THE SECRETARY of agriculture reports that the administration will give American exporters $2 billion worth of government-owned surplus commodities to crack markets "stolen" from them by subsidized exports of other producing nations. The secretary, John R. Block, grants that it is "not good policy" to interfere this way with free trade. We see here a touching example of the solicitude the American government can muster for a constituency in distress.

Unfortunately, this is not the worst way in which the system is operating these days. Currently, in Rome, the United States is doing somewhat less than it might to work out an international formula to keep alive an agency that does uncommonly good work to help the poor farmers of poor countries grow more food That the fate of an agency that helps the one group of farmers should be hung up in a dispute over a few million dollars, while another group of farmers gets a new $2 billion subsidy with the stroke of someone's pen, is simply insupportable.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development, a small and (still) lean United Nations agency, was set up in 1977. Its special mandate was to serve the credit, production and marketing needs of small farmers. It brought the then-prosperous oil producers of OPEC into a unique partnership of donors with the industrialized nations of the OECD. The agency is a winner. The international aid crowd admires it. AID praises it. So does the Heritage Foundation. It channels aid to the poorest farmers and rural poor. It provides a good return on investment. It's attentive to policy reform -- improving producer prices. It focuses on the private sector. At a moment of famine in Africa, where this agency does much of its work, its stress on local production is what dignity and economic effectiveness require.

The dispute over its refinancing centers on how the burden should be shared between OPEC and OECD donors. It's a frazzling dispute. The OPEC parties, one can easily believe, are being difficult: they are poorer than they were when the project began, and they are not working well together. The United States is in a hard-bargaining mood. It should be. But it should not be so much so that it loses sight of the point of the exercise: to keep the agency, which is already living from hand to mouth, not only alive but healthy and growing.

Within the American government, the matter seems caught in the bureaucracy. But if this agency goes down, the United States will be blamed, disproportionately and somewhat unfairly, for the collapse. If it survives, it will be because of American leadership.