US takes new tack on world hunger, poverty; Reagan in Cancun to listen, learn, and offer strategy that breaks with past

Although President Reagan has stressed that he is in Cancun to listen and to learn, he has taken with him a carefully thought-out strategy to ease world hunger and poverty that breaks radically with the past.

The question is: Can the Reagan plan work?

Or more basically, will the leaders of the 22 nations gathered in the sun of the Mexican vacation resort give it a chance to work?

At first glance, the Reagan blueprint looks much like his United States domestic economic recovery plan.

Human development and prosperity in the poor countries, the logic goes, will take off once government restrictions are cut and free enterprise and trade allowed to work their magic on the world's economic woes.

That kind of solution has seldom been persuasive to development experts. Many fear it is too unguided and could overlook the real causes behind hunger and poverty.

But the Reagan planners claim to be able to target their solution toward those very causes. Unlike many previous plans, they add, theirs could get enough backing in the industrialized world to be put into effect. That plan would:

* Urge all governments (including the United States) to start by putting their economic houses in order, making it clear that bad decisions at home will not be compensated by the world community at large.

* Make available more developmental resources for poor countries by making the world economy more open to their trade, and increasing private investment tied in to the poor countries' development.

* Enhance world food security by urging poor countries to rely more on food produced at home, and by encouraging different regions to set up grain reserves that could later be coordinated globally.

* Free up more of the existing easy term aid money for the poorer developing countries by weaning the richer ones away from that aid and getting them to rely more on the international banks.

* Ease the situation of farmers in poor countries by curbing programs in the rich countries that result in excessive food surpluses being dumped abroad. Such surpluses tend to flood markets in poorer countries, depress prices, and discourage local farmers.

Few would question that the Reagan plan zeroes in on some of the critical problems in the hunger equation and points to areas where reforms are needed.

But his approach comes as a radical departure from the past directions of international development planning.

In effect, Mr. Reagan's plan would shift the emphasis from public organizations like the United Nations more toward the private sector. It sidesteps the developing countries' call for a massive transfer of economic resources from the rich to the poor countries and ''global negotiations'' to tackle the interrelated problems of poverty, energy and debt.

Given this sharp divide, it would appear that major compromises are needed if Mr. Reagan and the Cancun leaders are to find anything approaching a cooperative strategy for development.

Perhaps most worrisome to the critics is Mr. Reagan's assumption that the benefits of stimulating private initiatives for development would necessarily ''trickle down'' to the poor themselves.

''In the hunger area, the President is emphasizing increased production of food and marketing,'' notes Martin McLaughlin of the Overseas Development Council. ''But these are not the primary problem - it's getting better distribution of food to those who need it.''

The dependence of the Reagan plan on private initiatives in development may simply prove unworkable in many countries, observes Thomas Ehrlich, the former top foreign aid adviser to President Carter.

It is extremely hard for private companies to gain access to, or to have reason to invest in, many of the neediest countries, he says. Mr. Reagan's recent speeches on US relations with the developing world also have the international development community worried that he is trying to inject an element of East-West confrontation into the development dialogue.

Indeed, last week Mr. Reagan chided the Soviet Union for its failure to feed itself or to attend Cancun.

It is a type of rhetoric that is quite foreign to development discussions, according to a spokesman for the World Food Council, and could introduce an unfortunate politicizing of the issues of hunger and poverty.

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