Cambodia's food needs will continue for some time to come. But the recently completed 15-month "emergency phase" of the Cambodia aid effort is being properly recognized as one of the most successful international relief programs in history.
The sum involved -- some $500 million alone from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund -- is minuscule compared to the multibillion-dollar Marshall Plan that saved Europe after World War II. But what is significant about the Cambodian program is that a truly international effort involving diverse private and public agencies was successfully hammered together in such a short period under the most difficult political conditions.
Close attention by the press and an outpouring of citizen action were the twin catalysts that spurred Western nations to more generous aid giving than would otherwise have been the case. As Monitor writer Richard Harley notes in a report in this week's pullout section, the impact of the aid program has been enormous. "Thanks to international aid," he says, "the Cambodians have been able to reopen their ports, get truck transport rolling, and revive basic agriculture. The specter of hunger -- once so cruelly conspicuous in the countryside -- has vanished."
Still, two additional factors must be noted, one involving short-term lessons that can be applied to future aid situations, the other involving longer-range political considerations.
For the short term, there is a need for even closer monitoring of distribution to ensure that foodstocks and other emergency supplies actually reach those for whom the aid is intended. There is little evidence of any major corruption in the current Cambodian aid program. But unfortunately some graft was involved. Relief agencies must remain alert to possible misappropriation of aid.
More important is to ensure that the gains already made prove lasting. The danger is that, given the focus on success, relief aid may be radically reduced before Cambodia can consolidate its fragmented economy.
It is also urgent that Cambodia reconstruct its basic institutions and employment sectors. Western nations have been reluctant to provide economic assistance beyond emergency aid, fearing that it would shore up the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government. This difficult political question has yet to be resolved but the economic imperatives at any rate are clear. As Ian Hopwood of UNICEF notes: "This is a society that has been traumatized and torn apart to the extent of having hundreds of thousands of orphans and a clear majority of women to men. You can't revive a situation like this in a year or two. It requires depoliticized reconstruction of a much more long- term nature."