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Principles and Practice for Food Distribution in Conflict

Summary of Published Review

Field Exchange 10 highlighted a study underway by the Humanitarian Policy Group and Nutrition Works on the principles and practice for food distribution in conflict. The objectives of the study were to assist humanitarian agencies to develop a more principled approach to food distribution. A number of case studies were constructed to inform the study: ICRC operations in Somalia (1992 and 1999-2000), CARE and WFP in Somalia (1999- 2000), The Rwandan refugee crisis in Zaire (1994) and WFP and WVI in southern Sudan (1998-2000). The study1 has now been completed and a summary with key recommendations is detailed below.

Key points

Fears of 'fuelling conflict' and 'feeding killers' have led to a focus on 'doing no harm' by many agencies and their donors. Food distributions will however always benefit the warring parties to some extent. The most agencies can do is to try and minimise this. The main challenge for humanitarian agencies is how to 'do good' by finding ways of reaching the most vulnerable in a political context where this directly opposes the aims of the powerful. Thus a principled approach requires active measures by relief agencies in terms of assessment, analysis and action. Key principles, are humanity, neutrality, impartiality, accountability and transparency. Explicit use of these principles and what they mean for food distribution can assist agencies in ethical decision-making.

The following steps are recommended for planning a principled distribution.

1. Situation analysis

A situation analysis should include the following:

2. Agreement with authorities and coordination between agencies

Based on an analysis of accountability of local authorities, develop an agreement outlining the principles of humanitarian action and the respective responsibilities of each actor. Develop mechanisms for co-ordination between agencies and consistency in approach.

3. Identifying appropriate distribution methods

Determine which distribution mechanism is most likely to succeed in reaching intended beneficiaries and whether this is feasible. Different distribution methods have different risks and benefits associated with them. An essential question to be considered is: can beneficiary representatives or local institutions be relied on to distribute to the most vulnerable? If the answer is no then the agency needs to consider whether a registration is possible for direct distribution. Cooked food distribution may be considered in situations where the risk of theft of food aid from beneficiaries is high.

4. Identifying risks of abuse at each stage of the distribution process and developing strategies to minimise them

Stages where there may be specific risks include:

Strategies can be divided into those that maximise food receipt by intended beneficiaries, and those that increase the possibility that they can keep their rations once received. Examples include; registration and information campaigns to inform all key actors of the distribution process. Also, consider delivery and distribution of small quantities of food on a regular basis, decentralisation of distribution, distribution of less desirable foods, distribution to the smallest social unit or to the malnourished.

Method Benefits Risks/Limitations
Distribution of cooked food to individuals - Only way of guaranteeing access to food by the politically vulnerable.
- Reduces risk of theft and taxation.
- No registration or ration cards needed.
- Overcomes problems of lack of fuel, utensils, water and physical weakness.
- Creates population concentration, Risk of attack and military recruitment.
- Health risks associated with over-crowding.
- High cost because of high staff and material needs.
- Food needs to be stored and can therefore be stolen or looted.
Distribution direct to households based on registration and ration cards - Ensures that households receive food.
- Initial control over beneficiary figures.
- Less risk of diversion by elders and taxation by military and administration.
- Undermines abusive leadership.
- Over-registration of more powerful groups, leading to unequal distribution.
- Difficult to register mobile populations; movement is increased at times of insecurity.
- Little beneficiary participation.
Distribution by community based relief committees - Faster than distribution on the basis of registration.
- Empowers people and makes them more responsible.
- Creates social contracts by electing committee members.
- Reduces overhead costs.
- Can specify gender balance.
- Enhances agency understanding of local society.
- Local representatives are under pressure to favour relatives or the more powerful and to divert to the military.
- Local representatives may exclude outsiders, such as the displaced. Therefore agencies need to identify the politically vulnerable and ensure they are represented.
- Establishing truly representative committees is time consuming.
- In acute crisis, traditional leadership may take over.
Distribution by local NGOs - Helps strengthen civil society.
- Reduces overhead costs.
- Brings food to areas inaccessible to international staff.
- Contributes to local knowledge.
- May encourage the creation of new NGOs.
- May not be neutral or impartial, because of ethnicity and political affiliation.
- Under pressure to favour the powerful and divert to the military.
Distribution by traditional elders - Distribution according to social and cultural values.
- If this form of distribution is used there is likely to be an independent mechanism for complaint or appeal.
- Reduces overhead costs.
- Can be accountable if population unit is small.
- Outsiders (e.g. displaced) and socially marginalised may be excluded.
- Difficult to monitor.
- Under pressure to collect tax and likely to take part of food aid because of their status.
Distribution by local government - Quick and efficient if local infrastructure sufficient.
- Fair distribution if a system of accountability exists.
- Builds local capacity.
- Unlikely to be neutral.
- High cost if infrastructure needs to be reinforced.
- There is likely to be exclusion of certain groups if a system of accountability does not exist.
- There may be taxation on food if resources are scarce.
- Government may be responsible for crisis, e.g. forced displacement.


Show footnotes

1Jaspars S., Solidarity and Soup Kitchens: A review of principles and practice for food distribution in Conflict. Humanitarian Policy Group Report 7. August 2000.

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Reference this page

Principles and Practice for Food Distribution in Conflict. Field Exchange 11, December 2000. p5.



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