''Outlandish'' is about the only term the politicians here can muster these days to describe the whole idea.
The outline is actually quite simple:
Reject the current theory of how world hunger will end: that the world helps poor countries develop and become self-sufficient in food by the year 2000. That becomes an excuse for delay.
Embark on a new plan: Start now to save the lives of the 30 million to 40 million people who die each year from hunger-related causes, so that those people will be alive to benefit from the progress in the next 20 years.
Then put your money where your mouth is: Begin saving the lives of people in poor countries who would otherwise die of hunger. For a start, get food to save 5 million of the most desperate this year. Convince your leaders that it's actually in their own interest to foot the bill.
Outlandish? Totally, say the critics.
But then, that's what the critics were saying back in early 1979. That's when an Italian member of Parliament, Marco Pannella, had just undertaken an equally wild-eyed task: transforming economically depressed Italy into a socially conscious world force in foreign aid.
Convinced that this could be done only by the most strident but nonviolent political tactics, Pannella took the hunger cause into Italian living rooms with a Gandhi-inspired, media-broadcast, 35-day fast.
Other political activists were soon doing symbolic fasts in support. By that Easter the crusaders had 15,000 Italians marching through the streets of Rome, demanding that the Italian government act to end world hunger. By Easter, 1980, another 400 political leaders and citizens were fasting throughout Italy, followed by another march in Rome of 50,000.
Ten major parliamentary debates later, with Pannella poised on the verge of still another protest fast in September of last year, Italy's foreign-aid budget had multiplied tenfold, from a lightweight $200 million in 1979 to a formidable of Europe will be too envious not to hop on his latest bandwagon to save the 5 million.
Pannella and his colleagues have not been the only catalyst in the Italian aid explosion. In some respects, it ignited spontaneously under the pressure of circumstances.
Italy needs new trade windows to the third world. Its leaders are newly conscious of how favored they are geographically for trade with Africa, the Middle East, Asia. They certainly don't want to lose the revenues from the four United Nations food agencies that make Rome their home base: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Council.
But ask Italians and Europeans these days about world hunger, and the name ''Pannella'' seems to pop up as certainly as Italians make pasta.
For some, his name evokes outrage: They see him as an egotist with self-serving, untrustworthy aims. Others have only admiration for a man they credit with one of the idealistic coups in aid history. But even those who play down the man and his goals admit that the issues he's drawn into focus are a big reason that Italians, and many other Europeans to date, are taking a new tack on hunger.
At 11 p.m., the European Parliament offices in Brussels look devoid of life, except for one lonely light on the third floor: Pannella's. This is the only time Marco Pannella can fit in another visitor, so packed are his days with strategy sessions and talks with European leaders.
He is a big man. From the time you shake his large hand, you are instantly aware of his commanding presence, though the informality of his coat-sweater and his gentility make you feel as if you have stumbled upon him relaxing in his living room on a Sunday afternoon.
"We must lower the number of people being exterminated by hunger by at least 5 million in 1982, but we're waging a real battle against time,'' he says in Italian-accented French.
''If we can't get official government commitments by April or May, I'm afraid there will not technically be enough time to save the 5 million.''
His face is a circus of expressions: now the Continental sophistication of a Charles Boyer; now the subtle, playful levity of an Art Carney. But always at the core of the message is that conscience-pricking bite that has made Pannella a household word through much of Europe.
''This ideology of ending hunger by the year 2000 smacks of Stalin's logic in the '30s. He, too, was planning for long-term economic growth, all in the name of societal good. But meanwhile he allowed the peasant population to go right on dying. No, you can't solve the problem of development without first ending the holocaust that's now going on.'' Pannella cites the World Bank's estimate that 30 million to 40 million people die of hunger-related causes each year, 17 million of them children. (Development organizations warn, however, that no exact figures are available.)
''There's no Hitler, no Jews. But a type of Nazism still dominates us as a culture. We know we have the technology to end hunger. We know that if we keep voting approval of these high military budgets -- money that otherwise might go to end the causes of hunger -- it is mathematically certain that more millions of the hungry people will be condemned to death.
''This is why we want to save the 5 million. But the goal is not just more aid money. We're saying that the ongoing holocaust is the product of politics our governments accept. So we're after official declarations saying that the real priority is survival of people for development, not extermination in order to develop.''
In arguing his utterly uncompromising line -- perhaps the most sharply drawn of all the going moral rationales for ending hunger -- Pannella knows perfectly well that he's opening himself to accusations that he's being unreasonable, unrealistic, shortsighted.
But he also knows that his is a line just credible enough to reach 60 not-so-unreasonable Nobel Prize winners who signed the antihunger ''manifesto'' he drafted last year. It is also a line just righteous enough that, if you're a politician, you don't want to be seen rejecting it in public. (And Pannella, former journalist and gadfly that he is, holds politicians publicly responsible for their behavior.) Indeed, he has succeeded in getting the majority of members in both the Italian and European Parliaments to endorse his save-people-first principle.
But the grand prize still eludes his grasp: getting the people with the money to sign the check. Inside political observers in Brussels say there's absolutely no way Europe's Council of Ministers, the ultimate European Community authority, can turn up the desired $5 billion this year. Even the Italians have been dragging their feet on releasing money from their $3 billion emergency fund.
Pannella's hopes for another aid coup now hinge on whether he can generate enough public support this spring. With that kind of context and the European and Italian Parliaments debating the hunger issue, he may well resort to his hunger strike.
Massive support rallies are being planned by antihunger activists of the Food and Disarmament International, also based here in Brussels, and by his colleagues in the Radical Party back in Rome. (The Radicals are known for their civil-rights drives in recent years to obtain better prison conditions, and the rights of divorce, abortion, and conscientious objection to military service.)
