The squabble that threatens effective aid

AFRICA now reels from the most punishing drought of the century. Millions of hungry Africans face food shortages, and experts estimate that millions have already died from starvation and related diseases. Africa desperately needs the ``live aid'' which Western governments and people have given so generously. Yet, given the right tools Africa could feed itself. Given a helping hand, the resourceful people of Africa could reverse the long-term trend of recurring famine and declining food production.

The greatest potential for significantly expanding Africa's food production is in increasing the productivity of small, subsistence-level farmers and herders, those who raise most of the continent's food and yet have been largely ignored. One exception is the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which does channel aid to these farmers. This small United Nations agency has a proven record of fostering self-sufficiency with independent farmers and private cooperatives.

Through IFAD the United States has an opportunity to advance foreign policy goals with the right kind of foreign aid. It costs $400 to ship a ton of emergency food aid to hungry people, but only $200 for the agency to assist individual farmers in improving yields by a ton every year for a lifetime.

IFAD's businesslike approach to third-world assistance has been praised by the Agency for International Development. In an evaluation of projects released this year, AID noted that IFAD projects have:

Well-specified target groups and clear mechanisms to reach them.

Introduced quick-yielding food production techniques, using appropriate technologies.

A comprehensive package of integrated services to remote or very poor, undeveloped, and geographically well-defined areas.

Even the budget-conscious Heritage Foundation has singled out IFAD as a UN agency worthy of support. According to Heritage fellow Roger Brooks, ``IFAD is well suited to assisting African agricultural development. . . . IFAD has begun to meet the challenge [of small entrepreneurial farmers] and deserves the continued support of the United States.''

The agency has been a boon to third-world women, too. Recognizing that women plant, nurture, and harvest much of the food in underdeveloped nations, it has directly assisted women in about one-third of its projects. Ensuring women's land tenure rights in a project in Gambia contributed to a sevenfold increase in rice yield.

IFAD has patiently and carefully followed the path of persuasion in changing agricultural policies in African nations. In careful dialogue with governments of project countries, it effectively improved farmer incentives in Tanzania, Madagascar, Zaire, and other countries. In Mozambique, the agency persuaded the Marxist government to invest $25 million in small landholder operations rather than state-owned farms and to allow 4,000 private traders to resume their activities.

Most significant for a lending agency is IFAD's success in leveraging and managing funds. It has financed 152 projects in 83 countries at a cost of about $8.2 billion through early 1985. Yet, its direct contribution was only $1.9 billion. More remarkable is the loan repayment record -- up to 99 percent -- a rate that would be the envy of any Wall Street banker. With a staff of 100, overhead accounts for only 5 percent of agency funds.

There is no question that IFAD is well regarded in this country. Thirty major dailies have run editorials endorsing it and the proposed legislation. In the House, more than 125 members are cosponsors of a bill to replenish the agency and set up a special fund for Africa. More than 125 members of Congress also urged Secretary of State George Shultz to accept a proposed 40-60 fund ratio between OPEC and other donor nations.

But Congress may act in vain. The fund faces almost certain death, if the Reagan administration does not resolve the two-year debate with OPEC nations that seek to reduce their contribution from 42 to 40 percent because of declining oil prices and the Iran-Iraq war. Since all other member nations agreed to the new formula last February, there is valid concern that the US has not given its negotiators enough flexibility to strike a deal.

Clearly, the amount of money is not the issue. The 2 percent in question is only $3 million for the US. If the administration wanted to make points on sharing costs, it could do so with NATO, where billions, not millions, are at stake. Even with a higher burden-sharing ratio, the US regular contribution to IFAD over the next three years will fall from $180 million to an estimated $93.5 million because of reductions in the agency's budget base.

An organization that effectively and efficiently helps the hungry feed themselves should not be the victim of a political tug of war.

US Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D) of North Dakota is on the House Select Committee on Hunger.

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