Aid drops: What you need to know

A low-cost, low-altitude bundle dropped off during a Balikatan exercise near Subic Bay, Philippines. The exercise is meant to help airmen practice delivery of humanitarian aid and supplies to remote regions. Photo by: Maj. Teodoro Apalisok / US Airforce / CC BY-NC

If aid drops minimize staff risks, save time and keep deliveries safe from being held up by bandits or corrupt customs officials, why don't humanitarian agencies do them more often?

Aid drops have become a buzz phrase within the international development community since top donors like the United States and the United Kingdom opted for this method in their response to the current crisis in northern Iraq, where Yazidi minorities have fled to the mountains to escape persecution by the militant Islamic State of Iraq movement in Kurdish territory.

Plain and simple — most stakeholders say airdrops are just too expensive. A metric ton of food drop, for instance, costs the World Food Program about $1,600, compared with $300-$500 per metric ton when the U.N. agency delivers supplies by land.

"It means if we need to deliver 20,000 tons per month, we need $32 million per month [on top of the food cost]" Cesar Arroyo, head of WFP’s Aviation Safety Unit based in Italy, told Devex.

This explains why despite several ongoing humanitarian crises across the world today — in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Iraq and now in Ebola-hit West Africa — WFP is currently doing airdrops only in certain areas of South Sudan, and only because the rainy season has cut off many roads on top of the usual insecurity that hampers delivery operations.

But cost is not the only factor this agency and other nongovernmental organizations take into consideration.

International groups need to take note of ground logistics such as parking for airplanes, availability of teams to collect and properly distribute the items on the ground, and — most importantly — agreement and permission from all stakeholders.

The last factor is a "critical component" when considering to do aid drops, Arroyo argued, underlining the importance of securing access not just from government, but also from opposition parties — especially in conflict-affected countries.

"We could be at risk of being shot down if we don't have the agreement from the opposition party for example," he said.

Oxfam International meanwhile tries to identify beneficiary needs, which ones they can and cannot attend to at the moment, and assess the best possible way the agency can get it to them. And then it asks the question: "Are we best placed to help or is there some other agency better placed?"

Doubts over this last concern perhaps led the organization to decide against aid drops in Jonglei, South Sudan, which are now being handled by WFP, while Oxfam focuses on collecting and distributing food aid.

"There would be all sorts of other detail below this of course — such as who within the community in question is especially vulnerable, how do we ensure they are included," Ian Bray, a senior communications officer, told Devex.

Sometimes, safety can rise as a concern. But Bray said with teams on the ground, and the drop area secured, this "should not be an issue, unless for some reason the aid falls in the wrong place".

"There is always human error to consider," he added.

Years back, Arroyo recalled an incident when a beneficiary died when WFP was doing an aid drop. The person sneaked into the area where the operations took place. That has never happened again, however, as WFP now ensures areas are safe and secure, the U.N. agency’s expert underscored.

WFP now ensures it has staff or partners on the ground who are capable of securing the drop zone and managing the distribution of air-dropped food items. There are special cases though when the organization had to do uncontrolled aid drops to ensure food security, such as in 1999 in East Timor.

Do you think aid organizations should consider redirecting part of their budgets for aid drops in these particular situations? Please let us know by sending an email to or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.