When a bucket is not a bucket - Standardizing relief items: Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series we presented examples which made it clear why there is a need for standardizing the nomenclature and reference numbering of relief items.

The initial need for this generic nomenclature was supply tracking. Common nomenclature enables aid workers to quickly and easily obtain an overall supply response overview during emergencies and to pull together total levels of the strategic stockpiles held by each organisation.

We wanted to create a simple methodology but sometimes “simple” can be difficult to implement. However, not long ago ago we achieved our goal. The result was the interagency standard nomenclature for relief items.

First of all, we determined that the nomenclature and the name are the same thing. We then produced a twelve digit standard for each item which is constructed as follows: 


  • AAA is the three letter abbreviation of the cluster, e.g. SHE for the Shelter cluster
  • BBB is the item category, e.g. TEN for tent
  • CCC is the item family, e.g. COM for community tent
  • DDD is the item identifier, e.g. HOT for hot weather community tent

So the item reference is 'SHE-TEN-COM-HOT'. You can see how this is different from a 'hot weather family tent' which would show as: ‘SHE-TEN-FAM-HOT”.

This used to be called 'Tent, family, 16m2, single fly w/ground sheet' by the IFRC, 'Light weight em. tent, 16.5m2' by UNHCR and 'tente familiale, 16m2, tapis + simple toit' by MSF.

Now, with our new commonly accepted nomenclature we can finally call a bucket, a bucket!

We agreed that we would maintain our own internal numbering structure for all of our own catalogs, procurement systems, labeling etc. supplying one master list of all the items. Each agency would then make a 'translation table' converting the common naming to the agency specific nomenclature.

Who will make up the names and specifications for each item moving forward? It will mostly be an exercise between Logistics Clusters. It was agreed that each Cluster will coordinate the naming convention for their own items.

Does that make us excited? You bet it does! We can now call a bucket a 'WAS-BUC-WAT-HAN'! and everyone will know that what we are talking about is a 'Water and Sanitation cluster, Bucket suited for Water with Handle'!