Aid for the starving

Keith Griffin

  • The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience by William Shawcross
    Deutsch, 464 pp, £12.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 233 97691 4

William Shawcross’s The Quality of Mercy is a fascinating, detailed and moving study of the famine that struck Cambodia – or Kampuchea as it is now called – five years ago, and of the response of the rest of the world to the disaster that followed. The book can be read at several levels: as a memorial to a society that no longer exists, as a footnote to the history of the wars in Indochina and their aftermath, as the story of a large international relief operation, and as a cautionary tale of how humanitarian motives can become subverted by local and global political forces. Shawcross clearly has all these things in mind and more – the Jewish holocaust, for example, seems to haunt him – but from the beginning he underlines the message that ‘Cambodia has an importance beyond itself, because there in its fragile heart paraded, throughout the 1970s, many of the most frightful beasts that now stalk the world. Brutal civil war, super-power intervention carelessly conducted from afar, nationalism exaggerated into paranoid racism, fanatical and vengeful revolution, invasion, starvation and back to unobserved civil war without end.’

Before 1969, most of the frightful beasts had been kept at bay, but in that year President Nixon ordered the illegal bombing of the country, and from then onwards Cambodia became a hell on earth. The American bombing of the sanctuaries used by the Vietnamese Communists forced them to move into the interior of the country. This undermined the neutralist government of Prince Sihanouk and led to a right-wing coup by General Lon Nol in 1970. A month after the coup the US Army invaded Cambodia and embroiled what was once a peaceful nation in total war. Opponents of Lon Nol and his American backers regrouped under the Khmer Rouge, supported by North Vietnam and China, and waged an increasingly successful civil war. The cost, however, was enormous. Casualties were high, the polity was polarised, and the population was forced to flee the countryside for the comparative safety of the towns. The economy was severely disrupted and by the time the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975 there was little left of the old society. Cambodia had become Kampuchea and Richard Nixon had given birth to Pol Pot.

The Khmer Rouge Communists sealed their borders and withdrew into isolation. The cities were forcibly evacuated and the people were sent back to the land – not to the villages from which they had come, but to new villages or work zones, often in inhospitable places. Families became divided, those suspected of being enemies of the regime (including anyone with an education) were persecuted, forced labour became common. Buddhism, that most pacific of religions, was systematically assaulted. Terrorism became a routine means of social control. Meanwhile relations between the Pol Pot Government and Hanoi deteriorated to such an extent that in late 1978 Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and precipitated the first-ever war between two Communist states.

The great majority of Cambodians regarded the Vietnamese invasion as an act of liberation and there was hope that the Heng Samrin administration installed by the Vietnamese would bring Cambodia’s nightmare to an end. Alas, it was not to be. Within months there were reports that the country was on the verge of an unprecedented famine. The dimensions of the famine, however, were and remain a matter of dispute. In the spring of 1979 Phnom Penh and Hanoi maintained that there was no danger of famine, but by July the Government claimed that 2.25 million persons were at risk of starvation and in November the estimate was raised to three million. If true, the November estimate implied that roughly three-quarters of Kampuchea’s assumed population of about four to four and a half million was threatened. Indeed, in October 1979, Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary General, declared that the country had ‘lost up to one half of its entire population’. Fortunately, Waldheim was mistaken.

His statement was based on an assumption that the Khmer Rouge had killed about three million persons, thereby reducing Kampuchea’s population from 7.25 to just over four million. This was before the main famine struck. Population estimates were subsequently revised upwards to six or 6.5 million and even after taking the post-1978 baby boom into account, it now seems that the loss of life under the Khmer Rouge was greatly exaggerated. In fact, the best guess is that in the whole of the 1970s, from Lon Nol to the end of the famine, Kampuchea lost about two million persons or, say, 30 per cent of the population. This included about 15 per cent of the peasantry and a substantially higher proportion of the much smaller urban population. Death through starvation accounted for a small fraction of this total, and the conclusion is inescapable that the threat of famine in 1979 was much less serious than was claimed at the time.

