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Congress ups food aid while toeing budget line

In a display of clever maneuvering, Congress has cut spending while boosting its package of emergency aid to the world's destitute copies. The decision casts a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of hungry, homeless refugees.

It is also welcome news for hunger relief officials who are again warning that the world's food needs are dangerously outpacing the capacity to deal with them.

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While the ranks of world refugees have been swelling in unprecedented numbers , funding of US aid for this year had been stalled for months in a complicated web of budget-cutting and election-related tangles. It looked like the Carter administration's request for $122 million in grant aid had been irretrievably slashed by $42 million.

But last week Congress suddenly added back that $42 million in grant aid for impoverished countries -- which will translate into purchase and shipment of 150 ,000 tons of grain.

Likely destinations are refugee-laden Cambodia, Pakistan, Somalia, northeastern Uganda and countries of the African Sahel undergoing severe drought.

The aid boost was made possible by a strategic tour de force that allows politicians to spend more money and at the same time make inflation-conscious constituencies happy about it.

The formula: an amendment to the 1980 appropriations bill that diverts $100 million from General Services Administration purchases of furniture, gives $42 million of it to the Food for Peace program, and $58 million back to the US Treasury.

In one political maneuver, congressmen will be able to tell the nation they have saved money while at the same time spent more for humanitarian purposes.

The plan, originated by Reps. Floyd Fithian (D) of Indiana and Andrew Maguire (D) of New Jersey, found widespread bipartisan support in both houses. It was backed by religious and voluntary aid agencies, as well as farmers' organizations happy to have 150,000 tons of surplus grain purchased. White House aides say the President will sign the bill into law this week.

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Congressmen also were persuaded by the world's dramatically worsening food and refugee situation.

"We're facing . . . an extraordinary food and refugee crisis, not just by the year 2000, but in the next 18 months," says Congressman Fithian. "Unless we are able to move fast to support self-help in raising food production and birth control in developing countries, it is difficult to see how we will avoid a real catastrophe," he says.

Indeed, urgent warnings now are being sounded by Edouard Saouma, Secretary General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Since January, requests to the FAO for emergency aid, excluding Cambodia, amount to some 900,000 tons of grain. These emergencies are not short-term problems, but have long-term economic and refugee causes. As a result, world emergency food stocks are being drawn down.

The World Food Council, which met in Tanzania in June, reported that even after commercial food purchases, eastern African nations will have a food shortage of between 1 million and 1.5 million tons.

In Uganda, where an estimated 100 refugess are dying each day, bad transportation may mean that little domestically grown food reaches refugees in northern regions.

These difficulties will certainly not be ended by the new US aid package which, along with its $20 million in loan aid, comes to a total of $142 million. But world hunger analysts agree it will help.

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