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Distributing food (Special Supplement 1)

Food may be distributed in many different ways but the method of distribution will, to a large extent, depend on the eligible groups and the method for identifying them. Distribution points may be developed using existing buildings, e.g. health centres, schools. Food distribution centres may be designed and constructed by agencies, e.g. agency developed supplementary feeding centres or distribution points for general rations. Food may be provided directly through home-based care, community kitchens, or given directly in bulk to the community for redistribution. For example, supplementary rations may be given to children in a supplementary centre to be consumed in the centre, to the family with directions that the ration should be given to a particular child, or to the community for distribution to children meeting agreed criteria of need. A therapeutic feeding centre providing high quality care can be built and staffed by the agency managing the distribution, and a network of distribution points and mobile teams, including community workers, might be used in support.

In order to support the effective targeting of food aid, there must be a distribution system in place which:

In situations where such systems are absent, targeting is likely to fail. Box 12 describes the failure of targeting in Darfur, Sudan in 1985. The reasons highlighted in the box demonstrate the weaknesses in the distribution system, which allowed diversion of food aid and prevented adequate coverage from being achieved.

Box 12: Failure of targeting in Darfur, 1985

The aim was to feed the hungriest one third of the population (1 million people) in Darfur.

The result was "People in richer villages tended, very often, to receive more than those in poorer villages, residents received more than migrants, and settled people more than nomads. Very often, this was the antithesis of distribution according to need."

Reasons for failure of targeting

  1. There was no clear understanding of who, and where, the most vulnerable were - reflected in a lack of adequate assessment. Those who appeared to be most in need were those who had no political voice, such as IDPs on the edge of towns, pastoralists, etc.
  2. The reliance on a single contractor and the absence of Save the Children's own trucking capacity, meant that the company deliberately delayed delivering to the remotest areas until the roads had improved and the transport costs would be lower. No precise schedule was agreed with transporters.
  3. Negotiations between the donor and the regional government prevented the worst affected areas from being prioritised.
  4. Migrants were seen as undesirable so that to discourage further migration, food was not given to them.
  5. Nomadic people were hard to find.

    Reasons for diversion
  6. All the food went through central distribution points, allowing a proportion to be diverted at every stage.
  7. Regional government was interested in urban subsidised sales, rather than free distribution inrural areas. Furthermore, urban people benefited from the low meat prices due to declining terms of trade for pastoralists.
  8. Free grain was, in some locations, distributed on receipt of taxes, meaning that recipients had to immediately sell some of the grain received.
  9. Government employees were favoured in some distributions.
  10. Belief that everyone should have an equal share.
  11. Recipients sometimes had to pay in kind (with food aid) for the transport of the food aid to them.

(Keen, 1991)


Designing food distribution systems to maximise coverage

The chief factors contributing to low uptake of services are:




Coverage can be improved by reducing the distance people have to travel to distribution points and the frequency with which they have to attend. In general, there is a trade-off between the need to bring food relief close to the beneficiaries, e.g. distributing food at village level, and the cost and administrative difficulty of doing so. However, the agent that bears this cost should be considered. A relatively small increase in costs for the agency may realise big cost reductions for the recipients (Valid International, 2003).

Distributing large amounts of food can make it hard to transport food

The trade-offs made in programmes that distribute through multiple decentralised distribution points, and those which focus on fewer distribution points, are well illustrated when comparing centre based and community based therapeutic and supplementary feeding.

Centre based feeding requires high levels of human and financial resources, and tends to have to high costs per individual beneficiary. The number of centres that can be supported is usually limited. In most cases, health care is also provided. Inpatient therapeutic feeding programmes can, sometimes, achieve mortality rates below 5% and weight gain greater than 10g/kg per day. Both centre based therapeutic and supplementary feeding often suffer from high rates of patient defaulting. The practical problem arises chiefly where beneficiaries are often expected to attend daily, and where they may be required to remain at the centre for some time. An extreme example was found in Ruhingeri, Rwanda in 2000, where a woman was required to walk an 11 km return journey, 6 days a week with her child, to receive a small supplementary ration. The energy content of the ration approximated the energy expended on collecting it, and a visit to the centre required the woman to forego a day of paid work or obligatory communal work.

