WHY DO 6 MILLION Ethiopians face starvation? Why is food not reaching the threatened people even as television viewers in rich countries see the suffering on the nightly news?

Not because warnings of the coming disaster arrived too late. This famine has been long in the making, and was predicted well in advance. And not because the amounts of food needed are too immense. There are food surpluses in North America, and funds enough in Soviet bloc countries to finance a larger relief effort. No, people are starving in Ethiopia primarily because of international politics, bad local policies and governmental mismanagement on a large scale.

Stagnating food production caused by drought, pests and other factors are, of course, at the root of the problem. But the failure of government institutions to respond adequately to a spreading disaster has compounded the impact in human misery. In the case of Ethiopia, a bad situation has been exacerbated by conflicts between peasants and urban bureaucrats; environmental degradation resulting in part from guerrilla warfare, and prolonged indifference by the United States, the Soviet Union and other potential benefactors. Making matters worse have been internal frictions within the Marxist government of Lt. Gen. Mengistu Haile Mariam that continue to hinder the relief effort.

To this day, city people in Ethiopia hold onto a fatalistic, centuries-old attitude that peasants always starve. History bears them out.

The first recorded Ethiopian famine occurred in the 9th century. Ten major famines cut down the Ethiopian peasantry between 1540 and 1724. Following another outbreak of hunger in the 1820s, the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-89 swept through four provinces and killed perhaps 50,000 people.

Two severe famines have struck Ethiopia recently. In 1965-66, one out of every two Ethiopians in the Wag and Lasta districts of Welo Province died from hunger. In 1972- 74, drought and then starvation spread across the Ethiopian provinces of Wollo, Tigray and Eritrea. Some 250,000 peasants quietly starved to death -- as their parents and grandparents had. This toll may now be exceeded by the current disaster.

All this has produced a certain fatalism about famine. Yet, in fact, governmental mismanagement and exploitive policies have had as much to do with peasants starving as drought and crop failures.

When the Scottish explorer James Bruce went into the Ethiopian countryside in the 18th century, he wrote that "the farmer in Abyssinia is always poor and miserable." To the problems of drought, floods and insects, he said, must be added the greatest plague of all: "bad government, which speedily destroys all the advantages they reap from nature, climate and situation."

In response to famine, Ethiopian governments tried prayer in the 19th century and denial more recently. For six months in 1973-74, the government of the late Emperor Haile Selassie refused to admit that drought and famine were sweeping across Ethiopia, and food-giving nations also remained silent. In August 1975, the emerging revolutionary Ethiopian government ordered, in writing, that all relief activities halt.

Until the overthrow of Selassie in 1974, the Ethiopian peasant lived and died in social conditions similar to those of European peasants of the Middle Ages. He paid a land tax that might take up to three-quarters of what he produced, and education and health taxes that returned neither schooling nor decent medical treatment to his life. He supplied produce, firewood and labor to his landlord's house and granary, and gifts at holiday time. Even the so-called "communal" system in the provinces of Welo and Tigray peeled off half the peasant's productivity and gave it to the landlord.

Redistribution of land during the late 1970s under the Mengistu government brought little long-term relief. The landlords were killed, or disappeared; but the revolution also eliminated the marketers who dealt in seed and fertilizer. Poor farming practices, coupled with a population growth rate that, conservatively, resulted in a doubling of the numbers every 25 years, prolonged suffering during this transition.

By this time, the Ethiopian countryside also was paying a heavy price in soil erosion caused by massive deforestation. As peasants cut down trees for firewood, roots holding topsoil were lost, rivers of water cut through farmlands and agriculture suffered terribly.

In 1974, the revolutionary government that replaced Selassie created a Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) to investigate the 1972-74 famine. The RRC cited as factors the poor use of land, damage inflicted on vegetation by cattle and goats and government indifference.

Drought, of course, exacerbated the problem. By 1982, Tigray, Welo and Eritrea provinces had received little rain for five years. In some periods, rainfall was only 30 percent of normal. Harvests were so poor that the peasants survived by eating cactus fruits and wild grass seeds.

In the early fall of 1982, the Ethiopian government issued an international warning to major donors of food aid, including the United States, stating that some 2 million Ethiopians needed emergency sustenance.

Until July 1983, the Reagan administration ignored the alerts. A letter that I received from an official of Catholic Relief Services stated: "We have been agonizing since November 1982 as to how to get the administration to turn around on its position. Our November request to USAID for 838 MT (metric tons) for distribution in Wollo (province) did not receive a favorable response until May 1983."

Having first ignored Ethiopian requests for emergency food aid, the

Reagan administration then denied them. Food, it appeared, was to be an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The Marxist government was the only African nation whose entire U.S. food aid allotment was eliminated by the Reagan administration in its fiscal 1984 proposals. Only after prodding from Congress and the press did the administration begin in late 1983 to ship a total of 41,000 tons of food aid.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, complained about supplying food to the Marxist government on grounds that it would never reach the hungry. "The diversion of relief goods by a large number of people between the donor and the intended recipient is a very big problem . . . in Ethiopia," she told reporters.

