The Agency for International Development has quietly decided to rein in its Third World population control program. The most energetic of its development assistance efforts but one that has raised hackles both in the countries it was created to serve and within AID's own bureaucracy.

Funded, located, and run separately from the rest of AID, the population office has for years provided massive supplies of contraceptive devicces to developing nations whose economies are in danger of drowning in a sea of hungry and desperate people.

At a world population conference in 1974, some developing nations pointedly reminded the developed world that population control for them was not an end in itself, but one part of a larger development process. Since then, two U.S. administration have moved to integrate the population program with AID's health, nutrition, and other development efforts.

"There was a kind of 'them vs. us' attitude between the population office and others" within AID, said the agency's assistant administrator, Sander Levin, in a recent interview. "This is an effort to get the whole agency working together."

The reorganization shfits control over population programs from the central AID office in Washington to four regional bureaus in the developing world.

The central office retains control over programs that operate in more than one region. Largely through the funding of international voluntary organizations, like the International Planned parenthood Federation.

On paper, the change does not sound like much; in practice, it involves control over a $204.5 million budget - one-sixth of the total non-military U.S. foreign assistance dollars that can touch in dramatic and intimate ways the lives of millions of people around the world.

AID's decision is bitterly opposed by the population office's director, Dr. R. T. Ravenholt, a colorful man whose name has become virtually synonymous with aggressive advocary of the export of contratceptive technology during the 13 years he has headed the office.

Ravenholf contends the reorganization is not-so-thinly veiled effort to destroy his program. "There's no doubt that we've been exposed to a very persistent, coordinated degradation of our program in the last year," he said.

"It takes years to build an effective program . . . If you want to ruin the program, you scatter its responsibility. Instead of one office having responsibility, now five offices do."

In 1966. Ravenholt took over a weak, fragmented population program and turned it into a juggernaut. Operating within an agency often criticized for ineffectiveness and mismanagement, he has been said Rep. James Scheuer (D.N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Population, "kind of the Savonarola of population programs."

Girolamo Savonarola was a 15th century Italian zealot, a highly emotional and effective speaker, who was excommunicated and later executed for defying the Pope.

Through last September, the population program had supplied almost 600 million monthly cycles of oral contraceptives - the pill - and 1.7 billion condoms to nations in Africa. Asia, and Latin America, at a cost of about $162 million. Revenholt told the population committee recently.

Racenholt's biggest success has been Indonesia, where an estimated 48 percent of couples of childbearing age now practice birth control. His biggest failure has been Pakistan, where the United States has poured in $58 million in 13 years only to find that today only 6 percent of couples use birth control regularly, and only 9 percent have ever tried it.

Along the way, there have been some notable blunders. Newspapers in Thailand once asked editorially whether the United States had sent them a deliberate embarrassment in a shipment of condoms far too large for Thai men to use: children in Jamaica have made balloons of U.S. supplied condoms too small for use by Jamaicans.

Ravenholt is a leading advocate of family planning through technology. He pays little attention to other aspects of development that can ease the pressures of population growth - economic development, improved health care, better nutrition. Instead, he sees his job as making sure the devices are there.

"I'm not against education and getting them rich." he said. "I'm for all those things. . . . But it's a myth that there are not people out there wanting [family planning] services."

"The problem is to translate desire [for family planning] into demand." retorted Levin. "There's the role of the husband, there's encouragement from the national leadership, there's the role of women. All these things affect the demand for services."

An exchange between Ravenholt and Scheuer during the population hearings illustrates the opposing views of the subject:

"I know there are a lot of armchair strategists, particularly on the American scene, who think that all kinds of other things must be done before poor, illiterate, peasant people will want to control their fertility," said Ravenholt.

"Within our experience, this is simply not the case . . . Approximately one-half of married women of reproductive age do not want any more children - right now . . .

"Wherever we have offered good quality, voluntary sterilization services in the developing countries, we cannot catch up with the demand for those services." Ravenholt said.

"Scheuer replied, "The view that all we want to do is control population growth rate for our own purposes, and it's not related to any compassionate concern for overall health matters, is crippling efforts to get family planning programs going.

"It's the setting, Ray, it's the setting." Scheuer said. "A free-standing contraceptive program unrelated to other health programs or other societal programs, but particularly unrelated to maternal child health programs, this is the canker under the saddle, as I perceive it in country after country that I've been to."

Not only in the developing world is Ravenholt a subject of controversy.

Like all bureaucracies. AID is a battlefield on which ceaseless struggles for money and power are waged. Within that context, said a knowledgeable observer, Ravenholt has enjoyed "phonomenal success, with only 5 per cent of the budget. That puts a lot of pressure on the other bureaucrats."

While most of AID is located in a shabbly wing of the State Department building. Ravenholt's population program is in a high rise building in Rosslyn. While the rest of AID's $1.3 billion budget comes in one lump sum. $204.5 million is specially earmarked by Congress for the population office.While other AID program are often combined in a single facility in the field, Ravenholt has succeeded in building free-standing family planning clinics in several places.

"Is it a fair statement." asked Rep. Paul N. McCloskey (R-Calif.) at the recent population committee hearings, "that the hard work of your staff, which achieved the mandated allocation of some of the AID budget for population, was highly resented by the rest of AID who resents allocation?"

"That is true." replied Ravenholt. Ravenholt is not alone in his protest that the reorganization will damage population programs worldwide.

Dr. Daniel Weintraub, director of international operations for Family Planning International Assistance, an agency partly funded by AID, said that whenever population is integrated with other operations, "population is no longer the primary purpose.

"Family planning then comes last You lose accountability. You lose visibility . . . With centralization, you have a successful program. When you decentralize something successful you risk a lack of coordination."

Some even got so far as to charge that the reorganization is part of a Carter administration payoff to religious groups opposed to family planning.

It is a chagre Levin hotly rejects. Noting that the population office budget request rose 27 percent over last year, he said. "Damn it all, we fought for that budget. That increase did not come automatically. There is no pronatalist payoff."