IN Somalia, where food is scarce and those who have it are easy prey for those who do not, a scene described recently by a senior United States official has become common.
"What is happening is that relief agencies are passing out food to women, the women take the food, walk down the street, someone shoots them dead on the street, steals the food they have, and we have this repeated over and over again."
Such violence is familiar to relief agencies that have been struggling to cope with the effects of drought and civil war that have left 100,000 Somalis dead and 1.5 million on the brink of starvation. To deal with it, they are about to invoke a novel weapon: "monetization" of food supplies.
"It's a new, innovative, imperfect solution to a horrible problem that probably doesn't have a perfect solution," says Lisa Mullins of Interaction, a Washington-based coalition of private humanitarian organizations.
First tried in the early 1980s, monetization has become an increasingly popular way to dispense food in countries like Somalia, where scarcity has led to spiraling prices, spiraling prices to hoarding, and hoarding to even greater scarcity.
The principle of monetization is simple: instead of distributing all emergency food supplies free to feeding centers, some is set aside for sale to local food wholesalers. Though not an entirely equitable arrangement, pumping food into the market stream offers three big advantages.
The first is that it brings down prices, which have soared by 500 percent in Somalia, making it easier for people who do have money to buy food. Even the areas where free food has been distributed, the immediate effect has been to depress prices by as much as one-third, say relief officials. Monetization also makes it possible for food to be bought with local currency that may have no purchasing power on the world market. Drawing food onto market
"We need to do something now to force the food that's already in Somalia, that's being hoarded, onto the market," said Andrew Natsios, assistant administrator for food and humanitarian relief of the US Agency for International Development (AID), at a recent State Department briefing. "And the best way to do that is to tell the merchants we are going to start flooding the market, and that will drive the price down, and they'll want to move their food out before the price drops too much."
Another benefit of monetization is that is helps get food supplies where they are needed through existing market channels, without subjecting private relief organizations to the expense of doing the job themselves.
"Distribution costs a huge amount of money," says Steve Hansch, program director of Food Aid Management, an association of private voluntary organizations (PVOs) in Washington. "Instead of sending a PVO representative, let the market do it." Protected merchants
The third advantage of monetization is that because merchants enjoy protection from clan leaders, the danger involved in direct distribution is minimized.
"The clan leaders protect the merchant class because they know they have to have the merchants to function," says Mr. Natsios, describing what he calls the "natural infrastructure of protection."
"The reason monetization is so attractive is because of the security situation," Ms. Mullins says. "Merchants have their own system for protecting the food they're selling. Monetization strengthens the market mechanism that's there rather than creating a parallel system of distribution and security."
Whether by monetization or free distribution, relief officials largely agree, the only way to ease the existing food shortage is with such massive supplies that food becomes sufficiently devalued that hoarding and killing for food will decrease.
US and private relief agencies are now consulting to determine how much US food aid will be distributed through a monetization formula.
Flooding Somalia with food is part of a relief strategy that also includes moving famine victims out of insecure areas and resurrecting the agricultural sector to increase food self-sufficiency.
One means is the distribution of "agpaks," packages of seeds and tools. "For under $25 we can give a family an opportunity to feed itself," says Thomas Getman, director of government relations for World Vision, one of the main relief organizations working in Somalia. "It means there will be less need to harvest with a gun."
The Somali crisis began in January 1991, after rebels who ousted longtime president Mohamed Siad Barre fell into factional fighting. The tribal and clan warfare that has ensued has destroyed agricultural production and displaced one-quarter of the country's estimated six million inhabitants. Another 800,000 have streamed into Kenya and Ethiopia and across the Red Sea into Yemen.
Relief operations were initially mounted by the International Committee of the Red Cross - "the heroes of this whole effort," Natsios says. With death rates heading toward levels reached in the Sudanese famine of 1988 and the Ethiopian famine of 1984 the UN brokered a tenuous cease-fire between the warring Somali factions. Airlift under way
The US has started airlifting food to Somali refugee camps in Kenya and relief flights have begun taking food to the Somali interior. Meanwhile 500 armed Pakistani troops are about to be deployed to protect food supplies in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and to escort convoys.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has recommended that a total of 3,500 UN troops be positioned in four Somalian port cities: Mogadishu, Kismayu, Merca, and Berbera.
Relief officials point to the experience of Calcutta in 1942 as the classic example of the tragedy that can result from hoarding food supplies. Worried by the prospect of a Japanese invasion and convinced that the Indian government was about to make major food purchases to feed the Indian Army, merchants hung on to food supplies, leaving two million residents to starve.
US officials are quick to point out that monetization is a supplement to - not a substitute for - direct distribution of food to the neediest.
"We intend to continue support the direct feeding programs." says James Kunder, who directs the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is also part of AID. "At the same time we recognize that these programs in and of themselves will not solve the massive food shortfall so we're looking for additional resources. We'll address both sides of the equation."