There are no words to adequately describe the magnitude of the human tragedy that is occurring in much of Africa. A deadly combination of drought, civil war, misguided government policies and growing population pressures is resulting in a famine of historic proportions.

At the request of President Reagan, I recently went to Ethiopia for an on-the-spot assessment. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru and, in recent years, as administrator of the Agency for International Development, I have seen hunger, pain and despair in many places around the globe. But nothing in my experience matches the suffering or the complexity of the crisis that hangs over Ethiopia today.

I am still convinced however -- if the world works together -- hundreds of thousands of men, women and little children can be saved.

My trip to Ethiopia led me to several conclusions:

* In Ethiopia alone, at least 7 million people are at serious risk.

* During the next 12 months, the total food assistance donor nations need to provide for Ethiopia alone will be in the range of 1 million tons.

* A massive logistical problem exists as well: a plan for the delivery of food must be agreed upon. The United States has developed some ideas, but there must be a coordinated attack by donors.

* It is essential that a donor conference be convened within the next few weeks to coordinate activities.

* The United States is prepared to continue to provide substantial assistance.

The immediate emergency is our first priority. The United States has provided $60 million in additional assistance in a little more than the past 30 days. This represents 130,000 tons of food and other supplies. The other Western donor nations have provided another 200,000 tons of food. Private individuals and businesses have committed valuable additional resources.

It should be noted that the United States provided more emergency food to Ethiopia during the past fiscal year than to any other African nation and was the largest emergency food donor to Ethiopia.

This outpouring of assistance has resulted in massive logistical problems. About 50,000 tons of food a month are being moved, and about twice that capacity is required.

Automatic unloading and bagging equipment is needed. Many more trucks must be allocated by the Ethiopians to move the food inland, which they have agreed to provide. I am hopeful that will be done promptly. The United States and a few other countries are providing cargo aircraft to fly food to remote camps.

It is critical that the donor conference be convened quickly. There is a pressing need to come together and take up our share of the burden. We would welcome the participation of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries.

While a great deal of public focus has been centered on Ethiopia, the problem is widespread in Africa. There are at least seven countries only months behind the serious problems that we see today in Ethiopia. Other countries are headed toward serious difficulties.

It's important to understand that the present and increasing suffering is the result of a set of circumstances of which the drought is only one part. For example, in many countries of Africa, rural people have been discriminated against in the pricing of agricultural production. Farmers are frequently paid less than market prices in order to provide cheap food for urban consumers.

The development of high yield seeds and other technology is needed for dryland farming in Africa as well as the development of human resources through training and education. Our agency is devoting a great deal of attention and money to these and other goals.

In summary, there are three stages to the ultimate solution. There is the present emergency stage. The second stage will extend over the next six to 12 months. Donors must allocate the million tons of food needed for Ethiopia, plus additional resources for the other sub- Saharan nations in the grips of drought and potential widespread famine. The third stage is for African countries and donors to continue to work for long-term development so that disaster does not haunt Africa forever.

And we must not lose the momentum of public interest and concern that has attended the crisis in Ethiopia. Above all, we must not lose hope. I am firmly convinced that despite the magnitude of the problem, it can be addressed. We need only to look to the examples of the recent past. Twenty-five or 30 years ago India was the recurring scene of famine that took millions of lives. Today, because of improved policies, technology, training and determination, India is virtually grain independent, and massive starvation is only a bitter memory.

While we respond to emergencies today, we must help create the circumstances in which people can help themselves climb out of poverty and misery. All of the short-term help of all the industrialized countries cannot be seen as a solution. Ultimately, the developing nations themselves must provide a policy climate that creates the conditions under which their own people can prosper and be fed.