Two of the aid agencies coordinating the Western world's relief effort inside Cambodia are giving sharply conflicting accounts of how much food has reached the country.
The two sets of figures -- provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations World Food Program -- have specific bearing on repeated allegations that the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government has not allowed much of the arriving food to be distributed among hungry people. Lower Red Cross food arrival figures have raised the suggestion that the agency may be acquiescing to a coverup of Cambodian inefficiency or deception to avoid offending the government.
Last Monday, J. P. Hocke, Red Cross director of operations, told a briefing attended by diplomats from countries financing the relief effort that 38,000 metric tons of food had been unloaded at Cambodian docks and turned over to the Heng Samrin government as of Feb. 29.
Hocke said that 27,000 tons of that had been moved out of the two points of entry, Kompong Som and Phnom Penh, as of that date. Hocke and International Red Cross President Alexander Hay had just completed a five-day, information-gathering tour of Cambodia.
Shipping documents prepared by the World Food Program (WFP) indicate, however, that about 59,000 tons had been unloaded by the last day of February. A WFP progress report gives precise dates and cargoes for 28 ships and four separate airlifts beginning in October and ending Feb. 29, when the ship Nagaraj is shown as having completed discharging almost 7,500 tons of rice at Kompong Som.
Farouk Abdel Nabi, WFP deputy representative in Bangkik, said ships and airplanes are entered in the report only after their unloading is confirmed by personnel stationed at the ports.
Well-informed sources in the diplomatic community here say that Red Cross officials were informed that their figures for food received in Cambodia were sharply lower than those provided by the WFP, but that the agency sought to press other relief agencies to accept its figures in order to present a "united front."
The sources said there were fears that the discrepencies between how much food had arrived, in relation to how much had been distributed by the Heng Samrin government, could cause problems in the relationship between the agencies and the government.
Diplomats have suggested, however, that another factor behind the lower figures pressed by the Red Cross is a fear that the appearance of a large gap between food shipped to Cambodia and food actually distributed could undermine fund-raising efforts in the West. A major funding conference is to be held soon in New York.
The WFP, a U.N. agency, is charged with purchasing food and shipping it into Cambodia. Once it arrives, however, it is the job of the Red Cross and UNICEF to monitor distribution of the food.
When questioned about the higher World Food Program figures, a Red Cross official in Bangkok was unable to provide a detailed explanation of how their figures were compiled.
"The only thing I can say is the figures given by Mr. Hocke are correct and came from our delegation in Phnom Penh," said Francois Perez, head of the Red Cross delegation in Bangkok.
Perez said he believed the figures drew upon data provided by the Heng Samrin government and the WFP representatives in Cambodia.
One aid official noted that the Red Cross figures -- 38,000 tons delivered, 27,000 moved -- gave the impression that supplies soon find their way to the countryside.The WFP delivery figure of 59,000 tons, in contrast, indicates that more than half of what has arrived is still in port warehouses.
The aid official also said that much of what does leave the port is now in provincial warehouses, not in people's homes. Some aid workers see this stockpiling as criminal in a country as short of food as Cambodia. But a few others feel it is not necessarily a bad thing.
They reason that at present malnutrition and disease, so common last fall, have been temporarily brought under control, both by relief shipments and a small crop of rice harvested around the new year. It is now better to accumulate stocks of rice for a new shortage sure to come late this spring as the last of the harvest is consumed, they believe, than no pass it out when it is not urgently needed.
Which side's figures are accepted in the end could have an important bearing on the fund-raising meeting scheduled for late March in New York. Donor countries would be more likely to put up additional money, diplomats said, if they thought supplies were moving quickly to needy areas.
UNICEF officials have said that if starvation is to be held at bay, Cambodia will need 200,000 tons of food from abroad in 1980 and more than 40,000 tons of seed and other agricultural supplies. The job will require funding of as much as $260 million, according to Red Cross officials.
Some diplomats attending Monday's Red Cross briefing, conducted at the Canadian Embassy, were puzzled because Hocke's figures conflicted with previous statements from the Red Cross and UNICEF. "According to conversations I had in January, these figures should have been approached three to four weeks earlier," commented one diplomat who attended.
Official UNICEF documents have also indicated faster rates of delivery. For instance, a study dated Jan. 29 entitled "Kampuchean [Cambodian] Emergency Relief Operations" said that by "late January" 37,000 tons of foodstuffs had reached the Heng Samrin authorities from UNICEF and Red Cross.
"The Soviet Union, Vietnam and other communist donors are undertaking a parallel relief effort. According to the Heng Samrin government, they have provided 193,000 tons of supplies up to the end of January. Western diplomats have disputed this figure, however."
Another diplomat present at the Monday briefing questioned the generally positive picture Hocke gave concerning distribution.
"They said there is almost nothing left in stock," he said. "I find it very difficult to believe that things have improved so much."
Since the Red Cross-UNICEF relief operation began last fall, it has been dogged by criticism that little of its food actually reaches people who need it.
At first there were numerous allegations that Vietnamese troops deployed in the country were diverting the supplies for their own use, or keeping them from areas contested by guerrillas loyal to the deposed Khmer Rouge government and right-wing Khmer Serei guerrillas.
Charges such as these have been largely discredited in the aid community because of a lack of evidence. However, certain questions remain concerning the political use of food aid. In many provinces, for instance, soldiers and government employes receive rations twice and three times as large as those or ordinary citizens.