Tiny UN Agency Implores US, Saudi Arabia for Funds

FOR international aid executives, there is nothing more distracting than to have to coax donor nations to donate. But that is exactly what Idriss Jazairy has been stuck doing as the latest replenishment of his UN agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, drags on.

IFAD has a good reputation as the only UN organization whose primary mission is to help the rural poor help themselves. One technique is to extend tiny loans - $20 for example - to help peasants buy income-earning assets. Village peer pressure produces a high rate of repayment, in some areas more than 90 percent. IFAD estimates its projects will help more than 180 million people achieve ``food security.''

Ironically, two of the key funding nations - Saudi Arabia and the United States - are playing hard to get with commitments, just as Iran has reactivated its involvement. Mr. Jazairy, interviewed by telephone from his Rome headquarters, says he has informal information that the Iranians will pledge $12 million.

This would make IFAD the first world development agency in which Iran has resumed activity. There is a historical reason for this: IFAD was set up in 1974 (with the Shah's active support) to soak up excess petrodollars. Thus IFAD was, and still is, the only development agency in which the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) participates as a bloc.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Saudis are holding up the works. In the last replenishment, in 1986, they gave $72.6 million, 40 percent of the OPEC share. IFAD and US officials are hopeful that the next OPEC meeting, to be held June 3 to June 4 in Rome, will settle the matter - at which point the US will be prepared to name its figure. IFAD hopes to raise a total of $750 million.

``We are so near, yet so far,'' Jazairy says, pointing out that much poorer OPEC nations like Nigeria and Venezuela have made pledges. ``If the Saudis don't respond, the whole exercise could collapse.''

Jazairy also wishes the US would help move the process along by making a preliminary pledge to replace the zero amount the US has committed thus far. But that appears unlikely.

And so, looking much farther into the future, Jazairy has set his sights on making his popular agency self-sufficient. The high repayment rates for IFAD loans help keep the project funds fluid. Interest on investments funds the bureaucracy. Already, Jazairy says, IFAD is one-third self-sufficient, and by the end of the next decade should be 70 percent so. With UN funds tight, Jazairy's peers are watching to see if he succeeds.

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