Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

You are viewing an old version of this page. View the current version.

Compare with Current View Page History

« Previous Version 26 Next »

Common Terms


Short for Non-Food Items:  Any non-food article, tool, utensil or other item which contributes to the physical and/or psychological health of populations.


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.


A term applied to 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.


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].

The objective of every distribution is to mitigate the impact ion individuals after or during a crisis by providing the means to preserve their health and ensure their welfare, safety and dignity.

Physical distribution is the final step, the last mile for a product before reaching the final user. This process depends entirely on previous activities, decisions about what to procure and how much, the transportation, storage and even packaging. It is essential to know as much detail as possible on how any given distribution is going to run to anticipate the possible constrains and challenges and establish corrective measures to mitigate them.

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 vary according to the context and local/moment specificities, there are certain principles which apply to all distributions.

  • All distribution should be fair, equitable, regular, accountable, and transparent. Beneficiaries should know the rations they are entitled to, the method of distribution, and the distribution schedule. The more transparent the system, the fewer the opportunities for abuse leading to unfair distribution practices. Those who distribute should be accountable to the beneficiaries as well as to the grant founders.
  • All distributions involve coordination, logistics, monitoring, and reporting, which are carried out by a range of actors; including the government, UN agencies, NGOs, local partners and the beneficiaries. Good management therefore requires appropriate allocation of responsibilities between the different actors, and authority and decision-making must be clearly defined.
  • A single controlling authority should be responsible for policy matters, determining overall priorities. Mechanisms for information exchange and coordination between all actors must be well planned. Coordination committees composed of all major actors are necessary both at national level for policy and planning, and in major operational areas for operational decisions.
  • There are common elements in the implementation, which include the estimation of beneficiary numbers, selecting the type of recipients, type of beneficiary documents, determining the physical organization of food distribution, as well as monitoring.
  • Information on the beneficiary population is essential for designing a distribution system. No distribution can start without an estimate of the size of the population. The size of the population also influences the choice of recipient and the physical organization of the distribution, such as the number of distribution points. Knowledge of the socio-political context is crucial in deciding who manages the distribution, or who should be the recipient of aid, and whether registration by beneficiaries is adequate.
  • Beneficiary participation should be encouraged, which can vary from programs where the community manages the entire program or parts of it. Committees are often recommended to provide a forum for discussion or information on the distribution.
  • Access and Protection matters must to be consider at any stage of the distribution process, form the design of the intervention to the actual handover to beneficiaries, allocating resources and means to these matters. They should be part of the evaluation and reports.

Distribution Modalities

When assisting an affected population, delivery of physical goods is not the only possible response. Based on needs, different transfer modalities can be used:

In-kind - Beneficiaries receive the goods directly in the form of end products such as kits and rations.

Cash/Voucher - Beneficiaries receive a convertible value unit which can be used to acquire the necessary goods.

Cash/ Voucher interventions has unique considerations to be taken into account that are not the purpose of this guide. Information about Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) can be found through The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) network.

Distribution Methodologies.

Depending on who manage the distribution, we can find three different methodologies, that 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

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

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.

  • In entirely community managed programs, traditional leaders register beneficiaries and distribute food 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 register beneficiaries and the agency distributes. Committees may participate in planning and monitoring the distribution.

Agency-Managed Distribution

Commodities distribution direct to families or individuals by an agency or a trusted partner organization. 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 will  collect the ration at a distribution site, where the family ration is weighed, measured or counted by agency staff, after presentation and verification of the ration card.

Many variations on agency-managed distribution systems are possible. In the absence of a registration, a compromise between what is ideal and what is possible may have to be made.

Types of Distributions

The context in which each distribution takes place, the geographic and cultural factors, the type of emergency, the vulnerabilities present in the population, as well as the products to be distributed and the own resources available, among other factors, involve decisions on the choice of the type of distribution that best suits to achieve the objectives.

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 Success

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 

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

Distributing agencies should always ensure that those who lack the traditional family structures (e.g., unaccompanied minors, unsupported elderly or disabled people) also receive assistance, and should establish a distribution system that can accommodate this. This might mean grouping vulnerable people into “households” for the purposes of receiving assistance.

The system selection will have an impact in the physical set up for the commodities handover. (see Distribution Process)

Main Types of In-Kind Commodities

Because of the different treatment and care required, is common to talk about two main categories where include the commodities to be distributed. Perishable products for the human consumption that needs special conditions during all the supply chain, and the rest of goods that the effected population could need to maintain their health and welfare. 


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.

