Three years ago, beginning a study of the makers and doers of refugee relief and resettlement policy, I took several trips to Southeast Asia. I visited administrative offices, holding centers, and refugee camps, incuding Nong Chan, on the Thai-Kampuchean border. Among the hundreds of people I met were two young people affiliated with Yale University's School of Organization and Management. Like many others they had been drawn to the area by humanitarian concerns and a desire to help. Unlike most they had a second, highly instrumental, and seemingly self-serving purpose. They wanted to study and analyze crisis management and then write up their observations as a ''case'' for their colleagues back at Yale. They did that and much more.
When I met them they were deeply involved in what they had come to observe. Standing in the doorway of a bamboo hospital with a Khmer baby in her arms, Linda Mason explained to me that she was helping in a nutrition program. I was later to learn that the young Cornell graduate was actually running three feeding centers in Nong Chan and supervising the serving of several thousand meals a day to children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, the sick, and the wounded.
I met Roger Brown along the trail outside the hospital. A soft-spoken Georgian who had played football at Davison College in North Carolina and then worked as a teacher in East Africa, he said he had started his Southeast Asian experience making soup for the hungry. After several months he was to help to redesign and administer the feeding of a multitude. Tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees were provided with rice in weekly distributions along the ill-defined border.
The refugees they assisted were a mixed lot. They were members of various political factions and private armies, and many had crossed the border in hopes of obtaining temporary respite; others were truly displaced persons. There were also ''transients'' who came to Nong Chan and other, similar bamboo, thatch, and blue-plastic encampments to obtain rice seed which they could take back into Kampuchea to plant.
''Rice, Rivalry and Politics'' is not merely nor mainly a story of what the authors did but an assessment of what they learned about managing a massive relief program under the most difficult of circumstances.
In the first chapter the origins of the crisis - and the relief effort - are recounted largely from the perspective of the key players in the tragedy. Then Mason and Brown explain how various bodies - including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UNICEF, and CARE - began to respond to the crisis created by the buildup of frightened, starving, bewildered, bedraggled refugees near Aranyaprathet in Thailand and how their reluctant hosts, the Thais, saw and reacted to this incursion.
The core of the volume consists of three interrelated case studies. The first considers the strained alliance between the ICRC and UNICEF, neither technically permitted to give aid to armed forces (the very people who were the de facto rulers of the camps) but who were nevertheless forged into Joint Mission, which for a time did coordinate the distribution of rice through co-opting the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei leaders into doing their bidding, especially in Nong Chan.
The second case is the short-lived but quite successful program through which 22,000 metric tons of rice were carried back into Kampuchea to begin the process of reestablishing self-sufficiency. While the biggest problem for the food distribution was to see that the weakest and neediest rather than the strongest and greediest got their allotted rations, the most serious issues facing those who saw efficacy in building such land bridges were interagency rivalries and suspicions about US motives.
The third case is introduced in two pkx um9terse sentences: ''Relief organizations supplied the Khmer Rouge resistance movement with food and medicine. Doing so created the most confusing political and humanitarian dilemma faced during the Kampuchean relief operation.''
Through the convoluted logic of ''the foe of my foe is my friend,'' the Thais insisted that the Joint Mission take care of the communist Khmer Rouge, the enemies of the hated Vietnamese occupiers. They could not feed the Khmer Rouge themselves for fear that such action would provoke further incursions by PRK forces.
The authors' conclusions about the management and mismanagement of relief assistance are summarized in their penultimate chapter.They add their own assessment, including a brief list of indictments. The last of these is the contention that relief organizations often seem to accept others' views of their alleged impotence and act (or fail to act) accordingly. In fact, say Mason and Brown, they usually possess far greater political leverage than they think they have. They could do more - and they should.
The authors contend that many of the highly touted successes in dealing with the troubled Cambodian relief effort may have been more fortuitous than planned.
In ''Rice, Rivalry and Politics,'' Mason and Brown provide a graphic introduction to the politics of international assistance and to the difficulties of administering relief in such highly charged atmospheres.
One puts the book down awed by the sheer size and complexity of the relief effort and frustrated by the lack of assurance that those expected to manage similar crises in the future will be much better prepared than were those described here.