Spokesmen for several international relief organizations, however, contradicted her, saying that 90 precent of the emergency food aid was reaching Ethiopians who needed it.

In March 1984, two U.S. aid officials in Washington asserted that donated food was being diverted or used to pay for Soviet arms. The officials cited this claim to support administration resistance to increased food aid for Ethiopia.

In addition, the administration officials contended that there was no food shortage in areas controlled by the Ethiopian government. But an investigation in April by representatives of the European Economic Community found that "no conclusive evidence has been produced to show that food aid has been systematically diverted to the armed forces." A bipartisan congressional investigation also concluded that there was no evidence of food diversion. "It is very clear," said Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), "that this administration is very opposed to more spending on food assistance to Africa."

Nevertheless, the administration's political misgivings in the case of Ethiopia, Africa's leading Soviet-supported state, appear to have been genuine. The Marxist government has received more than $2.5 billion worth of Soviet weaponry and also relies on Soviet petroleum as a major energy source. Some 3,000 Soviet and 5,000 East German advisers serve in Ethiopia, along with 6,000 Cuban soldiers.

At the same time, the Mengistu government has often appeared more interested in fighting guerrilla wars and in glorifying its revolution than in feeding starving peasants.

In September 1984, the government formally created a communist party intended to institutionalize socialism; it marked the occasion with large parades and outdoor displays orchestrated by North Koreans.

Estimates of the cost range upward from $100 million, and include the $45 million spent for a new Hall of Congress building. Although some of the costs were covered by gifts from Soviet-bloc countries, Ethiopian government ministries were told that one- tenth of their annual budgets would go to repainting and facelifting public buildings.

The importance of the celebration cannot be understated. International relief agencies complained that food supplies to the countryside dropped last summer while the Mengistu government gave priority at Assab, Ethiopia's principal port, where ships loaded with paint and cement for the celebration were arriving. Offloading ships with relief food temporarily become a low priority. Starving peasants don't live in Addis Ababa and don't march in political parades.

Despite its political presence, the Soviet bloc's contribution to famine

relief thus far consists of only small amounts of rice, as well as light planes, trucks and helicopters to distribute Western food aid.

The guerrilla war, meanwhile, has both destroyed peasant farmlands and complicated the relief effort. The areas where people are starving are partially controlled by the Mengistu government, and partially by anti-government guerrilla groups. In Eritrea, the anti-government People's Liberation Front continues Africa's longest war. To the south, the Tigray People's Liberation Front holds 90 percent of the province. Both guerrilla fronts run separate feeding stations for those starving in the areas they occupy. But the Mengistu government controls the only paved road through the provinces, and operates feeding stations along it.

This has created a bureaucratic nightmare for relief agencies. The guerrillas compete with the Ethiopian government for what international assistance there is. Getting food to the hungry in Welo, Tigray or Eritrea means dealing with and supplying the guerrillas.

This cannot openly be done by government or United Nations' aid organizations, which have to work with the Ethiopian central government. So only non-governmental agencies (such as Britain's Save the Children Fund, Oxfam and church groups) supply the guerrillas directly. Some of these groups use private donations of cash to buy grain in the eastern Sudan or Ethiopia and truck it to feeding stations in Tigray or Eritrea. The government-controlled feeding stations, meanwhile, have been hampered by guerrilla attacks.

Along the Addis-Asmara road, food is a principal weapon in the struggle for the support of the Ethiopian peasant. In the campaign for control, stomachs have become the way to the hearts and minds of the people.

At this point, the fate of the starving is in the hands of governments -- and at the mercy of international politics. U.S. Agency for International Development Director M. Peter McPherson has complained about blocked Ethiopian ports and lack of Ethiopian government cooperation. He has contrasted U.S. generosity with Soviet "callous indifference" to Ethiopia's plight.

The Soviet Union, though a major food importer, is a rich country which could easily afford to buy more food for Ethiopia than the $3 million worth of rice it has promised so far. The United States, for its part, has pledged a total of 130,000 tons, worth more than $45 million, and Western donors in all have promised almost 300,000 tons. But the Ethiopian government says that 600,000 tons are needed. McPherson himself said last week that the hungry, war-torn nation may require as much as 1 million tons of food aid in 1985.

Meanwhile, hungry peasants continue to walk from the bush into the towns along the Addis Ababa-Asmara road, looking for food. Relief workers in the Welo town of Korem are feeding 35,000 people, 17,000 of them children, at the Ethiopian government's center there, while another 110,000 wait nearby for food supplies. About 80,000 camp around Mekelle, in the government-controlled area of Tigray, and perhaps 90,000 at Alamata, where even malnourished patients on intravenous drips must leave the camp at night because of the threat of guerrilla attack.

As history shows, Ethiopian peasants have always starved. But given the warnings that the world had and the modern distribution and communications facilities now available, it can no longer be said that they must starve. Governments have it in their power to prevent the misery, if only they put lives ahead of politics.