3.1 Distribution systems

Distribution planning should consider which method of distribution is appropriate. The choice of distribution system depends on:

  • the extent to which recipient representatives, community leaders or local officials have the capacity and can be relied on to ensure distribution to targeted recipients
  • Appropriate timing during which distribution can be conducted i.e. a time when all or most recipients can be available
  • the ability to ensure effective monitoring
  • the security situation and urgency of need
  • donor requirements and restrictions
  • the resources available.

(Adapted from WFP Emergency Operations Handbook, 2002 in Annex 19.2). Please note that this example is focused on food and commodity distribution.

Mechanism Advantages Disadvantages
Through local government


  • Quick and efficient when local infrastructure is sufficient
  • Builds local capacity
  • Commonly used during early stages of emergency response


  • Government capacity may be limited
  • High cost when local infrastructure needs to be reinforced
  • Government (or officials) may have financial or political motives for controlling distributions to recipients
Through traditional leaders


  • The social and cultural values of the population are respected
  • Easy in the initial stages of emergency and for dispersed populations
  • Low cost and quick
  • No external registration or ration cards are needed
  • Knowledge of social structures and power relations is essential
  • Effective only in small intact communities
  • Risk of abuse if social structures are broken down or are replaced by abusive leadership
  • Difficult to monitor
Through new groups or committees


  • Undermines abusive power relations and has a lower risk of abuse
  • Agency understanding of the local society
  • Some community participation, particularly women’s representation, occurs
  • Self-monitoring
  • Low-cost
  • External registration and ration cards are needed in some cases
  • Appropriate in stable situations only
  • Groups must be elected so that they truly represent communities
  • Resentment from traditional leadership
  • Extensive information campaigns are needed
  • Plans must be in place to counter any efforts to undermine new groups by old, established groups
Direct to households in groups or individually(1)


  • Efficient for large unstructured populations
  • Initial control over beneficiary numbers
  • Undermines abusive power relations and leadership
  • Less risk of unequal distribution
  • Easy to monitor
  • High cost (staff, materials, time)
  • Limited beneficiary participation
  • Registration and ration cards are necessary


(1) Where distribution is to households:

  • distribution to representatives of individual households assures more direct agency control but requires considerable resources
  • distribution to predefined groups of households is less resource-intensive and less demeaning for beneficiaries, but is feasible only where there is good registration and homogeneous groups can be identified.