Khartoum, Sudan — Neglect of the Eritrean famine - which has put as much as one-third of the Ethiopian territory's population in danger of starving to death - is but one tragedy in what relief officials say is a growing politicization of humanitarian work worldwide.
In Southeast Asia, Central America, Afghanistan, and Africa, relief workers say they are under mounting pressure from governments to take political criteria into account in disbursing their humanitarian assistance.
This runs counter to the notion that humanitarians should give aid commensurate with need, without regard to politics. And several international humanitarian agencies are criticizing some governments, including the Reagan administration in the United States, for pressuring them to bow to foreign-policy interests.
These pressures - and the toll they are taking on human lives - are especially disturbing in the case of Eritrea and Ethiopia, where a decade ago such pressures were exerted with disastrous results.
In 1973, Western relief workers in the field in Ethiopia began warning of an impending famine of unparalleled proportions. But the Ethiopian government of Haile Selassie consistently denied there was a famine, despite clear evidence of it in the numbers of bodies bound up for burial found in villages and found along roads. (See July 20 story in the Monitor.)
Hesitating to contradict Ethiopian authorities, officials in UNICEF, the United Nations World Health Organization, and others - even the US Embassy in Addis Ababa - suppressed these reports, as documented in the 1975 book ''The Politics of Starvation'' by former Look magazine senior editor Jack Shepherd.
It was a British television documentary, aired in late '73, showing film footage of Ethiopians dying and revealing that thousands more had perished that blew the cover-up apart. Help began trickling in - but it was too little, too slow, and too late. At least a quarter of a million people died in that year or so.
During a US Senate investigation of the scandal in March of 1974, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Mass. quizzed Donald Brown of the US Agency For International Development (AID) about his agency's response to the Ethiopian famine.
''Is not the real reason for our slow response that we just did not wish to blow the whistle on the Ethiopian government?'' Senator Kennedy asked Brown. ''Is that not really the bottom line of it? Perhaps you cannot say it, but it seems to me ... we just did not wish to embarrass them, for political reasons. As a result, a lot of people starved to death.''
Replied Mr. Brown: ''There was a feeling among many of the donor groups that raising this too-public an issue, embarrassing the government, could in fact harm the kind of cooperation we see as needed on their part. In that sense, perhaps the whistle was not blown loudly enough.''
It is perhaps with that earlier Eritrean tragedy in mind that AID's Food for Peace program recently and without publicity decided to provide secret assistance through third-party private relief channels to parts of Ethiopia controlled by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. These rebel-held zones are where the vast majority of starving Eritreans live.
No one interviewed by this reporter can recall a similar case in which AID waived its usual policy barring humanitarian assistance to nongovernmental groups in insurgent-held territories.
As a matter of policy and practice, the State Department, AID's parent body, ''opposes in principle all secessionist movements in Africa,'' says a US Embassy official in Khartoum.
''We see our interests served best by maintaining as cordial a relationship as possible with Addis Ababa,'' this official says. ''And who knows, maybe Ethiopia will turn into another Egypt,'' he says, suggesting that the pro-Soviet Addis government could follow the path of Cairo, which in a sudden political turnabout expelled 17,000 Soviets from Egypt in 1972.
Food for Peace spokesman Dick Eney says there is no contradiction in State Department policy. ''Politics just doesn't play a role here,'' he says. ''It's strictly a humanitarian issue. We've only recently started this program because the famine in Eritrea has become so serious in the past few months that we had to act.''
Eritrean spokesmen in New York and Khartoum say they have no knowledge of the soon-to-be-launched Food for Peace program.
''But if it is true,'' says Tesfa Alem, spokesman for the Eritrean Relief Committee in New York, ''then it is a very, very positive step for the American government to take. We hope some private organizations will be influenced by this decision.''
If the AID decision is strictly humanitarian in nature, it differs with recent US practices involving humanitarian relief.
Acting under the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the Reagan administration has since 1981 implemented policies that critics like David Elder of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) say have transformed millions of suffering people into geopolitical footballs.
The act and its parent legislation, the Trade with the Enemy Act, have granted US presidents wide powers to restrict commercial and financial transactions with a select group of what are called ''category Z'' countries. But critics like Mr. Elder say President Reagan was the first to employ these powers specifically to restrict humanitarian aid. (State Department officials contacted by this writer would not comment on this charge.)