Due to the oversized nature of some food handling units, packaging is often broken down and food manually sorted and distributed in smaller portions. Grains from larger sacks can be proportionally weighed or measured and repackaged in smaller sacks matching programmatic targets, while oil tins may be handed out directly or possibly distributed in smaller quantities. The theory behind repackaging:

  • 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 storage of large volumes of perishable goods.

Repackaging food items requires:

  • Preplanning of the size of the new package to match programmatic requirements.
  • Sourcing and identification of appropriate containers and materials for repackaging.
  • A strategy for how items are repackaged before they reach the beneficiary.

Items that repackaged should be placed into new containers that 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 labeled, but clearly marked containers may make distribution easier. Labels should be clearly legible, and written in at least the language of the beneficiary population.

Due to the size of most food handling units, it is typically easier to bring the larger containers/sacks of grain or oil to a distribution site directly, and conduct repackaging directly before the distribution occurs. To ensure that distribution is not slowed down, persons tasked with repackaging foodstuffs should:

  • Be knowledgeable of exactly what the packaging requirements are.
  • Have all the necessary tools to complete the job (weighing scales, sanitary food handling gloves, packaging materials).
  • Be adequate in numbers to prevent delays in the delivery of repackaged food.

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 programmatically required.

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 get.

Typical rations as recommended by guidelines

Commodity gm/person/day




























Blended food



















Non-Food Items

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:

  • NFIs may be distributed as a couple or groups of items that have dependent demand, and all consideration should be made to ensure groups of NFIs should be distributed at the same time.
  • NFIs should be a reasonable size and quantity for beneficiaries to safely handle and carry.
  • NFIs should be culturally acceptable and in no way increase protection risks for recipients.


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:

  • Kit 100 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 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

Sometimes there are circumstances that make necessary to include additional items to be distributed along the main kits or alone. All the items can be ordered and distributed separately (e.g., outside kit):

  • To meet an urgent need before the kits are available (e.g., blankets in a cold country).
  • To meet a specific need (e.g., mosquito nets during a malaria outbreak, soap during cholera outbreaks).
  • To meet the needs of vulnerable groups (disabled, elderly).
  • To complete a standard kit distribution.

 Kitted and NFI items can be linked to the central emergency prepositioning strategy utilized by aid agencies.


This guide does not intent to address targeting or the decisions about what to distribute to who and other key questions; to do that, there should be a dedicated technical team specialize in food security, WASH, education, shelter or others, that could have a clear idea on these regards. Due to the multiple activities needed to have the commodities on time it is recommended to involve logistics personnel in the planning and decision making process, to assure that what is decided could be feasible and that the decided plan makes sense alongside other logistics plans.  

Every distribution should happen once the idea is clear and based in clear evidence. Unfortunately sometimes is not possible to wait until full assessments are done  - such as in the first phase of an emergency. In such situations, a distribution should start in order to save lives and/or alleviate the suffering , however it is strongly advised  that some form of verification will still be necessary to ensure that the beneficiaries identified have legitimate need.  A proper assessment will still need to be completed as soon as possible, but distributions could start without assessments  and gradually modify their content and systematization to align with new evidence and contextual information.


Knowing how many people are affected by a disaster is essential in order to plan a distribution, however developing a reliable figure of the people in need is not always easy - wide differences can emerge among the numbers given by the authorities, UN Agencies, or those representatives of the population - and can undergo  deep modifications over the time. In major natural disaster, the number of defined beneficiaries can change by the hour; and as time goes on, the initial registration numbers become unreliable because of births, deaths and population movement.  Uncertainties about numbers are a constant, but is key that all partners  and key actors understand that while the exact number of people in need of assistance will not always be known. As the program develops and more information is available, assumptions will change and distributions will more closely align with the verified needs.

Some form of registration is necessary for all distributions, but the type of registration may vary from simply estimating the total number of beneficiaries, to collecting detailed information on each family and/or individual. The method of registration used is closely linked to the system of distribution adopted, and either communities themselves or external agencies can register the potential beneficiaries of a program. In most programs, the  initial list of beneficiaries is produced with the assistance of community leaders, or by government officials. Registration is a continuous exercise, requiring regular verification by checking registration data, and comparisons with other estimates of population numbers.               

Distribution Plan

A distribution plan needs to consider Beneficiaries' interests, any security and logistical constraints, the form and frequency of anticipated distributions, the number of individuals who will receive distributions, and the resources available.

