ROME. — THE AIRLINES -- those tell-tale barometers of middle class well-being -- loudly complain that the rise in the price of oil is ruining their balance sheets and plunging them into the red.
But where's the splash about the implications for Africa if the recent oil-price rises are compounded by another doubling or tripling when and if the fighting starts in the Gulf? The 12 African countries presently suffering from serious food shortages spent over $1 billion on oil in 1989 -- 11 percent of their total import bill. This figure could easily double this year.
Inopportunely, this new tipping of the scales of fortune arrives just when some things had started to go right for Africa. With the awful exceptions of Ethiopia and the Sudan, plentiful rain has now fallen on most of Africa's drought-inflicted countries. Chad, until recently a perpetual desert war zone, is now exporting food to Sudan!
Here in Rome, the United Nations' ''food capital,'' Idriss Jazairy, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, throws up his hands, brings them down again like a knife and with the angry voice of exasperation contemplates the implications of the oil price rise for Africa. ''It's been drought, then war and, now again for the third time in a generation, oil prices.''
The last seven years Mr. Jazairy has fashioned his organization into a sharp tool for helping the poorest farmers in the Third World. Unlike many U.N. bodies, the International Fund for Agricultural Development is a streamlined business with a small staff working long hours under intense pressure. Yet, argues Mr. Jazairy, with the earnest frustration of a thoughtful man who sees his life's work being undone, ''with the best will in the world we cannot protect these people against another almighty squeeze on their livelihood.''
His fund came into being on the political rebound from the first price hike in 1974. It was the joint progeny of the OPEC countries and the West, an attempt to take care of those most hurt. It was, and still is, unique among international agencies, in concentrating its attention on the small rural farmer and the need for each peasant family to be self-sufficient in food.
In Pakistan it helped fund the ''motorbike bank'' that takes its loan officers away from the big oak door, the brass rail and the teller's desk with its telephones, and puts them on two wheels and sends them into the remoter regions to offer financial credit and agricultural advice to distant villagers, who don't even know the word for bank.
In Bangladesh it has supported the Grameen bank which gives $100 loans to help men, but mainly women, buy a cow, a rickshaw, a potter's or blacksmith's tools, the equipment to process betel, mustard and spices or for paddy husking, working bamboo, making brooms and weaving cloth -- something with which they can begin to make money. In a dozen years it has radically changed the lives of 300,000 people at the bottom of the pile in Bangladesh. Ninety-nine percent of the loans have been repaid.
In Africa it's been the principal funder of the attempt to control a dangerous pest, the mealy bug. Six years ago this tiny insect was winging its way across Africa at the astonishing rate of nearly 500 miles a year, eating and destroying cassava, the root vegetable that is the staple crop for 200 million people.
By means of an inventive system of biological control -- using a natural enemy, a wasp, imported from Brazil, that feeds on the mealy bug -- the pest has been stopped in its tracks.
Elsewhere in Africa the fund has helped farmers in Burundi grow rice on irrigated land, initiated soil conservation and afforestation on the eroded hill tops of Rwanda, reorganized the agricultural institutions of Sierra Leone, distributed high-quality seeds in Liberia and helped create national research and extension institutions in Zimbabwe.
Over the years I've seen many of these projects with my own eyes. They work. They work well.
For all this success the OPEC countries' contributions to the fund have been decreasing by the year. And if OPEC can't be bothered, why should the Western contributors, is the comment made in Washington, London and Bonn.
The oil producers have given the excuse that oil prices were going down and they had less to spare. They can't talk like this anymore -- unless they want to prove the truth of Saddam Hussein's jibes against spoiled rich kings, princes and emirs.
Here in Rome is an organization, of which the oil producers are a major shareholder, that knows how to soften the effects of the tumultuous events of the last three months. They must wake up before this time it really is too late for Africa.