Community based feeding tends to have slightly lower costs per beneficiary, and allows many more distribution centres to be run although logistic demands are high. Treatment protocols tend to be less sophisticated though health care is usually also provided. The recent availability of ready to use therapeutic foods have made community based therapeutic feeding possible. Even though therapy is less intensive in community based therapeutic care and consequently weight gain is lower than centre based care, mortality rates as low (<3%) (Taylor, 2002) as those achieved in centre based care have been reported probably because the risks of cross infection are minimised. In practice, community based feeding programmes do require a small centre based component for treating severely malnourished children who are acutely ill, but usually the scale of requirement for this is reduced as children present earlier for treatment.

Figures 5 and 6 illustrate the coverage achieved in centre based, as opposed to community based, feeding. Figure 5 compares the location of distribution points for community based therapeutic care (Outpatient Therapeutic Programme (OTP)), compared to those for centre based care (therapeutic feeding centres) in a famine relief programme in North Darfur, Sudan in 2002. It would be anticipated that greater coverage could be achieved through the community-based care, simply due to the sheer number and geographical coverage of the distribution points. Figure 6 compares two districts in Malawi in 2003, Mchinji and Dowa. In Mchinji district, centre based therapeutic care was implemented in Ministry of Health facilities with support from Save the Children UK. In Dowa, Concern introduced community based care. The size of the shaded squares is directly proportional to the coverage rate found in the village surveyed. Villages were selected for survey in order to provide a geographic spread across the district. It can be seen that considerably greater levels of coverage were achieved in Dowa.

Practical difficulties faced by targeted beneficiaries, related to the frequency and organisation of the distribution, should be taken into account. For example, older people may not be able to queue for long periods and have difficulty in obtaining access to information about their entitlements (HelpAge International, 2001). Several examples illustrate the problems of distribution design and how it can undermine targeting.

Designing food distribution to minimise inclusion errors

Inclusion errors arise principally from:

Box 13: Examples of diversion of food by recipient populations

  • Deliberate exclusion of eligible groups through bias or abuse of power
  • Deliberate inclusion of non-eligible groups/individuals, e.g. linking to credit payment
  • Misappropriation: falsifying distribution records and redirecting food aid (people get less than they are entitled to)
  • Selective scooping by distributor (over scooping/under scooping/selecting the better parts of selected commodities for certain people)
  • Forced sharing of food which is already distributed
  • Imposing costs on targeted households, e.g. getting them to pay for store keeping or other operating costs
  • Registration errors: multiple registration of individuals/households at one distribution point, registration of the same individual/households at multiple distribution points, inflation of household size, registration of phantom households

(Care, 1998)


Various means are used for identifying the eligible population including registration, the use of bracelets, ration cards and skin dye. In centre based feeding and food distribution programmes, inclusion errors can generally be kept to a low level if eligibility criteria are objective, staff are clear about the eligibility criteria and adequate supervision checks are in place. Theft and fraud can be minimised, although rarely entirely eliminated, by ensuring that record keeping and supervision procedures are in place. If eligibility criteria are not clear and cannot be easily applied, then inclusion errors will result (see Box 5). Targeting guidelines can assist with the implementation of eligibility criteria at distribution points.

Inclusion errors do arise in centralised systems, in most cases because the food available is less than that required (see Section 6). Under these conditions, staff may come under extreme pressure to include beneficiaries who are not eligible. However, even in these contexts, programmes with strict criteria can result in minimal inclusion errors. For example, a re-registration of all children registered in the Save the Children UK supplementary feeding programme in Huambo, Angola in 2000 (see Box 10) was conducted. The lack of food support to the general population led to enormous pressures on feeding centre staff to admit children. At that time, 9600 children were registered in the centres and only 4.7% of these children were found to have met the exit criteria, i.e. were no longer eligible (Save the Children, 2001).