If safe, logistically possible, and appropriate for the population distribution of all items at once, or over the course of a single day minimizes the cost and effort for the distributing agency. It is also a more convenient arrangement for beneficiaries who have to travel long distances to reach distribution sites.
In other contexts, a phased approach may be more appropriate, with distribution occurring over multiple days, or even different distributions separated by multiple days. Phased delivery might be due to:

  • Distribution space being dedicated to other activities
  • Delays or shortfalls in procurement of distributed items
  • National or religious holidays
  • Insecurity
  • Prior arrangements with beneficiary populations

A phased approach can still meet the most urgent needs of a population, and focus can be placed on prioritized groups at high risk. A second or more rounds of distributions can then follow accordingly.

A distribution schedule must be designed carefully. It should include a clear schedule of working hours and set a realistic distribution target (in terms of the number of people served per day). The schedule should be shared with logistic focal points for warehousing and transport to ensure that commodities can be prepared and delivered as planned.

A good way of planning the supply movement of a distribution is to roll back the time required for preparation based on an expected day of distribution.

How many days for preparation and delivering the supplies to the distribution site?What’s the transportation time between the main warehouse and the field location?How long does it take to source the item? Are they available in the market?

Thus, if a distribution is intended on the day D, logistics should trigger the reception

 D – (2days) – (5days) – (15days) = 22 days in advance.

Pragmatism is essential, but problems may arise when the original technical principles are forgotten. (see Principles in Definition)


The distribution process in general can be divided in three stages;

  1. Setting up the distribution
  2. Running the distribution
  3. Closure/reporting

Another way to look at this is following a time line; Before Distribution – Day of Distribution – After Distribution.

Setting Up the Distribution / Before Distribution

In the days before the distribution, implementing organizations think about how they are going to set-up and manage the distribution in a manner that is effective, efficient, safe, and respectful of the needs of beneficiaries.


The decisions made regarding the distribution approach should take into consideration the information provided by the assessments about needs and size of beneficiary population, including: the types of beneficiaries being served, the number of beneficiaries being served, the existing coordination and community leadership structures, the population literacy level and the security and access situations in the area.

Two questions arise when deciding the system to be implemented:

  • How much responsibility is appropriate/efficient/worthy to give to the beneficiaries themselves?
  • What kind of resources (i.e., time, space, staff, financial resources) are available to set up and run the system?

Other key aspect to take in consideration when deciding the approach and setting up a sound distribution system is the access.

Access includes a variety of considerations including how individuals are informed about the distribution, how they will get to the distribution site, how they will transport the aid back to their homes, whether they will feel secure getting to and moving within the site, and whether they know how to use the aid provided. A critical element of ensuring access is the dissemination of information. Beneficiaries must be continuously and directly informed, not just through community leaders, about the distribution process and their entitlements as recipients of humanitarian aid.

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



A range of factors will determine the location and number of distributions centers. They include the number of refugees and the number at each site, their locations and the distance between each location, and the availability and location of resources (warehousing and means of transport).

As a general rule, it is best to have the distribution points as close to the beneficiaries as possible. For dispersed populations, they should not have to travel more than a , however terrain, conditions and insecurity may require that distribution points are established less than 5km. If it is not possible to locate the center within walking distance, arrangements should be made to transport refugees to and from the center. In selecting distribution points, factors affecting vulnerable people’s physical access should be taken into consideration, e.g., physical security of women who may be threatened if they have to pass through a military/police camp; ability of disabled people to travel long distances, particularly in the dark. Local tensions between ethnic or religious groups should also be considered when identifying which groups will receive aid in which locations.

The selected location must fulfill some conditions to facilitate the proper set up of the distribution. Distribution sites must be:

  • Accessible for trucks or other vehicles used for transporting distributed items
  • Not overly exposed to wind or sun.
  • As much as possible free from insects and other vectors
  • Not be prone to flooding

Easy to secure and evacuate if needed

  • Clearly marked in the appropriate language
  • Be free from debris or other harmful items

Ideally, distribution points should be located far away from crowded areas such as markets or hospitals, in enclosed areas such as schoolyards that enable the distribution team to control entry and exit, and avoid over-crowding. In lieu of this, distribution teams can also create their own enclosed sites with stakes and rope or other local materials; in these cases aid agencies may have to invest in additional crowd-control staff to ensure order within the site. Distribution points should never be in the vicinity of military barracks or facilities, nor should they be in locations that force beneficiaries to travel to or through highly militarized areas.

Organizing Distribution Sites

Distribution sites must be constructed in such a way that distributions and the collection of commodities can be carried out safely, efficiently and in an orderly way.

