Alone against the hungry

It is one thing when Uncle Sam's funding cuts for international aid agencies are based on reasoned conviction about the budget or a preference for bilateral aid; quite another when such cuts are based on unfounded fears. The latter, we suspect, are undermining America's support for one of the most promising global experiments to ease world hunger, the International Fund for Agricultural Development. That support needs to be salvaged and reaffirmed if the United States is not to jeopardize its already sagging reputation in the global fight against hunger.

IFAD, as the fund is called, was launched in 1977 with strong US backing. Its genius has been to get three oft-contentious power blocs to put aside their differences - the industrialized OECD countries, the oil-exporting OPEC countries, and the developing countries - and to pool money for loans to small farmers in poor rural regions where hunger is most widespread. OPEC shouldered over 40 percent of financing the $1.1 billion fund. The whole enterprise was a leap forward in getting OPEC and Europe to share more of the aid burden, a burden that has fallen so heavily on US shoulders in the past.

But in December the Senate Appropriations Committee blocked any US contributions for 1982. This was done despite the Reagan administration's pledge of $180 million for IFAD's 1981-1983 cycle and despite the program's popularity in Congress.

The decision has had unfortunate spinoffs. The US was the only nation to send a delegation with empty pockets to IFAD's recent conference in Rome. In the eyes of the third world, American credibility plummeted. The Western allies were once again left exasperated over US behavior.

The irony is that no one, including the United States, seems to be criticizing IFAD as an effective tool to combat poverty at the grass-roots level. Current projects range from settling some 1,600 farm families on their own lands in West Beheira, Egypt, to providing credit for small farmers in the depressed highlands of Peru. It is too early too assess results, but already some nations are having to change antiquated policies in order to accommodate the projects.

The US might well take a lonely stand in the world community if there were adequate reasons. But the concerns behind its foot-dragging in IFAD no longer seem to apply.

Back in December some senators expressed apprehension that IFAD would become another huge aid bureaucracy or that OPEC would not come up with its targeted $ 450 million. Some also worried that the OECD bloc would shoulder a larger share of the financial burden than OPEC.

But now IFAD has formally agreed to a staff freeze, and OPEC has chipped in the full targeted $450 million (despite the loss of monies once supplied by the Shah of Iran). It is true that the industrialized countries' share of the fund has climbed to $620 million. That rise is not the result of OPEC stinginess, however, but of the growing generosity of the Europeans who made substantial increases to IFAD this year. Indeed, the United States, if it lived up to its pledge of $180 million, would have a greatly reduced share of the burden, a drop from 35 percent of the fund in 1978-1980 to 29 percent in 1981-1983.

In light of this changing picture, we feel that Congress should reconsider fulfilling the nation's funding commitments to IFAD this year and next. At stake is not only the future of one of the world's promising engines of development but also the credibility of American promises in an international community struggling to cope with hunger and poverty. Stakes like these cannot be left to the mercy of bygone fears overtaken by the facts.

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