In many instances, particularly when households rather than individuals are targeted, there will be a degree of diversion of food aid in the system, resulting in inclusion and exclusion error (see Box 13). Box 13 also shows that the distribution system must be designed with sensitivity to the political situation and the risks of diversion (see also Section 2). The extent of diversion will vary, according to the context and the targeting system. While the prevention of deliberate abuse is a major preoccupation in many targeting systems, there may be other more important sources of error in many targeting systems (such as the design of the system).

There is a growing body of experience demonstrating methods for reducing diversion in situations where communities, themselves, have greater control over the food aid resources (see also Section 5) and distribution is decentralised. The success of these experiences appears to lie first in the suitability of the context, and secondly, in the attention paid to the process of developing the targeting system and in ensuring it is transparent, and that all those involved feel a degree of accountability to one another.

Community managed targeting (CMT) places a greater responsibility on the community to decide who requires food assistance and ensuring they receive it. CMT aims to achieve the transfer of responsibility for targeting, managing and monitoring the food distribution from the implementing agency, to the beneficiary community (Mathys, 2003). Figure 7 shows the key principles on which the approach is based, and Box 14 shows the key steps recommended for effective community based targeting.

There have been a number of reviews (Jaspars et al, 1997, Ridout 1999, Jaspars and Shoham, 1999, Shoham, 1999) of community based targeting which have shown that this approach is only likely to be feasible in certain conditions, where:

Box 14: Key steps in community based targeting

  1. Implementing agency meets with local authorities and village members in public meetings to explain that food aid will be provided and the proportion of the population to be targeted.
  2. A Relief Committee (RC) is elected with the aim of having broad representation of all the constituent groups, including adequate representation of women.The RC could be at village level or cover a larger geographic area.
  3. The RC discusses with the implementing agency the criteria which should be used for inclusion in the beneficiary group. These criteria are then sometimes discussed publicly.
  4. The RC then draws up lists of households which meet the agreed criteria, who are then registered to receive food, and lists are read out in a public village meeting.
  5. The distribution is conducted by the RC, perhaps with a staff member of the implementing agency present.
  6. Post distribution monitoring is conducted by the implementing agencies, perhaps in collaboration with the RC, either through food basket monitoring or qualitative interviews and key informant interviews.

(Jaspars and Shoham, 1999)


Women selling food in South Sudan

There is a broad sense that it is more practical to target reliably, and with least 'slippage', with settled than with pastoral peoples (Acacia, 2002). In pastoral populations, community relationships and obligations may exclude the possibility of targeting to specific households, i.e. the food may simply be shared amongst all. Although it is conceivable that certain protracted refugee situations may comply with the conditions identified above, community based targeting may often not be appropriate in refugee contexts. Specifically, refugees may be used to the general provision of a full ration and therefore, be unwilling to participate in a process of targeting. The high frequency of distributions in many refugee situations would pose considerable time burdens on the Relief Committees, and the strategy may not work well for new arrivals (UNHCR et al, 2000).

Box 15: A version of community based targeting in Ambon, Indonesia

A process of community meetings (focus groups) to agree targeting criteria was followed by ACF in displaced communities affected by conflict in Ambon in 2000. The process had mixed results. In some communities, particularly the Muslim communities, there was some success - in others it was very difficult to develop the criteria.

The key observations from the process were as follows:

  1. Christian communities tended to adopt the traditional NGO criteria for vulnerability - i.e. conflict affected - in the community meetings, thereby meaning everyone would be targeted for food aid. They were reluctant to determine who would receive food and who would not, because they feared this may result in jealousy. These communities requested ACF to impose criteria on them.
  2. In some instances, focus group members did not know the households in the community and so could not determine whether the criteria were met.