In general, distribution sites should be:

  • Secure, to ensure that items are not stolen or misappropriated
  • Near to water points and constructed with separate latrines for men and women
  • Big enough for on-site commodity storage and shelter for queuing during delays or rain
  • Near to rest facilities for distribution workers
  • Constructed near to vegetation or trees, which provide shade and act as windbreaks
  • Provided with chairs or benches for persons unable to stand in line.
  • Be safe for women and children

 People with Specific Needs (PSN)

An extra effort must to be done to assure the distribution is accessible for all beneficiaries and that any potential special needs are covered. Beneficiaries with special needs may include older people, small children, those with impaired mobility or breastfeeding mothers among others that could require any other special assistance or at risk.

Some measures can be implemented to assure that special support is provided without marginalizing or undermining beneficiaries:

  • Remove physical barriers
  • Prepare fast track queues and dedicated waiting areas
  • Train the staff and given resources to assist PSN
  • Facilitate transportation of heavy or cumbersome items from the distribution site back to individual homes with wheel barrows, donkey carts, or community support groups

Site Lay Out

The lay out composition will depend on factors including the available terrain, the weather forecasted for the distribution day, the distribution system, the size of the affected population, the available permanent structures. Every distribution site must have:

  • Separate entry and exit points;
  • A waiting area (a place in which people can wait before being called for distribution)
  • A separate entrance and waiting area for vulnerable and PSN cases, assuring a protection presence to help identify them and provide referrals;
  • A registration area
  • A handover area where people receive items
  • A storage area for the commodities and equipment (permanent buildings, tent, lorry or clearly marked open space).
  • Staff facilities: latrines and source of water, but also a rest area for a 10-minute break away from the crowd and sheltered from sun or cold.
  • Population facilities: latrines, water, covered resting space
  • The presence of a complaints desk, if this is the chosen method for dealing with complaints;

Some of the main characteristics include:

  • A clearly delineated distribution space.
  • Different lines for men and women if needed and when culturally appropriate.
  • A simple structure that facilitates the flow of beneficiaries through the distribution point; progressively organize people into single lines.
  • The registration stage can be used to organize the beneficiaries according to the supply types (e.g., grouping different family sizes).
  • A one way flow of beneficiaries: avoid flows of people that overlap or the need to have people moving against the natural flow of distribution.
  • Clear space between where people are waiting and the stacks of commodities for distribution.
  • The waiting and registration area should have both shaded and have the presence of facilities in case beneficiaries have to wait for extended periods of time. Ideally there should be sufficient latrines for the crowd, but this is not practical in view of the large numbers of people assembled on the site. A rapid distribution will help offset the limited shade or facilities, as well as preventing beneficiaries from having to wait excessively long.
  • It is important to provide a water source, especially in hot weather.

A general layout might look like:

1. Facilities
2. Beneficiary Waiting Area
3. Registration Area
4. People With Special Needs (PSN) Protection Desk
5. NFI Distribution Area 
6. Complaints Desk

7. Entry Points

8. Exit Points
9. Male Line
10. Female Line 
11. PSN Line

Distribution Teams

The size of a distribution team should be linked to the size of the distribution; generally, the larger the distribution, the larger the team. At a bare minimum, distribution teams should contain the following:

  • A team leader, who will be the primary focal point for communications with leaders and beneficiaries.
  • A logistics focal point to deal with offloading, counting of items, temporary storage, and arrangement of kits.
  • A security focal point who is responsible for monitoring the security situation and making decisions, in consultation with the team where possible, on the evacuation of staff and/or abandonment of supplies.
  • A complaints focal point to deal with issues on-site as they arise.
  • A protection focal point, if possible, to assist in identifying vulnerable cases, facilitating their movement through the distribution point, and referring people for additional services as needed.

The rest of the team will usually be comprised of locally hired individuals who can fill the following roles:

  • Translators.
  • Crowd controllers.
  • Enumerators to support check-in.
  • Demonstrators (if necessary, to demonstrate the usage of a particular commodity).
  • Off loaders/kit packagers.
  • Security, as needed.

All distribution staff should be visible to both other staff and beneficiaries by wearing hats, vests, or other visibility materials, and be provided with the any equipment needed to accomplish his/her work.

Teams should be made up of both genders and be sensitive to the political context by trained and sensitized as well as informed and committed with the applicable Code of Conduct.

The hand over of food or commodities  is a highly sensitive moment, especially if it is not well managed. The staff must to be familiar with the general distribution organization and understand his/her roll; be able to answer questions or how to redirect them; and be instructed to know what to do in case of running problems or major incidents. The staff working on the front line or dealing directly with beneficiaries must to receive specific training.

