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Table of Contents

Common Terms in Distribution 


For the purposes of this guide the term distribution does NOT include the process by which commodities are procured, nor the process of transportation, storage and handling, though these are often in some way connected to the distribution process.  This guide refers to the physical distribution of commodities at the final handover point.


Although every distribution should willy according to the context and local specifics, there are certain principles that apply to all distributions.


Generally speaking there are three different methodologies for manging distribution, and while each share the same ultimate goal they have different approaches, methods and objectives. This guide can be used by all the possible actors involved in a distribution, but it is assumed that distribution will managed by an agency or one of its partners.

Government-Managed Distribution

The government may at different levels be the receiver and distributor of goods, using or coordinating with public distribution systems. For agencies involved in distribution,  “maximum use should be made of existing organisations and structures within the affected localities, with adaptations and redeployment as necessary” (WFP, 1991). Government intervention frequently involves mechanisms for ensuring price stabilisation, such as sale of food through public distribution systems or subsidised NFI sales through fair price shops. Sale of commodities may be preferential  to large-scale free distribution which usually is distributed to selected vulnerable groups through schools, social welfare, clinics, or other common coordination mechanisms.

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, other governments with lower capacity may be less or completely not involved.

Community-Managed Distribution

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

  • In entirely community managed programs, traditional leaders register beneficiaries and distribute items to families according to their perception of need.
  • In partly community managed programs, community representatives manage one aspect of the program or participate through committees. For example, an agency may register beneficiaries and monitor, whilst the community distributes. Alternatively, community representatives may register beneficiaries and an aid agency distributes. In both cases, committees may participate in planning and monitoring the distribution.

Agency-Managed Distribution

An agency-managed distribution process entails commodity distribution direct to families or individuals by an agency or a trusted partner organisation. Agency-managed distribution requires registration of beneficiary families, sometimes limited to beneficiary lists, but often linked with the issuing of ration cards. A family member may need to present a ration card, ID or some other form of biometric information, and collect the distributed item. The item is usually, measured, weighed or counted by agency staff to match the entitlement and distribution plan. 


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.


  • No one person will receive excessive bulk or weight.
  • Food rations will be evenly distributed among beneficiary populations.
  • Limited storage conditions in beneficiary homes/sites of residence might preclude prevent storage of large volumes of perishable goods.


Items that repackaged should be placed into new containers that are sanitary, rugged enough to survive transport, free from holes and/or prevent spillage, and be made of food grade safe materials. Repackaged items may not need to be specifically labelled, but clearly marked containers may make distribution easier. Labels should be clearly legible, and written in at least the language of the beneficiary population.


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

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 required by the programme.

If at any time one or more item is not ready or not available, either the entire distribution should be delayed, or those delayed items will be removed from the entire distribution , ostensibly to be distributed at a later day. If at all possible, delays or omissions should be avoided. Setting up a secondary distribution doubles the logistical requirements, while delaying distribution can directly impact a population’s health, and/or cause serious security incidents. If at any time items are missing or delayed, it must be communicated early and frequently to the community through all available channels to avoid confusion or anger on the day of distribution.

The following is a general guide to ration sizes. All decisions on portion size should be informed by the sectoral expert in each agency. It is not up to the logistics team to determine what portions members of a beneficiary community will receive. Typical rations as recommended by guidelinesThe following is a general guide to ration sizes recommended by different agencies:

Commodity gm/Person/Day










400 (450)

400 (450)

















Blended food















1,930 (2,100)

1,930 (2,100)




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 all sectors; food sector but , shelter, water and hygiene, health or and even the education sector can be served by goods distributed under the category of NFIsupported by NFIs.

It is impossible to make an exhaustive list of NFIs as they their nature depends on the context, the seasonseasons, the type of needs, the affected population culture, etcand other factors. 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
  • Beds

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 toilets 


  • Globes
  • Winter hats
  • Scarves
  • Shoes
  • Coats

Heating and

lighting equipment

  • Stove for heating
  • Fuel
  • Oil lamp


Some NFIs, such as plastic tarpaulin, may come in excessively large packaging. In the event NFIs are repackaged or broken down into smaller units, distributing agencies must plan accordingly. Due to the relatively labour intense process of repacking NFIs, and due to the durable nature of NFIs, most agencies may wish to repackage NFIs prior to transporting them to distribution sites. NFIs are typically distributed along programmatic lines, meaning specific sizes are known well in advance. Agencies may wish to conduct a large scale repackaging at once, and keep smaller units within storage for ease of future planning.


Additionally, agencies Agencies may wish to combine multiple different NFIs into a consolidated package or set of packages to enable easy and rapid distribution of multiple items covering a variety of beneficiary needs along predetermined lines . This through a process is known as "kitting". To facilitate the forecasting and final handover activities, (among other parts in the supply chain process) items subject to mass distribution are generally in the form of kits, as for example:

  • Shelter Kit for 100 families families (material to build 100 shelters for 100 families)
  • Cooking set (kitchen utensils for 1 family)
  • Hygiene kit (Hygiene products for 1 family for 1 month)

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

Depending on the momenttime frame, the type of emergency, or the logistical capacities , on the ground kits can might be build built following two different strategies.:

Built as…




Standard Kits


Carefully designed and prepared in advance,


standard kits


are typically developed based on past experience. A quantity of these kits

is usually

are sometimes available in


large emergency

stock, ready to be deploy in the first hours of an emergency. 

prepositioned stocks, and occasionally large international NFI vendors sell pre-made kits.

  • Quick response:
    • Ready to use, no assembly needed
    • Pre-positioned (locally, regionally or international)
  • Quality guarantee: the items have been subjected to a strict procedure including market survey, tender.
  • 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

Locally manufactured - agencies must identify the appropriate local suppliers, assemble and pack kits as needed.


The main advantage is that they can better meet the needs of the population taking into account current requirements and cultural habits.

  • Highly customisable in terms of items included, packaging and labelling.
  • More economical: limited or no transportation costs.
  • Adapted to local customs.
  • Beneficiaries are more likely used to the core component products.
  • 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