US drags feet in contributing to joint West-OPEC agricultural fund

The only major joint effort by the West and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members to fight world hunger appears to be losing sustenance from the United States.

It's known as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). It was designed in 1976 to help the world's poorest pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But without strong US support, IFAD's officers say, the global compact could now hit the skids.

Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee set aside $10 million as this year's US payment to replenish the $1 billion fund. That was more than the committee's zero allocation last year, but far short of the Reagan administration's requested $65.4 million. For two years, the US has paid none of the $180 million it promised for IFAD's 1981-83 budget. The outcome awaits talks Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee and its meeting with the Senate.

With US payments lagging in recent years, IFAD officials fear other donors (US allies and OPEC) will withhold their payments, sending the fund into disarray - a prospect doubted by the US administration. One State Department official says the US still aims to get the full US pledge of $180 million, though probably not in the current budget cycle.

Earlier this year, delegates from Canada, France, and West Germany said they were exasperated over US foot-dragging. They are expected to express their concerns to Secretary of State George P. Schultz, who will be in Rome next week when IFAD meets. IFAD, ironically, is one of the few international agencies that gets high ratings from rich and poor countries alike - including the US.

''I think if IFAD were judged on its merits in helping to reverse poverty and to serve US interests abroad, it would be getting far better treatment by the administration and Congress,'' says Larry Minear of the Interreligious Task Force on US Food Policy.

The congressional impasse surfaced in recent years in the Senate subcommittee on foreign operations. It has been trying to get IFAD back to its earliest definition carved out in 1976: a $1 billion fund, leanly staffed, with OPEC and Western countries paying an ''equitable share.'' They do not want IFAD to become a huge development bureaucracry.

IFAD officials say that they have made every effort to respond to Congress's concerns, although circumstances make it unreasonable for IFAD to be held uncompromisingly to the earliest definition.

In fact, IFAD began in 1977 only after a compromise in which the Western negotiators, including the US, agreed to pay 57 percent with OPEC paying 43 percent. The fund's staff has grown, although a General Accounting Office report last year lauded IFAD on keeping its staff lean. The fund's responsibilities also grew since it embarked on its second $1 billion lending program in 1981. Then Iran's once-generous donation unexpectedly dried up after its revolution.

Despite growing demands on the agency, IFAD officials say it has extended its staff freeze for the third straight year and committed itself to fund existing projects wherever possible (another congressional concern). Officials say OPEC countries individually have increased their shares dramatically after Iran dropped out of the fund, so that it is unreasonable for OPEC as a bloc to be expected to pay more than its current 42 percent.

The Senate Appropriations Committee report stated that IFAD has made some, but still relatively little, progress toward meeting its concerns. It said that increased US contributions next year hinge on whether OPEC gives more - a condition IFAD officials say will be very difficult given the economic difficulties faced by those donors.

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