Why food and other assistance sold in the open market?

Humanitarian Aid, Recovery and development work Issues Series – 1

Many people suffer due to man-made disaster such as conflicts and wars or due to natural disasters such as floods, storms, earth quakes, avalanches etc.   Families are displaced and some families continue to live in the same places of disaster after the disaster. The poor, disabled, women and children are most affected by these disasters. Some of them die during disasters and some continue to live miserable live after disasters.

Different Institutional donors, philanthropists and governments donate money to lessen the suffering of the people. This happens all over the world. The donations or assistance are routed through International organisations, NGOs and UN Agencies. These organisations conduct assessment in the places of disasters and places where those displaced by the disaster live. They select the most vulnerable families and individuals and provide them with assistance such as food and non food items. Non food items may be kitchen kits, blankets, cloths, hygiene kits etc.,

After the distribution we have found some of these materials which were distributed to the selected beneficiaries have been available for sales in the markets near to these beneficiaries.  What does this indicate?

This indicates any or all or some of the following factors

  1. Unmet urgent Need: The beneficiaries may have more pressing need than the items distributed. For example the child in the family may need urgent medical attention so the beneficiary might have sold some food materials to get the money to take his loved one to hospital.
  2. Wrong selection: There might have been a inclusion error in the selection of beneficiaries which means those who are not to be selected as beneficiaries (Non beneficiaries because they are well off) are included in the beneficiaries list due to pressure from influential people or government official’s relation etc and they have received the assistance. On receipt of assistance such as food or housing materials or non food items, they will sell it off in the market to convert the assistance into money and take it
  3. Received more than required: Some families split their family member to show that they are two or three families to receive more assistance. UN and NGOs consider family as unit to distribute assistance. They consider ration for a family of 6 or 7. Even if the family size is less than that they distribute the same level of assistance. There are also professional beneficiaries who know how to answer the different questions asked during assessment. They also arrange their living place to look poor during assessment to receive assistance. Since most NGOS and UN organisations have one or two sizes of rations of aid materials to families they just give the materials to the beneficiaries identified by their assessment teams. Also people can eat half stomach  or skip some meals and save the remaining to convert into money to meet their immediate  pressing needs. On getting these food or other materials those who receive them sell them  to the shop keepers in their neighbouring areas to get the money
  4. Receiving not required items: UN organisations NGOs and International Organisations purchase the items and distribute to the beneficiaries thinking that these items are required by the beneficiaries. Some of the beneficiaries might already have them or do not require them. For example beneficiaries might have kitchen kits already with them or may have the blankets. But NGOS and UN agencies do not take this into consideration. They simply assume that these are required by the beneficiaries and hence buy and distribute them. So those who have these items will sell them to the shop keepers or agents to get the money to use it for other urgent needs.
  5. Delayed receipt of materials: Due to various reasons the food and other materials might have been received by the beneficiaries very late by the time they might have made alternative arrangements to make a living. For example they might have borrowed money to meet their pressing needs. So when the assistance arrives in the form of goods they simply sell it off in the markets to get the money to repay their loans or to meet their urgent needs.
  6. Receive assistance from more than one agency: Some of beneficiaries use different names to reap benefits from more than one organisation. Displaced families most often do not have identity papers. Though some of them have UNHCR Identity, some might be undocumented families. These family members inform the different person as head of family to the assessment team and receive assistance from more than on organisation.

How to overcome these problems?

There is no magic formula to completely prevent or eliminate these problems. By taking some effective steps we will be able to minimize these issues to the negligible level.


Here are some suggestions for effectively tackle these issues:


  1. Make sure to use vulnerability score card to make the assessment more scientific and minimize the human errors of interpretations. The problem of professional beneficiaries could be tackled by this method.
  2. Use wealth ranking technique of qualitative assessment to screening and listing before going for individual door to door assessment. This method uses the community member’s knowledge about their own community members. Hence gives more reliable information.
  3. Avoid distributing items physically and give freedom of purchase to the beneficiaries. For example you can give them cash vouchers with the use of which they can purchase all the listed items from your list at any time they want.
  4. Cash assistance instead of distributing physical items such as food or non food items. This will give freedom to the beneficiaries to use it for their urgent needs. The fear of fungibility of cash is unfounded. We have found that if the beneficiaries’ selection is good the cash distributed for purchase of f food items most probably goes to meet that need.
  5. If cash assistance is planned, make sure to include allowance for meeting the medical needs
  6. Make a good plan of supply chain management and execute efficiently to make the materials available in the places where they are needed to be distributed in time
  7. Engage the community in beneficiaries’ selection process. A beneficiary’s selection committee consisting of persons elected or elected by the community can be formed to prepare the list of The beneficiaries selection committee can be given the criteria for selection of beneficiaries. This committee can be given training and guidance by the NGO or UN staff. Once the list of probable beneficiaries is received, it can be published in public places for comments and complaints from all the community members. This will avoid inclusion and exclusion errors
  8. A complaints receipt and response mechanism can also be established and publicised to all the members of the community including non beneficiaries. A complaints committee consisting of community members elected by the community, staff member of the NGO or UN Organisation which plans to distribute assistance, government staff can be formed. This committee can receive the complaints or can open the complaints box and address the genuine complaints that need to be addressed at various stages of the assistance from selection of beneficiaries till post distribution evaluation.
  9. NGOs and UN organisation should avoid making assumptions about the needs of beneficiaries and try to address them with formula of one size fit all concept. Instead it is better go for Cash assistance after proper vulnerability assessment. So that the most vulnerable families are assisted.
  10. Use of technology such as bio-metric identification would avoid duplication of benefit (means prevent receiving benefits from more than one organisation)


#TheHARDlearning #CTC #CTConsultants



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