The fight against hunger in Cambodia has become a curious paradox. Food aid is piling up. Relatively little of the 50,000 tons of Western food aid shipped so far to Cambodia has reached its starving millions. The World Food Program announced Jan. 2 a temporary halt in emergency food shipments.
Yet international relief officials are more optimistic than ever that the tide is being turned on hunger in that war-torn country.
The optimism flies in the face of growing skepticism among Western aid-giving countries about the effectiveness of their aid. With more than 40,000 tons of food piling up in Phnom Penh and the port of Kompong Som, they wonder if aid is being deliberately blocked by the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government, if civilians will simply be allowed to starve, or if aid is no longer needed.
None of these is the case, say officials with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Oxfam, and Church World Service relief agencies. They see the logjam as a temporary part of the current dynamics of Cambodia's situation.
The Cambodian government appears to be using its scarce resources to distribute first food from communist countries, these agency officials say. One result is the logjam of the bulk of Western aid. Still, large quantities of food evidently are reaching civilians, although much of it is Soviet corn, a food not altogether appealing to rice-eating people.
Better nutrition is increasingly visible, at least around noncombatant zones, according to relief workers traveling around the country. "There are still severe food shortages and malnutrition," says Bill Herod of Church World Service's Washington office, "but it's no longer a life-or-death-tonight situation."
While the US lays much of the blame for the logjam on the Soviets and Vietnamese, most relief officials see the problem as one of poor transport, rather than determination to block Western aid.
Officials expect an influx of technical equipment to bring a major breakthrough in distribution of stored Western food in the coming weeks. Cranes for unloading supplies at the seaport were recently admitted into the country. A team of French engineers is working to rehabilitate trains that used to run from the seaport to Phnom Penh. About 250 trucks are to be added to some 600 trucks so far shipped into Cambodia (300 of them Soviet, 150 Vietnamese, and 150 from Western relief agencies).
Despite the logjam, hundreds of tons of Western supplies are, in fact, being distributed to the needy. Oxfam estimates that 50 percent of its aid has been distributed, particularly technical supplies.
While the relief agencies are optimistic about the prospects for more Western aid getting through, they worry that donor countries may withdraw support at the very time that aid can be most beneficial.
Cash received by UNICEF and the International Red Cross from aid-pledging countries, for example, has not kept pace with their aid expenses. The joint effort expects to be $31 million in debt by the end of January if donor countries do not make good on their pledges.