STARTLINGLY, a long-shot possibility may now exist for Cambodia to regain a measure of its old self-sufficiency in food. The prospect is far from assured: it depends on steps yet to be taken by the international donors of aid on the one hand and by the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Soviet powers-that-be within Cambodia on the other. Just a few months ago it seemed that the land was doomed to one mass famine after another. Food was either being provided in insufficient amounts or was caught up in the frailties of the local distribution system or was being diverted for political considerations away from the villages where the hungriest Cambodians live. But now there are signs that these obstacles are being at least partly overcome.

Let no one think the crisis has passed. As a society and as a people, Cambodia has suffered the kind of organic damage that will take decades to repair, if it is ever repaired. The level of relative health and normality to which the country now aspires is one of gross poverty and deprivation. But the aid is going in, including seed rice whose delivery to the villages before the rains come next month is regarded as the key to obviating another big international relief effort a year hence. Non-Soviet-bloc donor nations have just completed a pledging conference at Geneva, while private donors in this country have joined in what the coordinating National Cambodia Crisis Committee terms "the first 'United Way' of international relief." The international agencies are working to lower the hurdles, logistical and political, that Vietnam's occupying army and its Cambodian puppet have placed in the way of more effective distribution. Enough life has revived to permit the regime to invite in foreign journalists for a brief look around.

There is something grotesque about the readiness of the communist governments in Phnom Penh, Hanoi and Moscow to use food as an instrument of political control in Cambodia, and about their refusal to permit concerned outsiders to respond to the need as their hearts dictate. One would think those regimes would be in the forefront of an international relief effort, but they are in the rear, and the would-be helpers must berate and cajole them in order to deliver help. To the credit of the Geneva donors, however, they have not let the unavoidable politics of the Cambodian question prevent them from doing a humanitarian service. With other Western countries, the United States continues to provide relief, notwithstanding the undeniable political benefit that accrues as a result to Hanoi and its client regime. It is the right thing to do.