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Counting and Identification of Beneficiary Populations in Emergencies: Registration and its Alternatives

This review is one in a series from the RRN, which aims to set out good practice in different sectors of emergency programmes based on the extensive experience of the reviewer.

Defining three processes (see box below), the author sets out to describe the most appropriate means of determining how many people may be in need of emergency assistance and identifying who they are.


the method of obtaining total figures of potential beneficiaries


goes beyond just counting - it is essentially a matter of 'knowing' which individuals are affected by the crisis


describes the activity of expressly collecting and formally recording specific qualitative and/or quantitative information about individuals of concern to


Full, formal registration of a beneficiary population has over recent years increasingly been considered to yield the most reliable quantitative and qualitative data on which to base planning and delivery of assistance and protection in emergencies. Food is one of the largest and most expensive components of any humanitarian assistance programme and one of the most common purposes of registration is to provide quantitative information on which to base programme planning particularly with regard to food aid and rations. However, in light of the rapid onset of many of today's emergencies and the size and expense and often controversial nature of registration exercises, total population registration should be seen as only one of the options for obtaining reliable figures for the effective delivery of assistance.

Why is it important to get accurate numbers of emergency affected victims?

1. To find out who and how many people are entitled to material assistance
2. To facilitate legal identity and protection.

The choice of methodology used to count and identify will be a function of the specific objective of the registration and the conditions at the time. The need for counting accuracy generally depends on the type of assistance planned. Food distribution generally requires as accurate figures as possible whereas water and health provision do not require the same degree of accuracy. Nevertheless the author keeps asking the question 'does this have to involve a full registration?'

Is a full registration appropriate for any given situation: Questions to ask?

Will setting registration as a pre-requisite for access to distribution reward exaggeration of numbers and dishonesty?. The reviewer gives the example of Hartisheik refugee camp in SE Ethiopia where the black market for ration cards was so well developed that registration did nothing to reduce abuse but rather encouraged it. He questions whether food allocations should have been linked to registration.

Before considering a registration

Why is it wanted?

  1. To secure legal status
  2. to determine rights to highly valued sources

if neither, consider

  1. Is this the only way objectives can be achieved?
  2. Is a FULL registration a priority NOW?
  3. For whom is it a priority?

Is it feasible? ... consider:

  • access
  • population movement
  • resources
  • security
  • timing
general information Numbers
community visual habitation centre
rapid research techniques < 5yr screening
household surveys flow monitoring
  overflights, photography

So when is registration recommended?

When is registration feasible?

Feasibility is dependent on a number of factors:

A clear assessment of all the factors mentioned above should be made and if conditions are clearly not suitable for a registration this should be communicated to those who are considering or proposing a registration. The author then proposes that if such an approach fails then attempts should be made to co-opt those pushing for the registration. "Put them in the hot seat and involve them deeply in the registration process. Let them face the problems".

The final conclusion of this section of the review recognises the importance of accurate identification of beneficiaries, but states that "registration is rarely the ideal method to achieve it. A combination of other methods should therefore be used. The methods are not mutually exclusive and over time triangulation or cross-referencing of sources of information should result in increasingly refined figures". The next two chapters of the review explore these 'other' methods.

Alternatives to Registration

Descriptions of each method are given with advantages and disadvantages highlighted. Apart from numbers, it is important to have cultural, economic and political information about a population and in the absence of registration there are at least three ways of obtaining such information. These are: The review is full of significant case-study material and ends with a chapter giving different scenarios which may predispose to one type of approach or another. The variables which define the five scenarios are:

The Review is available from The Relief and Rehabilitation Network, ODI, Portland House, Stag Place, London SW1E SDP.
Tel. 44 (0)171 393 1674
Fax. 44(0) 171 393 1699

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Counting and Identification of Beneficiary Populations in Emergencies: Registration and its Alternatives. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p5.



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