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The world responds to grim scenes of Africa's worst drought; From US, an outpouring of aid

Mark Bonter, a Michigan marketing director, arrived at work last week determined to do something worthwhile - for famine victims halfway around the world.

Mr. Bonter spent a day and a half contacting churches, establishing an escrow account, and filming a locally televised videotape appealing for emergency funds for Ethiopia. This week he will mail a check for more than $4,000 to an international relief agency.

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''It just hit me,'' Bonter says, ''it was time for me to do something.'' He is not alone.

In what is being called the largest outpouring of voluntary public contributions since the Kampuchean (Cambodian) refugee crisis five years ago, Americans are vigorously responding to the recent famine in Ethiopia. Across the country, business people and schoolchildren, retirees and students, pastors and laymen, are sending checks, answering phones, and holding fund-raising drives in one of the largest grass-roots efforts to aid disaster victims.

''We haven't seen anything like this since Kampuchea,'' says Barbara Hendrie, media director for Oxfam-America, the Boston-based international relief agency, which has already forwarded 14,000 metric tons of emergency food aid. ''Our phones short-circuited, we had so many callers.''

The relief route from the America to Africa, however, is a rutted one. American relief-agency officials complain that Ethiopia was late in acknowledging the crisis and has done little to help distribute the incoming aid.

The issue is also bogged down in partisan politics. Congressional Democrats this week criticized the Reagan administration for allowing the situation to reach such a serious level. The White House countered Thursday by announcing it had approved $45.1 million in emergency food assistance to the drought-plagued African nations of Kenya, Mozambique, and Mali. The US has provided $43.7 million in emergency food relief to Ethiopia over the last month, more than double the amount spent during the previous year.

According to relief agencies around the country, television networks' broadcasts last week on the plight of the estimated 8 to 10 million Ethiopian famine victims have brought in millions of dollars nationwide.

Already, such relief agencies as Oxfam-America, Catholic Relief Services, and Church World Services are each reporting donations of nearly $200,000. Lutheran World Relief is providing $4.75 million. In some cases, unsolicited contributions of $30,000 to $60,000 are arriving at relief agency offices daily. Although no agency is yet predicting a total figure for public contributions, a few observers predict donations may reach the $60 million level achieved during the Campuchean crisis of 1980. Some observers now say Ethiopia may need up to 1. 8 million metric tons of emergency food aid through 1985.

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''It's unprecedented,'' says Betty Woodward of Save the Children, an international community development agency. ''We're getting 2,000 pieces of mail a day, and as of an hour ago we had received $136,000.''

''This is the first time I've seen this kind of (response) happen this quickly and this ecumenically,'' says the Rev. Thomas Stoll of Traverse City, Mich., one of the ministers canvassed by Bonter. ''It's very heartening.''

The problem in Ethiopia is as much a logistical and political one as it is lack of food. Because of the ongoing civil war in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, areas hardest hit by drought, food aid is being shipped into the interior through Ethiopian ports and neighboring Sudan. For this reason, some givers have been targeting money for transportation needs. Church World Service has earmarked $260,000 for transportation of grain by truck and airlifts.

According to the relief agencies contacted, many of those contributing include a high percentage of retirees and low- and middle-income Americans. ''Many people who are calling in to help are on fixed incomes,'' says Ravi Khanna of Oxfam-America. ''Many are saying, 'I'm sorry we can only give a little.' ''

''One woman on social security said she often has to eat pet food herself but wanted to send in $5,'' says Oxfam spokeswoman Hendrie.

Other examples cited by the agencies range from a $12,000 contribution from two Los Angeles law firms to $18 donated from a four-year-old boy's piggy bank. Many of the larger donations are arriving anonymously, but others come with notes. ''My prayers go out to them,'' one elderly Massachusetts woman wrote. ''I hope others will do what they can.''

Many US callers apparently want to do even more than send money. ''They're asking, 'Are we doing enough?' '' Ms. Woodward says. ''I had a call from two businessmen who wanted to charter a plane.''

Renee Cheng, a Harvard University senior, is organizing a campuswide fast and ''hunger banquet.'' She expects to send about $3,000 to a relief agency.

Asrat Butru, an Ethiopian immigrant and bank analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank here, is canvassing local churches and hosting a fund-raiser in Boston's Ethiopian community. ''I was encouraged by the way Americans are responding. So I thought, why not me, too?''

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