The United Nations and its affiliates, while claiming to be plagued with deficits, have been running a surplus of as much as $350 million a year and have $1.4 billion in excess funds in bank accounts, audited financial statements show.

The organizations that make up the UN. system have managed to create the impression that they are in difficult financial straits by distributing funds among a number of special accounts and placing vast sums in special reserves, the statements disclose.

In some cases, the U.N. organizations have obscured the fact that they actually have amassed considerable wealth by depicting their finances in ways that accountants say are highly questionable.

The audited financial statements have been publicy available for years, but apparently no one has ever totaled the figures to obtain a complete picture of the finances of the U.N. system.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), one of the organizations in the U.N. system, alone has $100 million to $140 million in its bank accounts, the audited statements show. In recent years, the organization that helps starving children has run an annual surplus ranging from $8 million to more than $20 million.

The excess money, enough to run UNICEF for at least six months and possibly almost a year, is equivalent to the amount that children would collect in UNICEF Halloween trick-or-threat campaigns over 70 years.

U.S. and U.N. officials acknowledged they did not know exactly how much the U.N. system takes in or spends each year.

A State Department compilation shows the organizations in 1977 received income of $2.4 billion, a commonly accepted figure. But this does not include all the U.N. organizations.

Totaling each organization's financial statements collected over a period of months shows they had total income in 1977 of $2.7 billion - $300 million above the widely accepted figure.

Far from running deficits, the U.N. organizations in 1977 retained 13 percent of their total income as surplus, the figures show.

By comparison, CARE, the nonprofit organization that distributes food overseas and has no connection with the United Nations, ahd a surplus last year of 1.2 percent.

In 1977, the latest year for which full figures are available, U.N. organizations had enough money in their bank accounts to cover operating expenses for an average of seven months and, in some cases, as much as two years.

CARE, by contrast, had enough in the bank and other investments to cover operations for about a month.

The U.N. organizations place their excess funds in banks throughout the world. Details will be covered in a second article.

U.N. officials say the excess funds are needed to insure that commitments to fund projects in the future will be met.

"UNICEF needs an operational capital to maintain liquidity during the year and to absorb differences between revenue and expenditure for future years," Henry R. Labouisse, executive director of UNICEF, said in this year's financial statements.

After reviewing the figures on U.N. system finances, the State Department confirmed last week that they were accurate but objected to any attempt to lump together the finances of all U.N. organizations.

Charles W. Maynes Jr., the assistant secretary of State for international organizations, said, "Each organization is completely autonomous, and money cannot be shifted from one to the other."

In a 14-page statement, he said large portions of the excess funds are in special funds for particular purposes or in reserves that should not be counted.

For example, a $150 million "reserve" of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) should be deducted before reporting on the UNDP's accumulated cash, Maynes said.

To present U.N. system finances in proper accounting terms, Maynes said in the statement, the bank balances should be reduced further by deducting the accounts payable - bills owed by each organization.

Maynes singled out the United Nations itself, which is less well off than most of the affiliate organizations in the U.N. system, as an entity with particular problems.

He said it has a "deficit" because some countries have refused to pay their assessed contributions. If this "deficit" is considered, and the amounts owed by the United Nations are taken into account, it will be shown to be "on the verge of bankruptcy," Maynes said.

In addition, Maynes said an article on the overall financial situation of the U.N. system would be used unfairly by political critics of the United Nations.

When first asked about the bank accounts of U.N. organizations, Maynes said a story on the subject "will do tremendous damage to the U.N. . . . The damage will be incredible. It will be devastating."

Accountants disagreed with Maynes' view of how U.N. system finances should be presented. They said, for example, that reserves of an organization should be included when assessing its wealth.

Paul Rosenfield, director of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' accounting standards division, disagrees with the United Nations definition of "deficit." A deficit is an excess of expenses over receipts he said, not the failure to collect a contribution.

"A deficit would have nothing to do with that," he said.

Deducting various items from bank balances, as suggestion by the State Department without offsetting them by adding in amounts owed to the organizations would produce a "very misleading piece of information," Rosenfield said.

"It would look like an organization is going out of business when it is highly profitable," Rosenfield said.

Officials of U.N. organizations generally refused to permit inspection of records that would show how the United Nations spends it money.

"It's not in the public domain," William Goodkind, deputy U.N. controller, said when asked about the terms of bank deposits. "We only show that to the auditors. I'm not going to show it to anyone who walks in off the street."

"There's no reason why you should have access to the files of the U.N.," George F. Davidson, undersecretary general for administration and management, said when asked for a list of companies that receive contracts from the United Nations.

Although the U.S. government gave the largest single contribution to the United Nations, $600 million to the U.N. system in 1977, or $4.60 for each taxpayer, the General Accounting Office, the audit arm of Congress, also has been refused access to financial records of U.N. organizations.

"We can only ask questions," said George F. Saddler, the counselor for financial matters at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. "To look at records gets into a fundamental policy question. We [the State Department] have never considered there was any need to look at those records."

This year, the United States is temporarily withholding contributions to some U.N. organizations in a disagreement over how assessments are made. So far, $139 million has been withheld and $172 million paid.

