Boston — In the pomp and dazzle of 22 world leaders embracing before the cameras, tomorrow's summit of rich and poor countries at Cancun, Mexico, is expected to yield few immediate results.
But many international development analysts say some of the biggest breakthroughs may already have taken place.
The mere fact that these heads of government will meet, they say marks historic changes on the world scene.
More than ever before, the industrialized powers recognize that their own well-being depends on whether solutions can be found to the sobering problems of the developing world.
And the developing nations, after decades of struggling for full recognition as actors in the world economy, are no longer perceived among the world powers as juniors, but as actors whose concerns must play a role in the future of the world economy.
"In an important sense, Cancun shows that we have succeeded," says Dr. John Sewell of the Oveseas Development Council.
"When we began aid programs in the 50's and set up the World Bank, we wanted to help developing countries begin economic development. Their growth has exceeded the industrial world's. Now they count. Those attending Cancun, especially, now have vital interest to the US."
Many who have witnessed the cantankerous North-South debated in recent years consider it something of a breakthrough that these leaders are even gathering to talk at all.
Dialogue between the rich nations of the "North" and poor countries of the "South" had stalled United Nations chambers almost beyond reignition. The poor countries appeared to have lost recognition of their bid for a greater role in the world economy.
But there is new evidence, that the leaders in the North, notably President Reagan, see increased North-South cooperation as in their national interest -even if there is little agreement on exactly how to find it.
They are well aware, for one thing, that increased cooperation could yield substantialnomical economic gains for both North and South and help to energize the sagging international economy.
Last year the developing countries, for their part, earned some $600 billion from the sale of their exports -over 20 times the amount of aid from the world community. And the US sold 39 percent of its exports to the developing world.
But the Cancun participants are also convinced that new kinds of cooperative strategies must be found to cope with the awesome problems of the developing world -energy shortages, overpopulation, poverty, hunger, and skyrocketing debt.
The need for solutions is "not an act of benevolence but a condition of mutual survival," wrote the distinguished panel headed by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt last year when proposing the idea of a North-South summit.
Perhaps the most surprising new affirmation of that theme comes from the United States.
While many industrialized countries supported the North-South summit idea from the start, fears were running high that tha Reagan administration would turn a cold shoulder and put a damper on the whole process.
Earlier in the year the administration seriously questioned the value of both US aid to developing countries and international banks supporting third-world development. It rejected third-world demands for "global negotiations" to create a "New International Economic Order" that would give poor countries a better chance and a greater voice in the world economy.
However Mr. Reagan now appears to be making greater North-South cooperation a major cog in the wheel of US foreign policy, albeit in his own controversial terms and tempered by sobering budget contraints at home.
That strategy, outlined by Mr. Reagan last week in Philadelphia, calls for opening up mutually beneficial trade opportunities; increasing private investment in the South, creating a safer climate for that investment, and tying it more closely to development with lasting benefits; and encouraging the better-off developing nations to rely more upon international banks and less on aid, thus freeing up more low interest aid moneys for the poorest of poor nations.
To be sure, doubts and criticism of the Reagan approach are already being voiced by developing countries and the international aid agencies. It is not likely to be greeted with open arms by the leaders at Cancun.
A spokesman of the World Food Council, expressed discouragement over the way Mr. Reagan bragged about the superiority of American aid commitment over the Soviet Union's during his Philadelphia speech. This, says the spokesman, may introduce a new factor of East-West confrontation that is not typical of development dialogue, and could muddy up the waters.
On the other hand, some leaders of the "Group of 77," the loose-knit organization of some 120 developing countries, were heartened to hear of Mr. Reagan's willingness to go to Cancun to listen to the developing countries' views.
And White House officials insist that Mr. Reagan's plan is not mere rhetorical gimmickry but a commitment to take North-South cooperation with utter seriousness.
Whether the "breakthroughs" that have brought Cancun into existence do in fact translate into the concrete North-South cooperation remains to be seen.