The silence of one

The International Fund for Agricultural Development, whose formation was sparked by the 1974 World Food Conference, now commands wide respect. It has mobilized more than $2 billion - almost half from OPEC countries - which is now at work in 114 projects in some 80 third-world countries to augment the productivity of small farmers.

Many of IFAD's 139 member countries salute its work as innovative and effective. Paid-in contributions reflect the enthusiasm. Most countries are on, or ahead of, schedule and are paying more toward IFAD's second three years than toward its first triennium.

Yet IFAD's future is anything but secure, due largely to mixed signals from the United States. A strong proponent of IFAD and still its largest single contributor, the US has cut its second three-year pledge from $200 million to $ 180 million and has fallen behind in its payments. Further delays may cause other governments to hold back. New projects are being approved only as funds become available.

Pointed pleas at the December meeting in Rome from friends like Egypt's President Mubarak and delegations like Canada and Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and El Salvador drew no reaction from the US delegation. Invitations from IFAD's presiding officers, the Italian foreign minister and Nigerian minister of agriculture, failed to draw the US into the debate. One African delegate lamented, ''If 20 people speak, it would not count for the silence of one member.''

Finding its voice in the closing hour of the three-day session, the US delegation told the group that legislative delays made it impossible to announce the size of a US payment. Whatever the eventual sum, however, the US would not meet its overall commitment in the promised three-year period. (Not until a week later was legislation enacted which provided IFAD $24 million, well below the $ 120 million now due and considerably less than the $65.4 million requested by the administration.)

In fairness to the Congress, it should be noted that for two years the Reagan administration has failed to work effectively with IFAD's friends on Capitol Hill to assure adequate funding. President Reagan's commitment at the Cancun summit and energetic efforts by some within his administration have not prevailed.

Preoccupied with military and not development aid and with bilateral rather than mulilateral activities, the administration has acquiesced in US payments kept late and low by those who feel that OPEC should match Western contributions dollar for dollar and that IFAD shoud rely for projects and staff largely on other aid agencies in 1983. The administration's current request for only $50 million for IFAD is yet another setback.

The US silence in Rome was met more with sadness than with anger. There was widespread disappointment and genuine alarm that the US was not honoring its pledge. But the issue, as many saw it, was far larger than IFAD.

The delegate from Jamaica, viewing the pattern of broken US promises which have undercut the work of United Nations and World Bank agencies in recent years , resisted the conclusion that such institutions should simply ''close down because the most generous contributor over the years decides for whatever reason , good or bad, that international cooperation in development is no longer important to it.'' ''How could we say,'' he asked, ''that if the US doesn't want to play the game, the game isn't worth playing?''

On the other hand, an OPEC representative suggested that, in the case of IFAD , multilateralism without the US would have its dangers. He doubted that, given their own financial difficulties and bilateral aid options, OPEC countries would maintain their high level of support if the US continues to play a waiting game. The meeting was thus well-advised in deciding to proceed with plans to negotiate a replenishment of IFAD funds for the 1984-86 period, but leaving a formal go-ahead decision until current pledges are paid.

Recent US actions involving IFAD have thus frayed US relations with good friends, slowed the work of an agency which the administration itself concedes is effective, and called into question the strong US national interest in being identified with joint efforts to address problems of global hunger and poverty.

However, this year affords chances for the administration, working with the Congress and aided by a concerned public, to find its voice, honor legal obligations, and identify this country anew with effective international efforts to bring justice to a world seeking to overcome widespread need.

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