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Self-Targeting in Ambon, Indonesia “To be or not to be community minded”

By Carole Lambert

Carole Lambert has been a Food Security Officer with Action Contre la Faim for the past four years, actively involved in programmes in the Ivory Coast, Burundi, Serbia and Indonesia. She is also in charge of capitalising on ACF Food Security experiences and, for the past eight months, has been writing methodological modules based at ACF HQ in Paris. Her training background is in Food Science and Nutrition.

Carole would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of the ACF Food Security team in Ambon and all the people there who collaborated positively in the process.

This article shares some of ACF's recent experiences in food distribution in Indonesia which, in particular, raises some interesting issues on self-targeting strategies in conflict affected areas.

Ambon, near the central market, Indonesia 2002

In January 1999, the city of Ambon, situated in the Maluku province of Indonesia, became the scene of factional fighting between gangs. This soon spread to the whole island, escalating into a conflict between Moslem and Christian communities. During the following months, the conflict extended to the neighbouring islands, and showed no signs of abating until after April 1999. This proved short-lived and by July 1999, violence had again spiralled throughout Ambon. Consequently, by the end of the year, approximately 90,000 people had been displaced and the conflict had extended to the neighbouring North Maluku Province. By the beginning of 2000, virtually the whole of the two Maluku provinces were affected and the death toll was estimated at 4,000 people.

Although the violence receded during the second half of 2000, the problems of population displacement and poor social relations between hostile groups showed little improvement. By early 2001, it was estimated that between 400,000 and 500,000 Maluku people were displaced (out of an initial population of 2 million) and that the whole of the Maluku society was almost completely segregated along religious lines.

ACF Response

In response to the initial population displacement, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) began distributing food and essential hygiene products to the displaced families in May 1999. By the middle of 2000, nearly 200,000 of the internally displaced population (IDP) were benefiting from ACF's assistance (some since the beginning of the programme) in various islands of the area.

In the urban and peri-urban parts of Ambon Island, there were approximately 20,000 families (corresponding to 80,000 beneficiaries), with an estimated 60% living in the Christian zone and the remainder housed in the Moslem zone. According to the distribution system that had already been established, these families were enrolled on about 120 lists in the Christian zone and 80 in the Moslem zone. The number of beneficiaries enrolled on each list varied from tens to several hundreds of families.

Self-targeting rationale

Several logistical factors made the monitoring of food security difficult. Distributions had to be made by sea from an archipelago. Also, due to the difficulties of crossing one community area to distribute in another rival one, it was often necessary to duplicate bases and activities. This extended human resource capacity. In addition, security was a constant consideration and concern. In spite of the difficulty in monitoring food security it had seemed fairly clear to ACF for several months that the needs had to be re-evaluated and that a strategy of distribution reduction should be defined in parallel with a re-orientation of programmes. This process was likely to be complex due to the diverse circumstances of the displaced population. Families moved at different periods, residing in both rural and urban districts. Certain families were taken in by host families, whilst others installed themselves in abandoned houses, built temporary huts or set up camps in different types of buildings, etc.

In the urban zones and the villages a 'blanket' decision on targeting, e.g. stopping distributions or changing over to support with seeds and tools, did not seem appropriate (there was no access to land or sea and there remained a general requirements for food). Therefore, ACF decided that targeting should take place at the household level.

Targeting sessions

The over-riding aim of the process was to facilitate the communities in identifying the vulnerable families whom they considered must remain beneficiaries of aid.

The principles of the targeting methodology were:

There were a number of unknown factors as ACF embarked on this process, in particular, what were the factors that determine the households' level of food security and what proportion of the beneficiaries were food insecure/dependent on external assistance.

The first phase of targeting involved gathering and exchanging information with principal local authorities, and through general meetings with IDPs' co-ordinators. Based on the existing distribution system, targeting sessions were implemented for each 'distribution list' community. At this stage, approx 200 sessions or meetings were anticipated, divided between the Christian and Moslem teams.

Step 1: Informing the IDP co-ordinators and identification of the IDPs 'key committee'

Meetings were organised with this 'key committee' (key representatives of those on the distribution list) in order to start the process of implementing the targeting session itself. The main task of the key committee was the constitution of the focus group which had to be representative in terms of gender balance, places of origin of IDPs and age. If other characteristics were deemed to be important by the key committee in terms of ensuring representation, these would also be considered in choosing the focus group. The rule of thumb was that at least 10% of the beneficiary families should be in the focus group up to a maximum of 50 persons (to keep it manageable).

The key committee also started working on the targeting criteria using an indicative list proposed by ACF. Based on this list, the key committee was required to identify the criteria they believed were most appropriate but, at the same time, were instructed not to interfere in the subsequent discussion on targeting criteria within the focus group.

Step 2: Targeting with the focus group

The focus group was charged with the responsibility of defining the food security classification criteria that determined who continued to receive support, and then locating each household within their community within this classification system.

The only directive given to the focus group was that three categories should be defined, namely:

Category 1 Vulnerable households, still in need of assistance. These households will continue to receive regular monthly hygiene and food rations.

Category 2 Intermediary households, who would still need assistance in the short term (i.e. almost food secure). These households would receive two last ration distributions.

Category 3 Food secure households. These households would receive one last ration distribution.

A report would be written after each session and it was the responsibility of the focus group, key committee and ACF teams to ensure that the information was passed onto the rest of the beneficiaries.


