that represents it.


A social unit composed of individuals, with genetic or social relations among themselves, under one head or leader, living under the same roof, eating from the same pot and sharing a common resource base.

Blended foods

Pre-cooked blend of cereals and pulses, fortified with essential vitamins and minerals.


Short for Extended Delivery Point


Short for Internal Displaced Population.



A distribution is the hand-over of commodities to intended beneficiaries, fairly and according to specified rations, selection criteria and priorities. A distribution is the process during which control over the commodity passes from the organization holding the stock to the intended beneficiary[1].


Depending on who manage the distribution, we can find three different methodologies, that could differ on the approach, the means and objectives, while sharing the same goal, to save lives and alleviate the suffering of the crisis affected population. The information in this guide, focused on the physical distribution, can be used by all the possible actors involved in a distribution, but is though with assumption that the distribution is managed by an agency or one of its partners (NGO, governmental, local or international).

 Government-managed distribution Distribution

Mainly in the case of Food, the government at different levels may be the receptor and distributor to affected communities or families making use or coordinating with local government or public distribution systems. For agencies involved in distribution,  “maximum use should be made of existing organizations and structures within the affected localities, with adaptations and redeployment as necessary” (WFP, 1991). However, Government intervention frequently involves mechanisms for price stabilization, such as sales of food through public distribution systems or subsidized food or NFI sales through fair price shops than large-scale free distribution which usually is distributed to selected vulnerable groups through schools, social welfare, clinics, etc.

The extent of government involvement in relief operations varies considerably from one emergency situation to another. Whereas in some countries the emergency response could be entirely in the hands of the government, in many others, with less capacity the role of government has often been limited to coordination.

Community-managed distribution Distribution

A variety of distribution methods have been termed community-managed distribution. In some, all aspects of food distribution are managed by the community, whereas in others, the community participates but only manages part of the program.


By set up

Mobile distribution

Portable distribution setups usually assembled out of vehicles to assist in multiple locations or areas without a permanent location.

Example: Open areas designed with ropes, trucks

Fixed distribution

Permanent or Semi-permanent distribution locations where basic infrastructure will be available for distributions.

Examples: MSUs, Community Centers

By kind of commodity

Recurrent Distribution

The same population is served several times by the same pool of commodities in a well-defined period of time

Example: Food distribution

Single Distribution

A group of people or location is served once for the distribution of a specific type of supplies.

Examples: NFIs, vaccination

By targeted population

Blanket Distribution

In certain geographical locations, all populations within a specific group will receive supplies.

Example: Any children of school age receive educational supplies.

Conditional Distribution

Beneficiaries are selected by specific criteria generally based on vulnerability and needs.

Examples: Families with three or more children receive a complementary mosquito net.

Distribution Systems

Distribution systems can be classified according to whom the commodities are given. There are three broad categories of distribution system.

To whom

System Description

Type of situation in which these systems have been used



Prerequisites for

successful use


Community leaders.

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

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

  • Limited staff needed
  • Community leadership structures already in place. The beneficiaries themselves can act as monitors of the distribution process.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Good understanding of the social and cultural dynamics.
  • Spot checks and monitoring to ensure that distribution is equitable.
  • A strong information system.
  • An effective complaint mechanism.

Group of heads of family representative.

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.

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.

  • Promotes social interaction within the refugee community and enhances social adjustment to the new situation and environment.
  • Influence over the selection of leaders, or introduce new community leadership structures, ensure the representation of women etc.
  • Shares responsibility for distribution with the beneficiaries.
  • The beneficiaries themselves act as monitors of the distribution process.
  • Requires a small number of distribution staff
  • Quick implementation.
  • Security problems related to crowd control are minimized by the presence of the family group representatives.
  • Needs registration and substantial administration to organize 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.
  • Heads of groups must be chosen by the community.
  • Spot checks and monitoring to ensure that distribution is equitable.
  • A strong information system.
  • Effective complaint mechanism(s).

Individual heads of family.

Commodities are handed over directly to each family head.

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

  • 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
  • Scooping could prove difficult to monitor.
  • Registration and entitlement cards.
  • Effective complaint mechanism(s).

Adapted from Commodity Distribution, UNHCR


Food commodities are one of the most commonly distributed items in emergency contexts. Not only is food universally required, its consumption is constant and cyclical. Agencies involved in food distribution should develop a plan for distribution based on the types and quantities of food to be distributed.


Food is often handled in bulky units, either in the form of large sacks of grain weighing up to 50 kilograms, oil contained in plastic jugs or in metal tins, or sometimes supplemental feeding items in smaller containers. Food may also be distributed fresh – such as whole vegetables - depending on programmatic requirements.


Depending on the context, some agencies may wish to repackage rations before transporting them to distribution sites, which may work for either smaller distributions, or distributions that are planned well in advance. Agencies may also wish to develop repackaging requirements directly into their vendor contracts so that items show up with the appropriate packaging directly to the distribution site.

