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Foreign aid, Hollywood-style: cut red tape, go to the top

Richard Walden, the young California lawyer who built a shoestring Indochina airlift into one of Hollywood's favorite international relief organizations, now is negotiating for a relief shipment to Poland.

For Mr. Walden, it is the latest in a series of relief operations which started from scratch 21/2 years ago and have since helped needy people on three continents.

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Working out of a one-room office in Beverly Hills, Walden's ''Operation California'' has flown $12 million worth of food and other items to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Honduras, and Somalia. Walden's technique is to harness America's corporate power to its volunteer power. The corporations provide everything from soap to jet fuel. The volunteers include among others out-of-work movie actors, producers, and production assistants.

Despite the small size of Operation California's staff - it has only two staff workers - it has become the largest carrier of ''in kind'' corporate donations for international relief.

Walden, interviewed before his departure for Warsaw Jan. 24, said that he plans to arrange for an air shipment to Poland of privately donated medicines and sanitation supplies worth between $500,000 and $1 million. In addition, some privately contributed food will go by ship.

Although the US government has imposed economic sanctions against Poland, it does permit humanitarian aid to go to Poland from the United States. However, distribution of that aid must be monitored by independent organizations that can make sure it reaches those for whom it is intended. Some aid has gone to Poland on commercial flights, but Operation California's flight, now tentatively scheduled for the end of February, would be the first private emergency airlift to reach Poland since martial law was imposed.

Walden and a friend, Lew Warner, organized the first of Operation California's flights in 1979 almost on a whim. They had been reading about the boat people streaming out of Vietnam and wanted to do something to help. Sitting on a California beach, they thought up the idea of calling the president of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in St. Louis to ask about getting a plane to fly emergency supplies to Malaysia. That got them the offer of a plane. Then they went to the Federal Aviation Administration by phone - it was a Saturday afternoon - and succeeded in reaching the FAA's general counsel. On Monday morning, the Malaysian Embassy agreed to cooperate. So did some corporations and private donors.

Walden has been doing things that way ever since, cutting past bureaucratic red tape where possible and going to the top for help.

''For a while, I was financing things a few thousand dollars at a time out of my personal checking account,'' said Walden, who was at the time a legal aid lawyer with the California State Health Facilities Commission.

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''We wanted to demonstrate that private individuals can do something,'' he said.

Walden's brashness and ''laid back'' California style sometimes annoys the members of older voluntary organizations. But Operation California is widely viewed as an organization that gets things done, often for less than it might cost to send relief through larger groups. It has attracted the support of Hollywood personalities, including Julie Andrews, her husband Blake Edwards, Screen Actors Guild president Edward Asner, and a host of other celebrities.

A liberal who participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement, Walden is likely to annoy the State Department if his latest idea materializes. He opposes trade embargoes and economic sanctions and wants to hold a conference on the subject in Washington, D.C. A Cuban, a Vietnamese, and a Cambodian would be invited to discuss what US trade embargoes have done to their countries and to the US itself. Walden says he is not against controlling the flow of US high technology to the Soviet Union. But he says he is opposed to blocking the delivery of such things as school supplies to Cambodia from the Mennonite church, as the State Department recently tried to do.

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