The Reagan administration, concerned about the specter of famine looming over 28 drought-stricken nations of sub-Saharan Africa, is trying to find ways to channel U.S. aid for the immediate relief of starvation and to help make Africa better able to feed its people adequately in the future.

While the famine has stirred a sense of urgency about the need for greater aid to Africa, it comes as the administration is calling for stringent cuts in the U.S. government's domestic and foreign spending.

As a result, any U.S. effort to help improve African agriculture must consider the fact that there will be less money available for foreign aid and that other countries and regions will be competing fiercely to retain their share of the smaller aid pie.

Some U.S. officials say they believe that the images displayed by television and newspapers of hungry African children with swollen bellies have shocked the American public into a realization that more must be done to prevent the repetition of starvation on such a massive scale.

Until now, Africa has been near the bottom of U.S. aid priorities. Bilateral U.S. economic aid to all countries of black Africa for fiscal 1985 totals roughly $1 billion. The United States also is providing about $265 million in emergency food relief.

By contrast, Israel, the largest single recipient of U.S. aid, is receiving $2.6 billion in fiscal 1985, of which $1.2 billion is economic aid.

Because the administration's drive for fiscal austerity is expected to put a tight pinch on foreign aid requests this year, U.S. officials have warned that the biggest share of available economic assistance funds will go to such priorities as helping the Israeli economy out of an inflation-ravaged crisis and the administration's commitment to large-scale aid for Central America and the Caribbean.

As a result, the officials said, there is little likelihood of enough being left over to increase aid to Africa significantly.

Instead, they added, the emphasis of interagency planning involving the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Treasury Department is on finding what they call "more creative and effective ways" to use available funds.

To become more self-sufficient agriculturally, Africa requires research to produce new "green revolution" breakthroughs, reform of the inefficient agricultural economic policies of many African governments, and better education and training for farmers, the U.S. officials said.

But to do this would cost far more than the financially battered countries of black Africa can afford from their own resources, they said.

"It's a real dilemma, one that we've been wrestling with for two years, and so far we have only pieces of the answers," said one senior State Department official who deals with the African aid problem.

"Pulling all the pieces together in some comprehensive way that will permit effective and imaginative use of the available U.S. assistance is still eluding us for the present," he said.

Yet, the official, who asked not to be identified, noted that even if hard-hit countries such as Ethiopia can be brought through the current crisis, the problems that caused it will remain and, if not remedied, could erupt again with even greater virulence.

The United States, he emphasized, has a strong interest in preventing that situation for humanitarian reasons and because it does not want to see Africa plunged into the perpetual chaos of prolonged famine.

He is not alone in fearing that Africa's famine could produce one of the major world crises of the 1980s.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced plans to hold hearings on the whole range of U.S. foreign policy. Lugar has said he wants to give special attention to how issues such as the drought in Africa are likely to affect American interests in the years ahead.

Currently, officials said new U.S. aid to Africa will involve two categories. The famine will require continuing emergency food aid to Ethiopia and other countries for at least another year, and the United States expects to provide about 1 1/2 million tons of food, primarily wheat, sorghum and special diet-supplement items for children and the ill.

The officials said most of the food aid will come from the U.S. government's stocks of foodstuffs accumulated through the domestic farm support program.

They added that the precise amounts have not been determined, primarily because the Office of Management and Budget has expressed concern that, if the government surpluses are reduced too drastically, domestic farm lobbies might use that as an argument for continuing the support programs that the administration wants to phase out.

Looking beyond emergency food relief, officials said their planning centers on targeting aid toward research, agricultural education and structural changes in agricultural policy, all areas in which Africa lags far behind other Third World areas such as Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The officials said the centerpiece of any long-range aid is likely to be a new attempt at launching the Economic Policy Initiative for Africa, submitted by President Reagan to Congress last year.

Its aim is to induce African governments that have tried to curry political favor with urban populations by holding down food prices to open their economies to more capitalist-oriented, free-market policies, including those that would give farmers more incentives to grow food.

The initiative encountered criticism from some congressional quarters on the grounds that it was an attempt to interfere in other countries' internal affairs.

However, Congress provided $75 million in general funds that were used for projects of the kind envisioned by the Reagan initiative, and the officials said the administration will seek to expand its efforts in this area in 1985.

Officials acknowledged that such programs can make only the smallest dent in the economic problems confronting most African countries. All depend for their livelihood on producing raw materials such as copper or rubber that currently command poor prices on world markets, and the result has been increasingly severe balance-of-payments problems that have left virtually every country of sub-Saharan Africa heavily in debt to foreign banks.

In fact, the officials noted, some countries such as Zaire are, in effect, using their U.S. aid to service their debts and have nothing left to finance internal reform or development projects.

Some U.S. officials are understood to be suggesting that the U.S. government finance a partial buyout of the debts of some African governments to U.S. banks in exchange for their adopting draconian fiscal austerity programs of the type advocated by the International Monetary Fund.

Officials conceded that this idea is unlikely to get very far, however, because it would involve costs far beyond what would be approved by the OMB and would establish a precedent that could cause major problems elsewhere.

If that were done in Africa, other countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Yugoslavia and Brazil, which owe far greater sums to U.S. and other foreign banks, almost certainly would demand similar help on their debts.

"It's a grim picture," one official said.

"Africa was way behind everyone else to start with. It is going to have a tougher time coming out of the world recession than any other area," the official said.

"We see no signs of any really hopeful changes there through the 1980s, and when you add to that the conditions of natural disaster like drought that turns into famine capable of killing thousands, you have the potential for a whole continent someday exploding with a violence that will be felt in every corner of the world."