Pre-Position Supplies

Sufficient commodities for the distribution are pre-positioned in the distribution enclosure the day before distribution. The pre-positioned 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.

Communicating with Beneficiaries and Host Communities

Providing the intended beneficiary population with full information before distribution Is the key to a successful, problem-free distribution.

The distributing organization is responsible to duly inform recipient on the basis on  what, when, where and how items will be distributed, and what criteria determines who will obtain items. The rationale employed will be different in the first phases of a rapid onset emergency than it will in longer protracted crisis. The key for any agency is to find the best approach to reach the affected population assuring that every vulnerable individual have as much accurate information as possible about the distribution.

Pre-distribution announcements should:

  • Reach out to all different groups of population using multiple channels of communication.
  • Particularly involve women and the distribution committees (if already in place) in order to avoid information going out only through the community leaders, who might have their own political agenda.
  • Use different methodologies and means such as meetings with groups of beneficiaries (including those at risk), posters and picture messages, information boards, radio, megaphone and others.
  • Use the local language and reach out also to those who are non-literate.
  • Allow them to fully understand the messages and give feedback.

During an information campaign, it is needed to indicate clearly:

  • Distribution is free of charge.
  • How refugees can report any abuses by the staff who manage distributions.
  • Who will receive the commodities that are to be distributed, and selection criteria (if relevant).
  • What items refugees are entitled to receive (quality and quantity).
  • When distributions will occur (date and time).
  • The location of distribution centres and the areas (populations) that each will cover.
  • How distributions will be organized and how those who receive distributions should behave.
  • The purpose and use of the items distributed (to avoid misuse or undesired effects).
  • When future distributions are planned, and their frequency, so that refugees can plan ahead.

The Day Before the Distribution

Prior to the launch the distribution, the team needs to ensure that all structures, commodities and equipment are in place and that operating procedures are clear; this can help to expedite the distribution process and reduce the chances of disorder or problems at the site.

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.

Adapted from Shelter Cluster

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

Ensure that all team members have functional communications equipment (VHF radio, mobile phones, etc.), and that all team members know how to reach each other.

Ensure that all needed local staff including daily labor have been identified and are aware of responsibilities and start/end times each day.

Confirm that the beneficiaries have been notified of the distribution, as per the plan.

If possible, pre-position all supplies in the right quantities at the distribution site (or nearby); the distribution organization may need to hire security to watch the items overnight.

Have the following items ready for the distribution (as needed):

  • Drinkable water for the distribution team
  • First Aid Kit
  • Ink pad
  • Cutter/knives (for stock)
  • Megaphone (if needed)
  • Pens
  • Masking tape/extra rope
  • Flag or visibility materials, if available
  • Vests or arm bands for casual workers
  • Empty enrollment forms, if applicable
  • A hole punch
  • Table and chairs for staff and vulnerable people

If applicable, ensure that vehicles are filled with fuel and in good working order.

If applicable, ensure that the equipment above has been loaded into the vehicles.

Day of Distribution Operations

Once all the members of the distribution team are in position on the day of distribution, all possible questions or concerns from staff are addressed, the commodities are in place and beneficiaries have been assembled in the waiting area, the distribution can begin.


The first step during the distribution is the registration and control of beneficiaries. It is the stage where intended beneficiaries are confirmed as eligible. It is also the moment when the distribution team can ensure the distribution is documented and that the resources distributed have an identifiable beneficiary at the end of the chain.

Three different mythologies for registration exists:

 Manual Distribution Lists

  • Signatures/Fingerprint.
  • Largely used for small to medium sized distributions and to “one shot” intervention.
  • Easy to implement BUT hard to monitor.

Distribution Cards

  • Commonly used in camps or in cyclical distributions.
  • Includes a serial number that refers to specific households.
  • Still requires a database.

Biometric/Digital Control

  • Refer beneficiaries by biometric control.
  • Automatically links the distribution with a server-based database of beneficiaries.
  • High level of detail on data management.


The security measures in a distribution should be defined according to the risks involved.

These risks can go from small robbery to large scale coordinated attacks and the same activity in different places will have different risk factor.

Distribution sites can quickly become chaotic, crowded and potentially dangerous places to both field staff as well as beneficiaries, particularly when there are long wait-times or commodity shortages. Security at distributions,  is usually the responsibility of government authorities, who should be informed of any foreseen security problems. However, in some conflict situations, local law enforcement authorities cannot be viewed as neutral, and other crowd control mechanisms may be necessary. Once serious disorder has broken out there is little that humanitarian actors conducting distribution  can do except to ensure the safety of the distribution staff, usually through evacuation.

