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Setting objectives (Special Supplement 1)

Indian flood victims eat at open air kitchen in Nagari.

The objectives of a targeting system arise from the definition of need (Section 1). Given a definition of need, the objective should describe who should get how much food aid, when and why. This provides the basis for monitoring and evaluating the targeting strategy. Boxes 2 and 3 illustrate how assessment findings lead to the development of targeting objectives. Box 4 shows typical objectives for targeted feeding programmes. Objectives should be set with a considered understanding of the potential for putting in place a distribution system that supports the targeting system (Section 4). This may require specific types of assessment to assess the political environment and the risks of diversion, exploitation, taxation and theft (Jaspars, 2000).


This issue is dealt with in detail in section 3. In practice, the objective of targeting is often determined by the method chosen for assessment and the institutional objectives of the assessor. Incorporating 'outcome' measures of need into objectives, i.e. providing food only to the anthropometrically malnourished, is often appealing to international agencies as these groups may die unless assistance is received and they are largely politically neutral (Jaspars and Young, 1995). However, concentration on this group may exclude other equally needy groups.

Box 2: Livelihood assessment leading to targeting objectives following the Orissa cyclone in India, 1999

Key conclusions from the Oxfam assessment were as follows:

  1. Market prices were too high for the poorest
  2. Share croppers became indebted due to their failed harvest
  3. Wage labourers were left with no income source
  4. Fishermen lost their means of production and access to markets
  5. Scheduled castes and tribes no longer had access to agricultural labour
  6. Food assistance was erratic and did not reach the remotest villages. Lower caste people were often the last in the queue for assistance. Political bias due to impending elections may have influenced the targeting of relief assistance, and international agencies concentrated their relief in areas with high media coverage

The objective of the emergency response was to meet the immediate and medium term food needs, and restore or protect the livelihoods of vulnerable and marginalised groups - that is, the scheduled tribes and castes. A food and cash programme was recommended to replace lost employment for agricultural labourers and was implemented in areas which had received little or no cash assistance. Free food was provided to the estimated five percent of households that could not provide labour.

(Young et al, 2001)

How much?

A population estimate is the basis of determining the size of the target population, for estimating the quantity of food aid required and determining whether the programme has achieved its objectives. Population estimates are often inaccurate. The larger the area affected and the greater the variability of need within this area, the more such difficulties are exacerbated, making the estimation of food aid tonnages problematic.

It should be kept in mind that all needs assessments are estimates and contain degrees of errors. For example, an anthropometric survey may conclude that 23% of children under five are acutely malnourished (measured by z score). Before the size of the target population (for an under five supplementary feeding programme) can be determined:

  1. the percent of the median figure must be obtained (as percent of the median, rather than z score, is used as admission criteria for feeding programmes)
  2. the confidence interval around the prevalence estimate must be taken into account, as the size of the target population could vary substantially as a consequence of sampling error, and
  3. a judgement has to be made as to whether the prevalence of malnutrition is likely to be the same across the sampled population, or whether pockets of malnutrition are likely. This judgement can only be made in the context of an understanding of the food security, health and care situation.

Economic assessments are, by their very nature, approximations. Even assessment approaches which attempt to quantify food aid needs, conclude that a range of deficit is experienced by different wealth groups (Seaman et al, 2000). If a single wealth group includes the majority of the population, accurate estimates become even harder to make. Checking of assumptions and estimates should be considered an essential and ongoing part of needs assessment (Darcy and Hoffman, 2003).

Box 3: Household economy assessment leading to targeting objectives in Binga District, Zimbabwe, 2001

Assessment conclusions

The livelihoods of the poor will be affected by the reduced yields caused by climatic problems and pests. The loss of crops alone - approximately 30% less than normal - could be compensated for relatively easily. However, the knock-on effects on other sources of income, and especially livestock prices and payments for agricultural labour, will causes serious problems for some people.


Food aid will need to be provided for the poor group in all wards of the resource-poor Kariba Valley and Kariangwe food economy zones, i.e. approximately 50-60,000 people. Overall, 2-3 months full rations will be required for October - December, as labouring activities should enable those groups to meet their food needs between January and the harvest period.

(Save the Children, 2001)

Box 4: Typical objectives following an anthropometric assessment showing high rates of acute malnutrition

  • The moderately malnourished to receive immediately a dietary supplement (CSB, oil and sugar, supplying 1200kcals) to speed recovery and to prevent an increase in severe malnutrition.
  • The severely malnourished to receive immediately therapeutic food (F75, F100 and CSB), and medical care in inpatient facilities, to prevent mortality


The reasons for the distribution of food aid need to be made explicit for the purposes of monitoring and evaluation. Section 1 outlined the reasons which may be given for giving food aid based on assessment findings.


Where the objective is to prevent impoverishment or a decline in nutritional status, food must be targeted not only at particular groups, but also timed to arrive before the household has already sold assets or taken other measures to obtain food. The quantities of food required, and the time and method of food delivery would be different in each case.


Figure 3 shows a hypothetical agricultural cycle in a rural African setting (with the harvest in October) in an emergency year. It shows the extent to which poor people can access food, and the levels of resulting malnutrition, in a situation where there is no intervention. An agency could intervene at various stages and would require a different objective at each stage. For example, if food aid targeting began in February, it could prevent increases in malnutrition, if food aid was delivered in March, it could prevent the sale of assets, and if it was delivered in May, it could prevent migration. If the response did not occur until June/July, it could only succeed in treating cases of malnutrition and, perhaps, preventing mortality.


Conclusions for best practice

  • Objectives should be based on the assessment findings and the agreed definition of need.
  • Objectives should clearly state who should get how much food aid, when and why.
  • Objectives should take into account errors incurred in assessments.

Recommended reading
Jaspars, 2000
Jaspars and Young, 1995
The Sphere Project, 2004

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Reference this page

Anna Taylor and John Seaman (2004). Setting objectives (Special Supplement 1). Supplement 1: Targeting food aid in emergencies, July 2004. p9.