Table 1: Classification criteria proposed by ACF for categories of household vulnerability
Classification Criteria Category 1 (vulnerable) Category 2 (almost food secure)

Category 3 (food secure)

Average daily food expenses (Rp)
per person
per 5 persons


< 1800
< 9000


1800 - 3000
9000 - 15000


> 3000
> 15000

Average daily incomes (Rp)
per person
per 5 persons


< 2250


2250 - 3750
11000 - 18000


> 3750
> 18000

Ratio (no. working persons/household size)
per person
per 5 persons


<= 0.2
<= 1


0.2 - 0.4


> 0.4

Children's education Primary - Secondary school High School University


Modifications to method

Whilst adopting a very open and participatory approach initially, the exercise became progressively more directive, in response to the need to improve efficiency and in order to adapt to identified circumstances.

The entire process posed a number of challenges. These included lengths of time it took for implementation, the lack of standardisation of targeting criteria and varying definitions of vulnerability levels between communities that could contribute to misunderstandings. The ensuing need for organisational efficiency demanded excellent internal coordination between ACF teams so that decisions taken were implemented correctly during distributions.

In addition, the concept behind the focus groups was not always well accepted or executed among communities, partly because nobody wanted to take responsibility for decisions which might have led to the exclusion of certain households. Also in some cases, focus group members did not know about the circumstances of other households to allow an informed decision to be made.

In order to try to solve some of these difficulties a number of modifications were introduced.

Self-targeting: 'right' versus 'need'

On implementing the targeting programme over several weeks, ACF teams were able to see that the process worked fairly well on the Moslem side, whereas the results were less satisfactory on the Christian side. The focus groups identified 60% of the population as beneficiary families (in the vulnerable category) on the Moslem side, whereas this figure was as high as 90% in the Christian enclaves.

Within the two communities, the participants acknowledged the existence of different levels of needs between families (the principle of targeting on the basis of socio-economic status had never been questioned). However, and especially within the Christian community, when the time came to classify households, the participants had a tendency to incorporate and prioritise the 'conflict status' of a household. The implication was that all conflict affected households had a right to assistance irrespective of their actual access to food and consequent need for support. In a way this was understandable as until this point, assistance criteria of most organisations (including ACF) were based on whether populations were displaced due to conflict. However, while a judicious means of targeting in the early acute stages of an emergency, these criteria were clearly no longer valid after a few months. Indeed when introducing the targeted programme, some of the households had been displaced for up to two years.

Given the pervasive sense of 'having a right to something', most of the Christian participants frequently came to the conclusion that, if reduction was really necessary, it would be more equitable to reduce assistance in the same proportion for all the beneficiaries. They felt that allocating resources to just a proportion of families might trigger jealousy within a community. Indeed certain participants stated that they would prefer and more readily accept unilaterally imposed targeting decisions by ACF rather than 'this community process', which ultimately created more internal tensions. In fact this is what finally happened with the Christian lists, where all the beneficiaries who had received food assistance for more than a year were struck off the lists.

Attempting an explanation

Since the teams were trained and briefed in the same way, at the same time and, as often as possible, together, we can not consider that they could have different approaches or understanding that could explain those differences. Nor was it possible to attribute the difference to varying levels of food vulnerability between the two communities (as shown later on by a Post Distribution Monitoring, which also attempted to establish levels of food dependency). More 'sociological' explanations of differences between the two communities seem apposite. For example, 'psychological' vulnerability, the different notions of solidarity / community spirit and social-economic differences due to histories of colonisation and transmigration.

Lessons learned

In many respects, ACF's experience of this household level targeting programme in Ambon is specific to the unique context of the island. However there were many technical and strategic aspects that may be applicable or have relevance in other situations.

Fundamentally, this experience has shown that the relative success of community-based targeting greatly depends on the sociological context. It therefore seems difficult to generalise about optimal targeting methods. However, certain general principles can be identified and irrespective of what method is adopted, good communication and transparency remain essential for success.

A lot of misunderstanding can be avoided if beneficiaries know who is assisting them, why, how and the length of time assistance will last. At the same time humanitarian agencies are, to some degree, dependent upon the community's honesty even though in situations of life-threatening crisis this may not always be easy to secure.

ACF's experience of this programme also highlights the crucial importance of monitoring the food security situation of beneficiaries over time. However, certain questions still remain. What monitoring should be carried out after targeting has been implemented? Food security is the result of a combination of social-economic factors. Yet these factors change with time. Must a 'safety net' be maintained for families who might be identified as vulnerable later on? How can local partnerships be developed so that necessary monitoring and the potential necessary actions/responses can be implemented when ACF leaves?

To be or not to be community minded?

There is no single solution that works on every level. Thus it is particularly important to remain clear and straightforward and not to lose sight of the main aims of a targeted programme. These are, to optimise the distribution of available resources, to reduce the negative impact of long-term distributions and to reach the most vulnerable within the population.

Ultimately, each context requires a particular approach, we must be able to adapt!

For further information, contact Sylvie Montembault, ACF Food Security Service at email: or Carole Lambert at email: Field Exchange would like to invite readers with experience of community based targeting to comment on this article and/or to contribute their own experiences of this type of programming. Ed

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Reference this page

Carole Lambert (). Self-Targeting in Ambon, Indonesia “To be or not to be community minded”. Field Exchange 17, November 2002. p23.



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