Those who are allowed to see the United Nation's books - the U.N. board of auditors - have severely criticized nearly every facet of the United Nation's financial operations.

In little-noticed reports published by the United Nations, the board, composed of audit staffs from three countries, has repeatedly "qualified" its opinion on the soundness of U.N. finances.

This means the board refused to certify that the books as presented were accurate.

The auditors have pointed specifically to deficiencies in the way the organization handles its checks, assets, invoices, purchases, contributions and books. They also have questioned the effectiveness of the U.N. internal auditors and the qualifications of its financial officers.

"The reporting system is inconsistent, and it's almost impossible to get a handle on the total activities of the system," said G. Peter Wilson, director-general of the U.N. external audit committee.

"The system doesn't provide the assurance that the final information is accurate, and, in many cases, that there are adequate controls to ensure proper use of financial resources," Wilson said.

He said the auditors have not addressed the reasons U.N. organizations generate excess funds, since this is a question of policy rather than accounting.

"Why is the U.N. raising all these funds? Why does the U.N. act as a bank in the first place? These are not audit questions," he said.

The U.N. system encompasses nearly 30 organizations with acronyms like WHO, ILO, WIPO, UNITAR and ITU, besides the United Nations itself. It includes lending institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, whose figures are not included here. It also includes hundreds of trust funds established for various purposes.

Each organization and trust fund has its own member countries, governing body, books, employes and offices. No one person or body supervises the entire U.N. system.

However, the U.N. General Assembly, through various councils and committees, coordinates the work of each of the organizations and reviews their budgets. It also creates some organizations and appoints their chief executives.

Financial data on each organization is not available at any one location. Although it spends $16.3 million a year, the U.N.'s office of public information is of little help.

Its publication, "Basic Facts about the U.N.,; tells visitors the United Nation's budget in a recent two-year period was $784 million, or an average of $392 million a year. This was only 16 percent of the expenditures of the U.N. organizations described in the booklet.

The organization with the biggest bank accounts and surplus is the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), an umbrella agency that funds other U.N. organizations so they can improve health, education and nutrition in developing countries.

At the end of 1977, the UNDP had $286.1 million in its bank accounts. This was enough to run the organization for two-thirds of a year. Twelve trust funds administered by the UNDP had another $89.9 million in the bank.

In 1977, the UNDP ran a surplus of $166 million. The U.S. government contributed $100 million to the organization in that year.

G. Arthur Brown, deputy administrator of the UNDP, said the organization had financial difficulties in 1975 and 1976 and wanted to ensure that commitments to fund future projects would be met. In those years, according to UNDP financial statements, the organization had to dip into its reserves but had higher expenditures than it does today.

"We're trying to increase the rate of expenditures," Brown said.

The World Food Program (WFP), a U.N. organization that distributes food in impoverished countries, had $132.1 million in its bank accounts. This was enough to run the Rome-based organization (exclusive of food contributed by countries) for nearly two years.

The organization had a surplus in 1977 of $29.5 million. In that year, it received $77.4 million from the United States.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which helps developing countries upgrade their own food supplies, had $116.4 million in its bank accounts. This was enough to run the Rome-based agency for nearly two-thirds of a year. Even if the portion of this money that the FAO had put into trust funds was excluded, there was still enough in the bank to run the agency for nearly half a year.

The FAO had an average annual surplus during its most recent two-year financial period of $29.4 million. It received $18.5 million in U.S. contributions in 1977.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which promotes health programs, had $116.5 million in the bank, or enough to run the Geneva-based organization for more than a third of a year.

Despite a claim in its financial statements that it had a "cash deficit" in one fund, WHO took in $7.4 million more than it spent in 1977. It received $43.3 million from the United States that year.

A WHO official in Geneva said that some of its money is committed for future expenditures.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which funds projects in varied fields, had $69.2 million in the bank. This was enough to run the Paris-based agency for about three-quarters of a year. Another $13.9 million was kept in banks by UNESCO trust funds.

UNESCO took in $15.8 million more than it spent in 1977. The United States contribution to the organization that year was $27 million.

A UNESCO spokesman in Paris said the organization's bank balances were unusually high because it had just received a $23 million loan from some countries. He said the loan was needed because the organization's primary fund was about to run out of money.

The United Nations itself, which includes the General Assembly, Secretariat, Security Council, and International Court of Justice, had $69.4 million in the bank, or enough to run the organization for nearly two months. The United Nations' 77 trust funds had another $80 million in the bank.

During its most recent two-year financial period, the United Nations took in an average each year of $12.8 million more than it spent. The U.S. contribution to the United Nations in 1977 was $99.4 million.

UNICEF, which improves children's health, education and nutrition in developing countries, had bank balances that ranged during the past two years from a low of $100 million to a high of more than $140 million. If money earmarked for particular purposes is excluded from the balances, UNICEF had enough in the bank at the end of 1977 to operate for almost a year.

In 1977, UNICEF had a surplus of $23.3 million. It received $20 million in U.S. contributions in that year and another $250,000 earmarked for the International Year of the Child, a program focusing this year on the needs of Poor children. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Chart, Excess Money, The Washington Post