Even so, there was a famine and it was sizeable. The cause of the crisis was not nature but war and its sequel. Liberation by the Vietnamese and the overthrow of the Pol Pot Government gave the people who had been herded into new villages and into work camps an opportunity to escape and go home, and home they went. The movement was understandable, but the timing was unfortunate and the consequences appalling. In the liberated areas, the dry-season rice crop was abandoned and lost, and in the still-contested areas, much of the crop that was harvested was destroyed by one side or the other. The defeated troops of the Khmer Rouge and other anti-Vietnamese groups retreated toward the Thai border, taking with them their wives and children and as many other civilians as could be forced to join them. Eventually there were several hundred thousand refugees in Thailand.

In October 1979 the Red Cross-UNICEF Joint Mission calculated that 120,000 tons of food would be needed during the next four months to save the 2.25 to 3 million people in Kampuchea in danger of death from starvation. In the event, only 59,000 tons were delivered and less than half of this, 27,000 tons, was distributed to the population. If there had been a crisis of the scale predicted, it is obvious that the international relief effort would not have been able to prevent mass starvation. The basic arithmetic of the operation was wildly wrong on every point: the total population of the country was grossly underestimated, the number of deaths under the Khmer Rouge was overestimated, the severity of the famine was greatly exaggerated, the country’s food requirements were overstated, and the ability of the international community to provide relief was overestimated. Had accuracy been important, the relief operation would have been a disaster: fortunately it was not.

The benefits of international assistance were not insignificant but they were spread very unevenly. William Shawcross estimates that ‘the Joint Mission alone spent $97.52 on every living Cambodian.’ The distribution of these benefits, and those provided by other donors, reflected, not the needs of the recipient population, but the priorities of international politics. Most favoured were the refugees inside Thailand; next came the Cambodians on the Thai border, followed by those who stayed behind in Kampuchea; least favoured were the refugees in Vietnam and Laos. In terms of food aid alone, the Cambodians who stayed at home received $28 per head; the Cambodians in Thailand located in holding centres organised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, $47 per head; Cambodians in the border camps, mostly under the control of the Khmer Rouge, $229 per head; and Thai villagers in the affected areas, $278 per head.

These aid allocations mirrored the realignment of political forces after Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and installed Heng Samrin in power. Thailand wanted to maintain a buffer between itself and Vietnam and to that end attempted first to strengthen the different Cambodian groups resisting Heng Samrin and then to force them into a political and military alliance. China also supported Pol Pot, primarily for the negative reason that Heng Samrin was supported by Vietnam and Vietnam by the Soviet Union. The United States, having denounced Pol Pot when he was in power for gross violations of human rights, now argued that his was the legitimate government of Kampuchea and deserved political and material support. It was all very sordid.

Food aid, then, was merely part of the political struggle. All the players in the game recognised that aid inevitably strengthened the recipients – politically, militarily and economically – and they did their best to minimise the amount received by their opponents while maximising the amount received by their allies. The ultimate effect of this was to produce a political stalemate and to perpetuate the civil war. It is hard to believe that the Cambodian people obtained long-run benefits from the relief activities, and even in the short run, Shawcross suggests, the main effect may have been to soothe our consciences.

A large amount of international aid was used to feed combatants. The United Nations World Food Programme had a cosy relationship with the Royal Thai Army and delivered large quantities of food that it knew were being used by the Thais to feed the Khmer Rouge and other resistance groups. UNICEF, whose mandate is to aid children and mothers, simply turned food over at the border camps to those who appeared to be in charge and exercised no control over its distribution. In one section of the border, Shawcross reports, ‘fully 87 per cent of all the food being delivered ... was in some way misappropriated by the camp leaders.’ And in some camps at least 30 per cent of supplies went directly to Khmer Rouge troops. Perhaps most shocking of all, the Statutes of UNHCR and the 1951 Convention on Refugees deny refugee status to anyone seriously suspected of having committed a crime against humanity, a war crime or a crime against peace: yet UNHCR knowingly assisted large numbers of Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres.

