It may be a problem to envy, but the Agency for International Development is having a little trouble handling success.

At the root of AID's dilemma is an experimental program it helped finance last September in Zimbabwe. It was called a technology exhibition, and it let AID play matchmaker between U.S. entrepreneurs and potential markets in the Third World.

The idea is that U.S. firms get sales orders, which create jobs here, and the developing countries get technology that can boost agricultural production and create jobs abroad. Both goals are solidly in line with the administration's aims.

But, four months after its experiment drew raves in Zimbabwe, the program is on ice at AID. The problem: technology exhibitions are a lot like trade fairs. And trade fairs are not part of AID's job description.

While the agency can justify an "exhibition" under its legislative mandate to help Third World countries obtain technology, officials apparently aren't sure they want to infringe on the turf of the Commerce Department and help U.S. businessmen turn a profit, even if Commerce says it's okay. It is, according to a congressional aide, a case of "the bureaucracy at war with itself."

What AID did is relatively simple: using $250,000 in agency funds, a small outside contribution and a private contractor, the agency put together a U.S. pavilion for the event, "Rural Development Technology '82," held last September in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Inside the pavilion, about 40 U.S. firms displayed a smorgasbord of the kind of counterculture gadgetry known in the field as "appropriate technology." There were windmills, solar-powered stoves and refrigerators, looms and beehives.

The products were not the sort of thing that General Dynamics and Caterpillar Tractor ordinarily keep in stock. But in southern Africa, where sun and wind are in ample supply and money is short, the exhibition was a smash. Not only did the U.S. firms make sales, but several came back with offers for joint ventures and overseas manufacturing and marketing agreements that could create jobs in the United States and Africa.

In all, according to a preliminary evaluation by AID's project officer, "business arrangements made within the U.S. pavilion ranged from $4 million to $6 million. There is potential for the final figure to substantially exceed this amount."

In a cable to the State Department after the Zimbabwe event, AID's office in Ouagadougou said Upper Volta's representatives were "delighted . . . . Instead of the giant corporations they had expected, they met with 'small- and medium-sized' firms promoting technologies appropriate to the African environment." The Near East mission of AID chimed in enthusiastically, suggesting a similar effort for an upcoming technology fair in Manila.

But in a recent House Small Business subcommittee hearing, Barbara Otis, AID's director of business relations, said it might take eight months or more to tell if the Zimbabwe exhibition "fit in with AID's mission." When members of Congress questioned the time lag, AID stepped up its efforts. The report is now expected this week, and officials familiar with its drafting say it will be positive.

But opinion differs within the agency over whether a success in Zimbabwe ought to have any bearing on the issue. A memo from an official in AID's Bureau of Private Enterprise warned the Near East mission to lay off the Manila proposal, saying his office "does not believe that support of such an activity represents the kind of priority which would justify use of its limited resources."

Otis told the hearing that the memo reflected one official's confusion about the difference between a trade fair, which is Commerce's turf, and a technology exhibition, which is within AID's bailiwick.

At the same hearing, Commerce aides acknowledged that AID, with its network of foreign missions in developing countries, is much better at putting on events like the one in Zimbabwe, whatever they're called.

The consultant who worked with AID on the Zimbabwe exhibit, Richard DiCicco of Technology Catalysts Inc., agrees. "I go to these things for Commerce, too," he said. "Their mandate is business in general, not small business. They do not focus in on development technology."

Rep. Berkley W. Bedell (D-Iowa), chairman of the Small Business subcommittee that explored the issue in December, was exasperated at what he called a "bureaucratic nightmare" of missions and mandates and agency priorities. "I have to tell you I think our policies are just absolutely crazy," Bedell said.