Food items with dependent demand:Items with Dependent Demand

Food items are often distributed with dependent demand – this means they are paired together with different types of food items to complete the full nutritional requirements of the beneficiary population. If items are to be distributed together in complementary fashion, a delay to the proper availability or repackaging of one item may be a delay to the whole process. Distribution planners should accommodate for all food items with dependent demand accordingly, ensuring that all items will be ready at the time and location of distribution in the quantities programmatically required.


Typical rations as recommended by guidelines

Commodity gm/pers/day




























Blended food




















Non-Food Items (NFIs) occupy a broad subset of emergency relief goods, including any essential goods to protect the beneficiaries from the climate and maintain their health, privacy and dignity. Non-food items are closely connected to food sector but not only; shelter, water and hygiene, health or even education sector can be served by goods distributed under the category of NFI.

It is impossible to make an exhaustive list of Non-Food Items as it depends on the context, the season, the type of needs, the affected population culture, etc. A typical list of NFI items might include:




  • ready-made shelter (tents,...),
  • material to build a shelter (ex. plastic sheeting, rope,...),
  • material to rehabilitate existing shelters (ex. saw, nails, hammer,... )
  • cleaning-up kit (material to clean/clear existing shelters)

Bedding equipment

  • mosquito nets
  • bed linen and blanket
  • mats or mattress
  • bed

Kitchen utensils

  • stove for cooking
  • jerrycan to carry/stock water
  • pots
  • plates and cutlery
  • glasses and cups
  • plastic basin

Hygiene material

  • soap and shampoo
  • toothbrush and toothpaste
  • hand towel
  • soap for laundry
  • razor and shaving cream
  • comb, brush
  • sanitary towels and baby diapers
  • toilet paper
  • anal cleansing recipient (in countries where toilet paper is not used)
  • children’s potties


  • globes
  • winter hats
  • scarves
  • shoes
  • coats

Heating and

lighting equipment

  • stove for heating
  • fuel
  • oil lamp

Adapted from Pocket guide NFI Distribution, MSF

The overall distribution process of NFI’s vary greatly depending on the need, the context and the type of NFI. Much like food distribution:


The kits can be defined as a set of items, as shown above, used for a particular purpose or activity.

Depending on the moment, the type of emergency or the logistical capacities, the kits can be build following two different strategies.

Built as…




Standard Kits


Carefully designed and prepared in advance, the standard kits were developed based on past experience. A quantity of these kits is usually available in the emergency stock, ready to be deploy in the first hours of an emergency. 

Quick response:

-  Ready to use, no assembly needed

-  Pre-positioned (locally, regionally or international)

Not always adapted to local customs

(People may find themselves with material they do not know how to use, and therefore the reason for distributing the articles is not covered)

Quality guarantee; the items have been subjected to a strict procedure including market survey, tender, ...

Some articles may turn out to be culturally inappropriate

Some items are not essential, so people will sell them on the local market

Kits locally assembled


They are manufactured locally, which means for the mission a big job to identify the suppliers, assemble and pack. Their main advantage is that they can better meet the needs of the population taking into account current requirements and cultural habits.

Highly customizable in terms of items included, packaging and labeling.

Time consuming: Search for suppliers for the various items (market survey, tender,...) Assemblage of the kits

More economical: no transportation costs

No guarantee of quality

Adapted to local customs

No guarantee of quick supply in case of emergency

Beneficiaries are more likely to used the item

Often not possible to find all the items locally

Adapted from Pocket guide NFI Distribution, MSF


Sites should also be established in a way that minimizes the number of people who are attending a distribution at any one point, as this can be a critical element of crowd control and in ensuring equitable access to humanitarian aid. One way of avoiding large crouds  is to call different communities on different days; another way is to create multiple distribution points to be managed simultaneously. An organization’s decision in this regard should be based on a variety of factors as detailed below:


Few distribution points

Many distribution points


  • Need less staff
  • Less infrastructure, sites, distribution structures, roads
  • Less transport required for distribution
  • Fewer crowd control problems
  • Easier access for women
  • Shorter journeys home
  • Beneficiaries can see the distribution taking place
  • Special arrangements easier


  • Longer journeys to the households
  • Potential crowd problems
  • Difficult for beneficiaries to see the distribution
  • Difficult access for weaker groups
  • More staff and transportation needed
  • More structures, roads, access, cleared sites needed for distribution


The team leader must to ensure that everyone involved in the distribution knows their roll, what is expected from them, and have an enough knowledge about the exercise itself. A briefing to the core team is mandatory, and detailed briefings should be given toto specific staff, such as those persons involved with crow control, registration team, or complaint mechanism.

The Shelter Cluster has developed a check list


as a guide:

Checklist for the Day Before the Distribution

The team leader should brief the core distribution team on the following-:

  • The number and type of items to be distributed per household;
  • Each team members’ specific role during the distribution;
  • The distribution process (a walk-through of the site);
  • The start and end times each day, as well as any breaks (i.e. lunch), as agreed beforehand;
  • The complaints mechanism ;
  • How issues or concerns should be raised throughout the day;
  • Means for feedback on the process; e.g. evening meetings to discuss how the distribution is going, any issues, gaps, etc.

Ensure organizers have the necessary enrollment lists for the first day of the distribution.