Pannella's painful paradox is that his successes to date may now be diffusing his strength.
With Italian politicians all aflutter over foreign aid -- Christian Democrats , Republicans, Socialists, and Liberals alike -- the moral initiative once so clearly identified with Pannella has dispersed. Every politician wants to carry Italy's new aid banner into the future. Official pronouncements from the Foreign Ministry these days are peppered with proud phrases such as: ''Our new consciousness of the need for the world to develop as a whole,'' ''our government's manifold increases in aid commitments,'' ''Italy's special position in the North-South dialogue.'' Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini is heralding Italy's growing relations with third-world countries as the ''cardinal point'' of his foreign policy, and recently unveiled plans for a huge food complex in Rome.
With so many politicians charting righteous tracks for Italy's aid train, Pannella and his colleagues will be hard pressed to keep the spotlight on their own emergency plan. Even his own Radical Party is torn by the pulls of competing strategies.
Pannella's fellow Radical, Aldo Ajello, has a different idea, for example.Ajello clearly admires Pannella's ability to rouse the public. He also sees in the hunger issue a new future for Italy, but he is not so convinced by Pannella's survival-first principle.
Parliamentarian Ajello cuts a dashing, energetic figure with his tall, slender frame and wavy, gray-tinged black pompadour. He has a forthright, clear-reasoning political bearing -- something like a Walter Mondale tinged with the smooth flamboyance of a Mario Lanza.
''Pannella has certainly been right to criticize Western aid strategies,'' he says, in rapid, broken, but efficient English. ''We in the West have tried to export our own models of development to third-world countries, models that have no sensitivity to those countries' needs, traditions, or history. And he's right that our aid must go for basic human needs of the hungry, not for elites who don't need it.
''But this idea of saving 3 million to 5 million starving people in one year is another story. Where do you locate these people? They are not concentrated in a single town. They are scattered in remote countryside areas around the world. It varies yearly which ones are starving. Even if we could find and save them for a year, we could not guarantee them food all their lives. They would then have to be left to die. The priority must, in fact, be on the long-term growth.''
As the hunger debate heats up, Ajello will be pushing an antihunger formula of his own: stop the rush after more aid money; focus on programs that will help the poor and hungry more in the long run; have these programs work in sync with a unified, global strategy for ending hunger. Finally, let Italy take a leading role in bringing together the industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere with the developing countries of the Southern Hemishpere to plan the effort.
The presentation of such a plan does not bode well for Pannella's hope of unifying the Radical Party behind his own emergency plan, let alone behind his hunger-strike tactics. Ajello seriously doubts the helpfulness of such tactics at this stage. Early in the game, he says, the fasting captured the Italian imagination. But now the tactic has been used so many times for so many issues that it appears to have lost its ability to persuade.
In fact, this was precisely the problem when Pannella launched his most serious hunger strike last Sept. 2. He was refusing food well into October, but the news media couldn't have been less interested in broadcasting his story. And when they did finally mention it, they got it wrong, Pannella says. No mention was made of his ultimate purpose of saving 5 million starving people.
In one sense, the inimitable style of the Pannella fast did not exactly help: Instead of limiting himself to water, he allows himself two cappucinos each day. Compared with Irish hunger strikers who had been fasting to the bitter end, Pannella's ''cappucino strike'' somehow did not prove very convincing.
He did get a break in mid-October when a well-known journalist agreed to debate him on TV. Pannella made a better showing against this adversary than he had in three years of debates. But afterward, the days and weeks once again droned by with not a trace of media interest. And by mid-November, he suspended the strike temporarily until he could get more serious public attention. That suspension, he claims, is still in effect.
''I leave it to you to interpret why Italian TV did not allow me to speak for one second on the news broadcasts after I won that debate,'' said Pannella in Brussels.
''But I think that, for the first time, a very fearful reaction descended on the Christian Democrats and the entire government. Within 20 days, the Parliament was going to discuss our resolution, and I think they feared that 20 more minutes of television time for me would make our resolution unstoppable. It was all the more serious for the government, since the Vatican was giving clear signs of support for our position.
''Unfortunately, we were so very close to success. But I am absolutely convinced that once the true information is broadcast to the people, the reaction will be unanimous in support. And once one government declares its political commitment to saving the 5 million, I think within a few months the French government, the Belgians, and so on, will come around to the same decision.''
Few are ready to concede that he's that close to success. But Pannella's colleagues in Brussels and Rome remain convinced that his drive has momentum. Pannella and his forces are hurrying to set the stage of public opinion so that a new Pannella-style appeal can succeed.
Food and Disarmament International's Jean Fabre claims a growing network of workers in France, Belgium, Holland, and elsewhere will bring crowds into the streets in April. Italian parliamentarian Emma Bonino claims that the mayors of Italy's big cities are ready to stage demonstrations of support, perhaps to coincide with the April world conference on hunger in Rome. She also says the tiny 16-member Radical Party is prepared to filibuster in Parliament to promote the emergency plan and to boost Italy's aid even higher.
Whatever the final result, few would question that the Italian idealists have played political melodies that will long resonate in the European imagination. Italy, for one, may never again relate to the outside world in quite the same way.
''We in Italy have always had two hearts,'' says Aldo Ajello, ''one in Europe and one in the Mediterranean. Our foreign policy has always been dualistic: partly geared to Europe; partly to the Mediterranean. Now we know we have the opportunity to put together these two hearts.
''We can moderate for all Europe in the dialogue of the West with the third world, especially those at our doorstep in Africa. We are economically interdependent with these countries -- our technology and financial expertise, their raw materials and energy. There is a common destiny. We must try to manage this common destiny. We can push Europe in this direction. I think our government finally understands that this must be our first priority, and that Italy has such an enormous role to play.''