Distribution teams can often prevent these situations through good site selection and design, through following operating procedures, and by positioning sufficient and trained crowd control personnel strategically throughout the site to facilitate flow, minimizing long waiting periods to the extent possible, and dealing with fraud or cases of cheating in a quick and transparent manner.

During a distribution plan, program, logistics and security teams should work together to define such rules.

  • The first layer of a security mitigation measure is community involvement: it is key to have local leaders supporting to spread the distribution rules and criteria. Communicating with Communities (CwC) teams also play a critical role in informing people about the activities and criteria of assistance.
  • The presence of security forces should respect a strict progressive use of force approach when managing crowds. Force should only be applied when absolutely necessary, and in accordance with the level of threat.
  • Have a prepared contingency plan and an evacuation strategy.
  • Information is key: good visibility and constant community engagement help to keep people under control, especially in the case of shortages or changes in the food basket or distribution systems
  • Mind people’s minimum comfort needs: water, shade, access to sanitation
  • Appoint one person to be responsible for security decisions on the spot. Make sure that all other staff are aware of which person it is. S/he should be easily visible
  • Provide staff with communication means like radios, whistles or establish another method to signal an emergency

Complaint/Feedback Mechanism

It is important to acknowledge beneficiaries' concerns and complaints while referring those with specific problems to access the distribution services.  A system must be in place, assuring that is possible to keep records of complaints and those are addressed accordingly. A helpdesk should be visible and be accessible without impediments, but at the same time ensure privacy and personalized support keeping it away from the waiting area. It is advisable as well to appoint a representative from distribution committee in the help desk. Any help desk should be able to converse in the language of the recipient population, and ideally be taken from the local community

It is important to differentiate between complaints and questions. Throughout a distribution, staff will very likely be approached by beneficiaries, authorities or others arising issues as:

  • Lack of familiarity with distribution procedures and location
  • Lost, missing or incorrect ration cards
  • Faulty items or bad quality food
  • False claims in order to receive more items or food.

It is strongly recommended to brief the staff closest to the crowd about how to deal with questions and how to refer them to the helpdesk if necessary.

Efficiently responding to questions and complaints will have direct impact on the number of security issues likely to further arise.

Closure / After Distribution 

Distributing organizations are also responsible for the proper closure and clean-up of a distribution site. Generally, this includes clearing the site of any refuse, resolving any outstanding issues, compensating casual laborers, and putting a plan in place to report on and monitor the results of the distribution.


After the distribution, warehouse and distribution team should reconcile and agree upon the correct number of items dispatched and distributed, spotting problems such as: over dispatch and mistakes on waybills, registration problems and thefts, or other discrepancies.  The shortest the time between activity and reconciliation the easier it will be to find mistakes. In other hand, the distribution team will need to submit an activity report which requires the use of warehouse data and the reconciliation is a mandatory part of the process.

All the below figures should account for: 

  • Amounts dispatched from the source and received at the distribution point
  • Amount distributed 
  • Balance left after distribution/showing as a return from distribution
  • Balance recorded at source following reception of returns
  • Any registered losses. 


In the aftermath of a distribution, it is essential that a distributing organization report internally and externally on the intervention and its results, allowing other actors to know that the needs in an area have been covered and avoid duplications. In general, every report should include information on which commodities were distributed, in what quantities, to which populations, in which areas, and in what time period. If all of the needs of the community were not met during the exercise, the distribution organization is requested to include the percentage of total needs met. Lastly, any problems that occurred during the distribution should be noted, particularly if they may impact the ability of partners to operate in the area moving forward. Photos with captions should be attached to the report, where possible

In order to consolidate the different reports is a good practice to agree and use the same template every time. The Shelter Cluster designed one that contains the following information based on UNHCR templates:



Distributing organization

Fill in the name of the organization that organized the distribution.

Site(s) and location

Fill in the name of the distribution site (e.g. Name of a School) and its location (governorate, district, village/neighborhood)

Date(s) of distribution

Give the exact dates of the distribution, inclusive (e.g. January 4-7, 2017)

No of beneficiaries

Give the total number of beneficiaries served through the intervention, disaggregated by gender and age.


Specify what each household was meant to receive, including whether different packages were delivered to different sized families (e.g. 3 blankets/family of 6, 1 bar of soap/person)

Initial stock count

Give the number of items delivered at the outset of the distribution, listed by item (e.g. 1,000 blankets, 1,000 mattresses, etc.)

Stock distributed

Give the total number of items distributed, listed by item (e.g. 850 blankets, 850 mattresses, etc.)

