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Some UN agencies are indispensable

By George DorseyGeorge Dorsey spent 15 years with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as chief of the press branch. / February 24, 1984



I may be unique as a former member of the United Nations ''family'' who shed no tears when the United States announced that it would pull out of UNESCO if the organization did not shape up in the next 12 months. UNESCO's dictatorial leadership is anti-American and anti-free press (it says journalists shall be ''licensed,'' i.e., censored). UNESCO is also bloated - half of its annual $200 million budget goes to administration.

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But there are affiliates of the UN that are almost indispensable. The World Bank and the International Development Association, come to mind. By reneging on its pledged contribution to IDA, the US is sabotaging one of the few sources of constructive assistance available to the destitute nations of the world. The present administration gives lip service to the work of IDA but is somewhere else when the bills fall due. The same administration is afflicting what may be mortal wounds on a lesser-known but valuable UN affiliate, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Unlike UNESCO with its overgrown bureaucracy, IFAD believes small is beautiful. Its headquarters staff numbers only 74 professionals. The agency avoids a ponderous administration by arranging with other organizations such as the World Bank to carry out the projects it has identified.

The US was an enthusiastic cofounder of IFAD, which was born out of the concern over global hunger raised at a world food conference in Rome a decade ago. One of the reasons for that enthusiasm was the unprecedented composition of the new agency: Nearly half the funding would come from the OPEC countries. No other international organization had been able to coax development money out of OPEC in this proportion.

Then there was IFAD's unique mandate: The organization would focus entirely on providing assistance to the poorest of the world's poor farmers. Here again, the beauty of smallness came into play: Other international aid agencies generally found it easier to carry out larger projects in the middle-income developing countries, leaving untouched many of the most impoverished of people. Only in its seventh year of operations, IFAD is beginning to prove itself. The organization has participated in 138 projects in 77 countries, helping an estimated 40 million people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Yet, the US is putting IFAD in jeopardy. Whereas most member countries have long since met their obligations to a first replenishment (for 1981-83), the US has put up only half of its pledge of $180 million. And in his fiscal year 1985 budget, President Reagan has requested only $50 million of the overdue $90 million.

The deadline for a second replenishment approaches. In what can be described as a crisis meeting, IFAD's governing council will take up the financial situation next Wednesday and Thursday. But the administration is dragging its heels. A recent interagency press release allowed that it was ''premature to comment on the second replenishment,'' but the US delegation ''looks forward to a dialogue with other member countries and the secretariat of IFAD.'' The old bureaucratic double mumble.

The consequences were spelled out in the Jan. 21 issue of The Economist: ''The fund cut 1983's spending to $310 million from a planned $435 million, and it does not expect to increase spending in 1984. In February, talks will start on raising the $1.4 billion IFAD needs for 1984-86. Unless America becomes less mean, the fund could collapse altogether.''

Larry Minear, a member of Interfaith Action for Economic Justice, fears that the administration seriously underestimates the negative impact of its dilatory tactics, not only on the world's poorest countries but on the image of the US that is developing among both its Western allies and the OPEC countries.

I, for one, am pained to see my country sliding and slipping into a position of ever-sinking credibility. The situation calls for vision and leadership, not for shortsighted, penny-pinching miserliness.