In the rush of business it faces during the present lame duck session, the Congress may, by inaction, deliver a fatal blow to an international development organization that is helping the poorest people in this world pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
The organization in jeopardy is the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the only development agency that has marshaled OPEC money on a scale that covers a really substantial portion of its budget and the only such agency governed equally by the industrial countries, OPEC, and the non-OPEC developing countries.
This three-way sharing of authority has a particularly significant element. In having a say in policy discussions, the recipient developing countries not only contribute a valuable, firsthand understanding of the needs of the third world, - their participation also paves the way toward a friendly reception when projects are actually started up. An IFAD initiative is not looked upon by thirdworld governments as an external intervention to be regarded with suspicion. Another unique aspect of the organization is that all of its funds are directed toward helping the poorest farmers and the landless laborers.
The present danger to IFAD is procrastination or lack of interest on the part of the leading industrial nation, the United States of America. The fate of IFAD is now tied to the question whether the Congress, before this session adjourns, approves a specific appropriation for the agency, in line with the pledge given by the US at a bruising replenishment meeting in Rome last January.
At that meeting the head of the US delegation sought ''to reassure the other members of the Fund that the US government will make every effort to obtain funds for our contribution of $180 million (for three years) . . . at the earliest possible date.''
Some governments, however, were not reassured. Several, in fact, reacted strongly to what some called a ''US attempt to delay IFAD to death.''
And, in truth, during the ensuing congressional process, the administration, for the most part, did not exert itself, despite President Reagan's agreement with other heads of state at the Cancun summit meeting last year, to press for ''prompt replenishment'' of IFAD's resources. The calendar 1981 passed without a single dollar put up by the US. Without prompt congressional action, a second year will go by with no funds for IFAD.
''Unless the administration moves quickly to support funding,'' says Larry Minear, secretary of the Interreligious Taskforce on US Food Policy, ''IFAD's supporters on the Hill may have difficulty prevailing, leaving President Reagan's commitment and the existing congressional authorization unfulfilled.''
There has been in some US circles resentment that IFAD never attained the 50- 50 financing by OPEC and the industrial countries that was envisaged when the organization was born in 1977. The present split is 57 percent funding from the industrial countries and 43 percent from the OPEC countries. Yet in the tough negotiations leading up to the January meeting, the US won important concessions , succeeded in broadening the burden-sharing, and agreed to go ahead. While persuading both OPEC and the other industrial countries to raise their contributions, the US lowered its three-year pledge from $200 million to $180 million.
The total agreed IFAD budget for 1981-83 is $1.1 billion. Thus, for every dollar put up by the US, six are contributed by the other member countries.
The trouble is that the first American dollar has yet to appear - while many other donor countries have paid in more than 50 percent of their commitments. Some have sent in 100 percent in an effort to contain damage to the organization's work program.
Abdelmuhsin Mal-Sudeary, the Saudi Arabian who has headed IFAD since its inception, said recently: ''The delay by the US is having a very negative impact on IFAD. It is slowing down the pace of the Fund's operations just at the time when the poorest countries urgently need IFAD assistance to combat their deteriorating food situation, especially in Africa, and it also undermines the excellent cooperation between the OECD and OPEC countries.
''What is at stake, in my opinion, is not only the immediate future of IFAD but also the credibility of American commitment and the very role of the US in the fight against world hunger.''