Misunderstanding can be avoided if beneficiaries know who is assisting them, why, and the length of time the assistance will last.

(Lambert, 2002)

Box 16: Gender inclusion in food aid targeting to improve effectiveness in Northern Bahr Al Gazal in Southern Sudan

Prior to the introduction of Relief Committees, food was distributed through the chief structure and passed through chiefs, sub-chiefs, ghol leaders, headmen and women at household level. At the last level, food was distributed equally between households by the headman to avoid conflict. The quantities of food finally received were much less than originally intended and therefore nutritionally inadequate. The targeting system was revised and was founded on the development of relief committees, which had equal representation from men and women and were responsible for allocated geographical areas. In addition, women at village level elected a representative who was well known in the community. The representative publicly selected households that were most needy, and linked this information to information on geographic variation gathered by the RC. The distribution was supervised by RC members and the elected female representative at village level. The approach was considered successful as women claimed that more food reached household level. Additional benefits were noted, relating to the empowerment of women to participate in decision making and work alongside men for the betterment of the community.

(Chapman, 1998a, Chapman, 1999)

Conclusions for best practice

  1. In order for a food distribution system to support targeting, it must be designed to maximise coverage and minimise inclusion errors. Once again, this involves trade-offs between inclusion and exclusion.
  2. Maximising coverage requires consideration of the information needs required by the targeted beneficiaries to participate and the opportunity cost which they will bear as a result of participation, which is dependent on distance, cost of transportation and physical capacity to transport the food.
  3. Minimising inclusion errors requires careful political analysis of the context and the points at which diversion could take place.
  4. Strong and transparent information flow between the recipient community and the agency targeting the food aid is essential to promote effective targeting.
  5. The most effective targeting systems are likely to be found in situations where agencies have been present for a long time, have been funded to invest in systems to support effective targeting, and have built up a relationship with the communities.

Recommended reading
Jaspars, 2000
Keen, 1991
Care, 1998


Involving women in food distributions can improve targeting

Aspects of community managed targeting have been applied in conditions, other than those above, with mixed results (see Box 15). Deviation from the eligibility criteria and frank diversion of food by powerful groups in the community can result, if the context is not suitable. For example, villages may be excluded by the Relief Committee or chiefs due to distance, ethnic differences or political marginalisation, while households may be included because they are related to, or politically aligned to Relief Committee members or chiefs. Similarly, households that were politically marginalised may be under registered, i.e. fewer household members than actually exist may be registered. In Zimbabwe, Save the Children UK has shown that the inclusion error increased dramatically over 3 years of targeted food aid distributions (see Table 4) as the economic and political context changed.


Food drop in South Sudan

Involving women in food distributions is another aspect of community participation which can improve targeting. Experience shows that in situations where women are the household food managers, they are more likely to ensure that food resources reach the children, and women are less likely to sell them. In addition, rations intended for polygamous households, given to the male household head, might not be equally redistributed between wives' families. Targeting women with food assistance is a requirement of WFP assisted food aid programmes. In practice, this means ensuring that women control the family food aid entitlement in 80 percent of WFP handled and subcontracted operations, which target relief food distributions to households. In some situations, efforts to reduce discrimination against women in the design of targeting programmes have been shown to be successful (Acacia, 2002, Chapman, 1998a and WFP, 2001).

Box 16 shows how including women in the process of decision making for food aid allocations in Southern Sudan increased the likelihood that food reached those most in need. This was possible, in this case, because the social context and the roles and responsibilities of different community actors were understood in depth (see Box 16). Targeting food aid in this way requires re-negotiation of social roles, which takes time and involves the risk of alienating certain groups and inciting conflict. In locations in southern Sudan where this negotiation was not done, the system was regarded locally as having been imposed and the chiefs redistributed the food immediately after the distribution (see also Section 6).

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Reference this page

Anna Taylor and John Seaman (). Distributing food (Special Supplement 1). Supplement 1: Targeting food aid in emergencies, July 2004. p17.



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