Remaining stock count

Give the number of remaining items, if any, listed by item (e.g. 150 blankets, 150 mattresses, etc.). Ideally, this number will equal the initial stock count minus the stock distributed.

Percentage of needs covered

Give an estimation of the needs covered. If there was a shortage of stock, then this number will be below 100%. Similarly, if there are new arrivals, the team might note that the needs as per the assessment have been covered but that new needs have arisen.

Distribution approach

Detail how the distribution was set up and managed.

Problems encountered during the distribution

List any problems encountered during the distribution such as fraud, issues of access, claims of exclusion, etc.

Plan for follow-up

List any actions that the organization plans to undertake in the aftermath, e.g. a PDM or a follow-up distribution to account for new arrivals.


Following the full closure of a distribution, distribution organizations may want to start thinking about conducting a post-distribution monitoring (PDM) exercise in order to assess the effectiveness, appropriateness and coverage of the intervention, and overall satisfaction with the assistance provided. Ideally, PDMs should evaluate a single response about a month after the intervention occurs. This allows time for beneficiaries to use the items provided and give useful feedback on quality, account for the possibility that the recipients of aid might have moved.

In parallel, agencies may wish to perform a market survey where the price of commodities on the local markets is collected regularly. The market tends to be distorted in emergency or conflict contexts, and there can be large fluctuations in price provoked by timing of distributions making very difficult to interpret quantitative data. Market surveys may reveal impacts of distributions on local vendors, if items are being resold, or even if cheaper or more appropriate items are available locally for procurement or vouchering.  

Key Actors

It is important to know the roles and responsibilities of the main actors involved at various stages of commodity distributions. In most circumstances, key actors include the following:

  • Affected people: IDPs, returnees, host communities or other potential recipients of aid.
  • Distributing agency: Agency, NGO or any of kind of partner conducting the distribution.
  • Contributing Organization: Agency contributing with stock, funds, or other kind of support to the distribution.
  • Government authorities: local or national authorities covering the area of intervention.
  • Cluster: coordinating body that can assist in the organization of the intervention.

The roles and responsibilities of each of these key actors may include:


Roles and Responsibilities

Affected people

  • Assistance in distribution planning.
  • Assistance in the identification of people at risk.
  • Establishment of committees with adequate representation of women.
  • Information-sharing on the specific concerns of different groups.
  • Dissemination of information on the commodities and the distribution process and system.
  • Crowd control at the distribution site and other casual labor for distribution related activities.
  • Assisting vulnerable members of the displaced population

Distribution Agency

  • Establishment of distribution site and distribution-related processes.
  • Dissemination of information to affected populations.
  • Management and equitable distribution of relief commodities using the appropriate distribution system.
  • Participation, inclusion, safety, and accountability in the distribution process.
  • On-site monitoring of distribution processes.
  • Reports on quality, quantity and impact of commodity distributions.

Contributing organization

  • Movement of stocks to the field for distribution (if applicable).
  • Provision of funds or other types of support for the intervention.
  • Guidance on technical issues where appropriate, e.g., protection referrals.
  • Monitoring the distribution program and reporting to donors and governments as relevant.

Government authorities

  • Security and the creation of safe spaces for distribution.
  • Creation of initial beneficiary lists in consultation with communities (when appropriate).
  • Free and safe access of relief personnel to beneficiaries and of beneficiaries to aid.
  • Consultations on distribution set up, approach, and process.
  • Relevant permissions.


  • Coordination of the distribution and support for additional capacity if needed.
  • Advocacy around access.
  • Receipt and review of distribution reports.
  • Information management
  • Creation of intersectoral coordination spaces.

Adapted from Shelter Cluster

Distribution Committees

To assure the affected population involvement in the process and guarantee that its participation is efficient and effective, a best practice has shown to be the creation of distribution committees. Distribution committees tend to work better in stable environments, should ideally reflect the ratio of men and women in the population, and all population groups should be represented. Committees can meet both before and after distributions, where all issues related to distribution should be discussed freely inside the committee and brought to the appropriate agency’s attention. These committees will act as a link between the agency in charge of the distribution and the affected population, helping to:

  • Keep unrealistic expectations in check
  • Ensure overall understanding of procedures and restrictions
  • Ensure receipt of feedback from the community or camp population on all issues related to distribution.

Protection Considerations

Protection mainstreaming means distributing organizations, partners, employed third parties and all other entities involved in the distirbution are undertaking activities in a manner that safeguards people from violence, coercion, deprivation, and discrimination and that aims at attaining full respect for the rights of the individual.