There are four category Z nations - North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Kampuchea. Licenses for private aid to these countries are granted only when the proposed relief provides limited is of an emergency nature. Developmental assistance is not usually allowed.
What has alarmed the humanitarian community is a policy guideline implemented shortly after Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 30, 1981 that says: ''Donations made (to category Z countries) for rehabilitation and development projects will generally not be approved except where the foreign policy or other interests of the United States government are served.''
Specifically referring to Vietnam, the guideline adds: ''The private groups which provide aid to Vietnam serve US national interests in maintaining a channel of communication to the officials and people of Vietnam. The existence of this private aid program also provides a means by which the United States government can, when the time arrives, send a positive signal to Vietnam by permitting an increase in the level of private assistance. However, until the time comes to send that positive signal, private aid should be maintained at a token level.''
Says the AFSC's Mr. Elder: ''This rule eliminates humanitarianism as one of the legitimate goals of American foreign policy.'' The AFSC has provided famine relief and other assistance to Vietnam and Kampuchea, as well as to other nations, since the 1960s.
''It's not the government's business to inject politics so thoroughly into humanitarian aid in this way,'' says Tom Edwards of the American Council of Voluntary Agencies, an umbrella organization for private US aid groups. ''I personally consider it too much interference.''
The practical result of the new guidelines, say critics, was dramatic. Responding to the destruction of agriculture and the starvation in Kampuchea in the 1970s and the Vietnamese invasion that followed, the AFSC in 1981 began requesting licenses for a number of aid projects. Many of these projects were denied.
But even at the height of the Vietnam war, the Nixon administration did not attempt to block the AFSC from sending supplies for reconstruction of the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, destroyed in a Christmas bombing raid.
''Things were a lot less restrictive when there was a war going on,'' notes Mr. Elder.
Oxfam America, based in Boston, say the Reagan administration's new guidelines have a similar impact. Oxfam's director of overseas programs, Michael Scott, says Oxfam was denied a US government license to export a beekeeping system to Vietnam that would have provided honey for the nutritional needs of mothers. Mr. Scott says Washington felt the project would not be restricted to relief, and would ''enhance the organizational capacity'' of Vietnam.
David Halsted, Vietnam specialist at the State Department, says there is ''a fine line deciding what is developmental and what is simply meant to relieve suffering.''
Another State Department official, who insists on anonymity, concedes: ''The critics have a good argument against our using politics to regulate private aid. After all, no other democratic nation in Western Europe restricts humanitarian work in this way.''
While both AFSC and Oxfam oppose what they believe is Washington politicization of humanitarian work, they have themselves come under criticism on the same score. Neither organization, for example, works among the Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion, although they are the largest refugee group today.
Mr. Elder of the AFSC insists the group's decision is largely based on a ''lack of experience in the region,'' as well as ''logistics,'' but concedes that politics may also have been a factor.
AFSC works with government officials in Ethiopia, but does not provide assistance in the antigovernment zones of Eritrea. One spokeswoman, Patricia Hunter, cites ''logistics'' and a limited budget as the reason it is not involved in Eritrea. But other sources in the agency suggest the AFSC - which has publicly criticized US foreign policy for what it calls a ''cold-war approach'' - is hesitant to ''take sides'' against the Ethiopian government.
As for Oxfam America, director Scott denies that political considerations are behind its relatively miminal level of work in Eritrea. Sources familiar with Oxfam contend, however, that debate within the agency about Ethiopia has paralyzed Oxfam's work in the Horn. In contrast, Oxfam Canada and OXFAM (U.K.) in England work actively for Eritrean relief.
Given near silence on these issues, it is perhaps surprising that so many relief officials say they favor a more open debate about politics and humanitarian work. How can agencies withstand government pressure? How can they avoid the appearance of taking sides in conflicts?
''We've got to begin addressing these problems and quit pretending they don't exist,'' says Mr. Edwards of the American Council of Voluntary Agencies.
''Everyone's afraid to be the first to admit the problem exists,'' says Dr. John McMillin, whose World Vision is one of the agencies that have so far avoided work in Eritrea for fear of jeopardizing its other projects in Ethiopia. ''I expect that once it got out in the open, this whole debate would be welcomed.''
Dr. McMillin believes it will be necessary to extend the Geneva Conventions regarding care of the wounded and sick in wartime to the field of disaster relief, whether in time of peace or war. Such an extension would define access to relief as a fundamental right. It would also give relief workers the type of protection against political pressure enjoyed by the International Red Cross.