Rome — A tall, slender, gray-haired man with an Australian accent sits in a spare office on the third floor of an undistinguished office block overlooking the Circus Maximus where chariots once raced in imperial Rome. In his gray suit and sober red tie, he could be the headmaster of an exclusive school -- low-key, discreet, deliberate, diplomatic.
But who is he? What is he doing in a building ordered built by Il Duce -- Benito Mussolini -- to house his ministry in charge of what were then Italy's African colonies?
One of the latest to ask such questions was Penny Jenden, a leading organizer of the rock music Band Aid Trust which has raised tens of millions of dollars for Africa's starving, when she walked into his office recently.
She found that this quiet man is now Executive Director of the least-known but fastest-growing United Nations agency in the field of humanitarian and famine relief: the World Food Program (WFP).
After two decades of near-anonymity, the WFP has been catapulted into the front ranks of disaster relief by the worst African famine of the century. The agency is now in the midst of new plans to further expand its activities.
The agency is still unknown to many, even though 90 nations support it with voluntary contributions, even though it sent emergency rations to almost 18 million people in 38 countries last year, even though its emergency food program has jumped 50 percent this year, and even though it spends billions of dollars on longer-term development projects as well.
As it has expanded, the WFP has encountered strains with other UN agencies such as the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization under which it was established two decades ago.
Now it is maneuvering to obtain more autonomy -- in appointing personnel to all but the topmost grades, for instance. For the first time, the WFP has hired an information director to project a clearer image of the agency.
The man in the grey suit is Australian James C. Ingram, from the city of Melbourne. His background is diplomacy. Mr. Ingram was former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, then to Canada, and former director of Australia's foreign aid program.
``Yes,'' he said carefully in an interview during the WFP's annual conference here, ``I realize that few Americans, or Europeans for that matter, have ever heard of WFP.
``But today we are second only to the World Bank in the amount of money we spend each year -- $800 million if you include the value of the food we ship and distribute in Africa and elsewhere.''
Of the roughly 10.5 million tons of emergency-relief food distributed worldwide this year, WFP handles 2.5 million tons, or about 20 percent of the total.
WFP is certainly on the move.
When the previous Nigerian government of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari closed its borders with landlocked Chad, WFP organized a highly successful rail and road operation to move emergency grain through Cameroon.
When the 900-mile Kosti-Nyala railroad in the vast reaches of western Sudan collapsed under the collective strain of massive food grain shipments, strikes during the coup that ousted ex-President Jaafar Nimeiry, the slowdown of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and then seasonal rains, WFP took over much of the delivery effort by truck. It is upgrading an alternate route to western Sudan.
Now WFP is launching a major transport campaign to move grain from Ethiopian Red Sea ports southward to hard-hit highland areas, operating and maintaining a fleet of 250 trucks bought or leased by the United States Agency for International Development [AID] and Band Aid/Live Aid. The Italian government may put another 100 trucks under WFP control.
WFP is suddenly expanding its own office staff in Addis Ababa sixfold -- from three to 17. It means that Erik Moller, head of WFP's African task force, finds himself catapulted from Rome to Addis for at least three months to set it all up.
But how can Mr. Ingram's agency be expanding so fast when almost all governments today still prefer to give their aid directly rather than channel it though international agencies?
The Reagan administration in particular, the biggest donor of all, is looking for specific political results from its foreign aid in general.
The answer seems to be that the World Food Program is a case where the multilateral approach to aid actually works.
Washington is facing transport problems in Sudan. It is hampered by political and legal difficulties in Ethiopia, where the Soviet Union is the main outside influence. WFP's expertise in Africa has focused more on coordinating food from itself and other donors such as the US in the famine-stricken countries, and leaving distribution to others.
But in Ethiopia, someone had to step in and operate the 100 trucks being provided by Band Aid/Live Aid, and to pull together US and Italian trucks.
Ingram says WFP has low administrative costs (about $22 million a year), or ``less than 3 percent of the money we spend.''
He adds that WFP has ``a unique and proven track record of using this single surplus resource, food, in the most productive possible way.''
Ingram is refering mainly to a WFP program called ``Food for Work'' which provides food -- mostly grain -- to extremely poor people in exchange for long-term projects such as building canals, water ponds, stone terraces to catch rainfall, embankments, roads, and other similar projects.
Under the guidelines of the International Labor Organization, the poor people are supposed to receive half their remuneration in food and half in cash. WFP provides the food, while local governments are supposed to pay the money.
In practice, WFP sees that food is given when available, but local African officials control the cash. Payment is often withheld, either deliberately or because cash just isn't available.
This is an aspect of WFP activities that worries the outspoken Millicent Fenwick, former Congresswoman and now US Ambassador to WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and two other Rome-based food agencies.
``On the emergency side -- getting food to starving people -- WFP isn't perfect but it gets the job done, and there isn't anyone else doing it as well,'' Ambassador Fenwick said in an interview here.
``As for Food for Work, I'm all for it, providing the farmers receive half food, half money, and providing they work on projects that directly benefit themselves. But that doesn't always happen.
``I'm opposed to giving people all food as wages, and to having them work on projects that don't benefit them specifically. In the US we had a system where people worked on land not their own and received only food in return,'' Fenwick says.
``It was called slavery.
``There's no freedom where there's no choice. People don't have a choice unless they have cash jingling in their pockets.''
Fenwick also worries about another WFP area, which targets Food Aid at so-called ``vulnerable groups'' within poorer countries.
She approves of mothers and preschool children as recipients but is concerned that some governments are channeling WFP food to university students and teachers whom she feels have less of an urgent priority.
Meanwhile, smaller members of WFP have just approved a wide range of development projects at WFP's latest annual meeting and the flood of emergency grain to third world countries continues.