The distributing organization should undertake all effort to integrate protection into every part of the distribution process incorporating the four key elements of protection mainstreaming, which include:

  1. Avoiding causing harm and prioritize safety and dignity
  2. Ensuring meaningful access
  3. Practicing accountability
  4. Promoting participation and empowerment

A protection-based should be included when planning the logistics of distribution to advocate and highlight the importance of impartiality and non-discrimination to achieve a successful and sound distribution. All members of the team have a role in ensuring the safety, dignity and integrity of people in aid distribution. Coordination, fairness and planning are crucial to respond to their specific needs, cultural values, physical context and environment preservation.

As a compendium, the following list should be considered:

  • Distribution times are safe for beneficiaries to travel to the distribution point and return home without exposure to further risk of harm
  • Physical location of the distribution can be easily and safely accessed, particularly against the risk or threat of gender-based violence and attacks from armed groups
  • Commodities distributions are designed to be respectful and inclusive of cultural and religious practice
  • Commodities distribution methodology are designed to preserve safety and dignity
  • Options for home delivery of shelter materials/NFIs for vulnerable persons (e.g., persons with disabilities who cannot access the distribution point, elderly, child-headed households, etc.) or systems by which representatives can collect assistance packages on their behalf.
  • Commodities are packaged in a way to avoid injury or strain to beneficiaries. Distributed items should not be of excessive size or weight, and should be easy to manage for elderly or persons with disabilities.
  • The provision of additional NFIs essential for personal hygiene, dignity and well-being, including sanitary materials for women and girls are consistent with cultural and religious traditions
  • Complaints mechanisms and monitoring are integral to the distribution plans.

Key Messages

  • People should have access to adequate and appropriate food and non-food items in a manner that ensures their survival, prevents erosion of their assets, and upholds their dignity.
  • The participation of both male and female is essential in designing both ration card systems and distribution procedures in order to protect access to commodities for all groups.
  • It is essential to share information with affected population about the items to be distributed, the quantity to be distributed and the distribution procedures. Checking that the information has been understood by all can be done through monitoring.
  • Assessments, house visits, warehouse checks, post-distribution monitoring surveys and interviews with affected population should be conducted, to understand how commodities are used (or misused) and address any shortcomings. Or/and information sessions.
  • Persons with specific needs and groups at risk need to receive priority treatment in a camp setting. Depending on the nature of their vulnerability, fast access at distribution sites should be ensured, and increased amounts of items, and special assistance program like supplementary feeding centers, should be advocated for.
  • The safety of staff, affected population and commodities during distribution must be ensured.
  • Distributions should never coincide with local or camp populations’ national holidays or religious festivals.

Regardless of what system is chosen, it is crucial to make sure that is soundly set-up and suitable for the affected population.  The distributing agency needs to:

  • set up a registration/verification system before the distribution of commodities is to take place.
  • make a predictable (monthly/weekly) distribution cycle. This is especially critical for food distributions. Having a regular cycle will also make it easier to follow up on problems that arise during distributions
  • announce any distribution sufficiently in advance, to avoid absences
  • organize distributions so that only a limited number of beneficiaries will be present at one distribution site at any one time. This will avoid security incidents and delays, which can set back the overall distribution schedule
  • establish complaints mechanisms, so the affected population can ensure a way to verify entitlements and services. In case of fraud, theft or abuse, beneficiaries must be able to voice their complaints and know that the distributing agency will take action
  • develop a post-distribution monitoring system. Evaluation of the quality, sufficiency, effectiveness and timeliness of distributions helps to improve the overall distribution system and approach.

Summary of Considerations

  • Assess the region of the distribution site and avoid proximity of natural crowded places such as markets.
  • Plan your distribution time accordingly to the caseload. People tend to stress when they end the day without being served.
  • Ensure sufficient community mobilizers and crowd control in the area well visible.
  • Create buffers and one-way flow of people
  • Define the limits of the distribution site and use natural barriers to avoid people out of designated areas
  • Separate and secure the stock area
  • If distributing from a mobile setup, ensure exit routes are cleared.
  • Provide a seasonally friendly place for beneficiaries to wait including basic drainage (raining season) or shading (dry season) 
  • Setup up a control between the waiting area: beneficiaries should be let in the site based on the capacity to process them
  • Make the distribution rules clearly visible with banners and megaphones
  • Avoid using the same gate as entrance and exit
  • Follow the plan: avoid surprising the population with a sudden change in the system


Sites and Resources 

[1] Source: Commodity Distribution, a practical guide: Division of Operational Support; 1997, UNHCR.

  • No labels