Cambridge, Mass. — While his peers in the developed world zapped each other with make-believe ''Star Wars'' lasers in the late 1970s, eighth-grader M. Kamal Ahmad was busy in his native Bangladesh running literacy and self-help programs for 200 youngsters from the slums of Dacca.
Last year, fresh out of high school, Kamal raised $30,000 for the four schools (now run by his mother) that grew out of his original classroom in a vacant garage.
Now a freshman at Harvard University, Kamal is hard at work on his latest project - organizing a network of university students in the United States to raise money for third-world development projects.
The Overseas Development Network, incorporated last November, now has its own board of directors and includes some 250 students at various universities across the US. Kamal's older brother, Nazir, anchors the western end of the network at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. The board of directors includes several prominent professors from Harvard, Amherst, and Stanford.
It is slightly disconcerting to listen to the shy young man in a baggy Icelandic sweater, eyes twinkling behind round wire-rimmed glasses, modestly chronicle his accomplishments in the space of a few years and describe his latest effort.
''There are three aspects to the network,'' Kamal says in measured tones.
* A ''partnership development program'' in which college affiliates sponsor their own development project in Bangladesh and find ways of funding it.
* A Development Education Program which involves setting up a secretariat, eventually putting out a newsletter, and lining up speakers for this spring's symposium on world hunger at Harvard.
* And a data bank at Stanford that will eventually be filled with information on overseas development opportunities. Kamal says students will be able to plug into internships, jobs, or volunteer opportunities in development projects throughout the third world.
The specific development program chosen by Kamal's group at Harvard is ''aimed at raising the general standard of living and increasing the self-sufficiency of the rural poor of Asharkota, a village largely populated by poor fishermen, day laborers, weavers, and landless peasants,'' according to the description in the grant application.
One hundred people will be targeted for financial assistance in five areas: fishing, poultry farming, paddy-husking, net-making, and small trades. The group figures $4,000 will do the trick.
''An agent in Bangladesh collects information about small-scale projects,'' Kamal explains. ''We screen the ideas, and after the selection process, send the project ideas to the affiliates at other universities. When they have raised the money, it will be sent through the Bangladesh Development Service Center (a branch of the Canadian University Service Overseas).
''Regulations on private foreign aid to Bangladesh are very strict,'' Kamal says, and ''aid must be approved by 13 different ministries.'' Since the Bangladesh Development Service Center is registered with the government, Kamal's network avoids the red tape.
The group's fund-raising attempt at Harvard in preparation for the spring symposium on world hunger involves a campuswide food fast. Students will be asked to skip either lunch or dinner in the dining halls. The $1.15 lunches and
Kamal says he has also been ''in touch with (folk singer) Pete Seeger, a former Harvard man,'' to give a fund-raising concert. Kamal expects they can raise some $2,000 from the food fast and some $6,000 from the concert. The Harvard Institute for International Development has already pledged $1,000 to help pay symposium expenses.
But are this charismatic young man and his ambitious project for real?
''I keep pinching myself to realize that he's only a freshman,'' says network board member Donald F. Hornig, director of interdisciplinary programs in health at Harvard's School of Public Health.
Dr. Hornig, who was once science adviser to President Johnson, adds: ''He is young. But he is the principle asset of the program. There are the others around him who are committed, but I think they're getting the inspiration from him. He is incredible. It takes a lot of imagination and drive to get funding for programs in (the) Bengal (area of Bangladesh) from Italian schoolchildren,'' he says referring to Kamal's earlier project. ''He just keeps on making things happen.''
Another director, C. Peter Timmer, professor of business and agriculture at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, points out that Kamal comes from a very successful family: ''His father is head of the Nutrition Institute at the University in Dacca, his mother is an economist and economic planner. The family's nine children have all been extremely successful as well.''
Dr. Timmer suggests that growing up in such a vigorous family, in a country with such obvious need, has spurred Kamal through his various ventures to the most recent project.
He adds that ''everybody is a little bit in awe of him. Everyone but Kamal,'' he says.
And in his own modest way, Kamal explains how he got involved.
''It was just before the United Nations (International) Year of the Child ( 1979) and I felt somewhat awkward about it,'' he says. ''There were so many poor kids from the slums. . . .''
He says he decided to set up a classroom in a vacant car garage to help them learn to read, and get them off the streets and into domestic jobs where they could have a place to sleep, get something to eat, maybe even some cash. When the authorities kicked his first class out of the garage, he says they picked up and moved to a dead-end road near the university campus that had been blocked off by the government.
''We built a bamboo hut with a mud floor in two to three days. No one knew whose property it was,'' he says, ''and no one asked.''
He then contacted the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) organization which in turn ''hooked us up with an elementary school group in southern Italy. They (the Italian children) raised money for our schools and set up exhibits. . . .''
When Kamal, as coordinator of his Juvenile Literacy Program, went to the Canadians' office to pick up the first check, he says ''they said 'Hmmm, how about getting someone older to help you.' ''
''So I went to my school principal and asked him to go along with me,'' Kamal says, ''and they gave him the check.''
Kamal then hired six university students to teach.
Did they think an eighth grader hiring them to teach poor children was a joke? ''Not when I was paying them,'' Kamal says with a smile.
Dr. Hornig says his only concern about Kamal's latest project is that ''it is an enormously ambitious program. They may be attempting too many things too soon. Whether they can keep up the inspiration is yet to be seen. But Kamal is a fount of good ideas and experience. The fact that he's done it - that is the key.''
The most important thing in the long run, Dr. Hornig suggests, is to make the eventual transition from ''a personal venture to a public program with a sufficiently broad base.''
Dr. Timmer agrees. ''I think they're going to accomplish a lot. They'll get lots of good people with a lot of enthusiasm. What is clearly going to be the real test,'' he adds, ''is when Kamal goes on to something else. If the project can work without his charismatic leadership, then it will be a real success.''