International aid almost certainly reached Heng Samrin’s army too. The major beneficiaries, however, appear to have been government employees followed by other townspeople. Very little relief aid reached the ordinary people of Kampuchea, and the peasants in particular – the 2.25 million who were supposed to be starving – received almost nothing. Perhaps the bureaucrats and the urban population in general were most in need, but this is not what the aid agencies claimed in the course of their fund-raising activities nor what the Government itself said when the original request for assistance was made.

The agencies responsible for providing succour do not come out of Kampuchea with their reputations enhanced. UNHCR is criticised for concealing rather than exposing violations of human rights, for failing to protest to the Government of Thailand about forced repatriation of refugees, of being more concerned about the sovereignty of the member states of the United Nations system than about protecting the victims of state oppression. Perhaps this is inevitable given that the main relief organisations are inter-govern-mental rather than supra-national agencies. Only UNICEF of the UN agencies can operate in a country without the approval of the dominant governments of the UN system and this flexibility was put to good use.

In addition to the five large international agencies involved in the relief operation, there were 60 voluntary organisations. They tended to be small, unbureaucratic and relatively quick to respond to problems. On the other hand, with notable exceptions such as Oxfam, they were often incompetent and amateurish (sending outdated drugs and woollen underpants), and sometimes were less independent than at first sight appeared (receiving US Government funds and identifying with US Government policy). Moreover, perhaps because of the pressures of fund-raising, ‘many of the voluntary agencies were anxious to concentrate on prestigious intensive-care projects rather than more basic public-health, sanitation and health-education programmes.’

The Quality of Mercy inevitably raises in the reader’s mind the broader issue of the effectiveness of international aid at times of crisis. The issue takes on a particular urgency because of the current famine in Ethiopia. Indeed the parallels between Kampuchea and Ethiopia are disturbing. Frightful beasts still stalk the world.

Ethopia, like Kampuchea before it, has experienced revolution and ten years of civil war. It has become entangled in the East-West conflict – the Americans supporting the Somalis (who were formerly supported by the Soviet Union), the Saudi Arabians allegedly supporting the Eritrean secessionist movement and other Western sources apparently supporting the guerrilla activities in Tigrai province. The central government has turned for assistance to the Soviet Union, which was happy to exchange places with the US Government. The wars have both disrupted the economy and led the central government to divert its very limited resources from economic development to military expenditure, and this in turn has accentuated the economic deterioration. Again, as in Kampuchea, government policy made matters worse rather than better. The weather was the trigger, not the fundamental cause of the famine.

The wars, the economic dislocation and the famine have created large numbers of refugees in the Sudan and Somalia. Many others are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, in regions where the guerrillas operate relatively freely but where, most of the time, the Government controls the major roads and towns. In these areas peace is needed even more than rainfall because without the former economic activity is bound to remain depressed and the rural population is unlikely to be able to produce enough food and other goods which can be exchanged for food to prevent hunger and malnutrition and death. The danger is that aid meant for the starving will be diverted to combatants and, as in Kampuchea, political stalemate and war will persist indefinitely.

The arithmetic of relief is no easier in Ethiopia than it was in Kampuchea. Not even the size of the population can be known with certainty. Until 1982 there had been no census ever, and the enumeration of that year is unlikely to have been accurate because of the civil wars. Since then the civil wars have intensified, the number of international refugees has increased (although there has been a return flow from Somalia), and no doubt there has been a considerable movement of population within the country. The published and often repeated figures, suggesting that six million people are at risk and that 600,000 tons of food will be needed before December 1985 can be no more than a rough guess.

Whatever the correct numbers, the appeal to our consciences from the sight of starving children and dead parents has evoked a strong humanitarian response. We have not forgotten that the quality of mercy is twice blessed. Yet it is equally clear that we have not learned from the experience of Kampuchea. Charity and politics remain intertwined. Signals of impending catastrophe are ignored. The international agencies respond slowly and with little coordination. Private donors react with more of an eye to immediate publicity than to the needs of the destitute.