The Haitian "boat people" have been classified as economic refugees by the Carter administration -- for a practical, if somewhat hardhearted, reason: it's easier to exclude them from the United States than it would be if they were declared political refugees.

U.S. officials are hoping to ward off an influx of Haitians that they fear could reach truly staggering proportions. The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince estimates that if the immigration bars were let down, a million Haitians -- one fifth of the country's population -- would flee to the United States within a year.

The U.S. government might logically be expected to view economic aid to Haiti as an effective means of heading off such a mass exodus, so it is not surprising that the Agency for International Development has been in place in Haiti for seven years. But it is distressing that the program has accomplished so little.

Haiti is one of the poorest, most densely populated countries in the world. Largely mountainous, its once lush forests have been destroyed by an impoverished population desperate for firewood. Food production and reforestation are the obvious, urgent goals of an effective economic program.

Yet the U.S. AID mission has rarely gone beyond studying Haiti's problems. According to a classified cable to the State Department from U.S. Ambassador Henry Kimelman, Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier complained to him in a private meeting: "Haiti is the most studied country in the world. Officials of U.S., of other countries and international development agencies have studied every conceivable aspect of Haiti. Now it is time for action."

After two or three years of study, AID in 1976 was given $8 million for an integrated agricultural development loan project designed in part to encourage reforestation and increase food production.

But by the end of 1980, only $1 million of the $8 million had been put to use. As a result, the program was scaled back to $3 million, and the reforestation allocation was cut back significantly.

Allan Furman, AID director in Port-au-Prince, told my associate Bob Sherman that the agricultural development money would be reappropriated and distributed as direct grants over the next few years. But in the bureaucratic reshuffling, the badly needed funds for reforestation were eliminated, supposedly held in abeyance to be included in some future project.

Several U.S. officials complained privately that the on-again/off-again fund juggling was just another example of the long, unnecessary delays in AID projects that can be attributed in part to inefficient management.

Furman acknowledged that the AID staff in Haiti will have to be cut back unless Congress appropriates more money. But, in general, he depicted his AID program as one that has been floundering but has now rebounced. All it needs, he indicated, is a bigger infusion of money from Congress to move forward effectively.

The Haitians, however, aren't pleased with the AID operation. A former health minister who served Duvalier said it was impossible to get a straight answer from the Americans. "Furman will tell you one thing one afternoon and the next day change his mind," he said.

Even Ambassador Kimelman, who has been on the scene only a few months, admitted to misgivings about the current AID operation. Recognizing that Congress is unlikely to increase the immigration quota for Haitians -- now 20,000 a year -- Kimelman believes that an effective program of economic assistance is vital. He said he'll recommend a reevaluation of the entire Haitian AID operation.

An easy answer to charges of AID's ineffectiveness in Haiti has been given by agency officials both in Port-au-Prince and Washington: it's the Haitians' own fault. The Duvalier government is corrupt, they argue, and the only way to run an assistance program successfully is to circumvent local officials. This is, in fact, being done in some instances by contracting projects through private aid groups.

But this is too easy an answer. Surely after seven years on the scene, AID should have been able to figure out how to deal with Haitians. If AID can't, the United States can expect more mismanagement, even greater economic distress in Haiti -- and more thousands of despairing, penniless refugees arriving on our shores.