The House, acting over administration opposition, has tucked into its version of the continuing resolution a requirement that more foreign aid be directed toward the poorest populations in developing nations.

It approved language co-sponsored by Reps. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) requiring that 40 percent of the nation's $1.4 billion in development aid this year "expeditiously and directly benefit those living in absolute poverty."

That language must be taken up in the conference on the resolution, an omnibus bill to fund federal agencies into the new year.

The principal group behind the requirement is a 41,000-member organization of activist Christians, "Bread for the World," which has organized its chapters in every congressional district to mount a letter-writing and telephone campaign.

The non-denominational group is headed by Paul Simon's brother, Arthur, a Lutheran minister.

Lobbying against the Simon amendment has been led by M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID), who stationed himself outside the House chamber this week buttonholing members as they went in to vote.

AID contends on one hand that it is already focusing assistance on the needy, as required in a 1973 law, and on the other that the amendment would cost $45 million to demonstrate compliance, and would force the reprogramming of $210 million in fiscal 1983.

The issue has reignited an age-old controversy in foreign aid: whether money should be spent on institution building projects -- "trickle down" as their opponents characterize them -- or on direct aid to the world's 800 million poor.

McPherson, a tax lawyer and former Peace Corps volunteer, called Simon's amendment "a return to the handout mentality. We've learned it is a mistake to give people things directly. The way you bring about progress is to build institutions and train people, to help a country's overall progress."

For example, he said, the 40 percent targeted funds would more likely be spent on caring for the poor than on setting up a health care delivery system or funding malaria research.

However, in the House debate, Gilman charged that "too many of the development projects that AID finances provide for studies and consulting with government bureaucracies and do not directly assist the poor."

He added, "I understand . . . AID is now spending over $700,000 to help the government of Sierra Leone to collect more taxes. How does that help the poor? Similarly, $5.6 million is being spent to provide surveys, assessments and seminars to help the government of Mauritania improve its administrative procedures. That does not help the poor."

The amendment is opposed by CARE, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and several population groups who fear it will restrict research and training programs. Likewise, the AFL-CIO, which gets money from AID to assist free trade unions in Latin America, says it would be "extremely detrimental."

However, Simon reworded the amendment to allow studies and services, such as agricultural research aimed primarily at the poor, to be included in the 40 percent of targeted aid. His amendment counts irrigation, extension and credit services for small farmers, as well as roads, water supplies and health services as projects that directly benefit the poor.

Nonetheless, Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which jealously guards jurisdiction over aid issues, opposed the amendment as "well-meaning but misdirected. It would create a bureaucratic monstrosity and generate mountains of paper in the name of helping the poor."