THIS week's meeting of the 50 nations that belong to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) shifts the spotlight, however briefly, from the continent's short-term famine problem to its long-run economic challenge. While other large areas of the world have been moving forward economically in recent decades, most of Africa has been sliding backward. To one degree or another, most African nations confront challenges of inadequate or collapsing economies, widening trade imbalances and deepening poverty. In many African nations these are exacerbated by soaring population, agricultural deficiencies, government inadequacies, internal rivalries, and -- until recently -- drought.
Given these circumstances, it might have been tempting for African lands to threaten to walk away from their foreign debt, approaching $170 billion. To their credit they have decided instead to honor that debt, though they are asking creditors for easier repayment terms, longer payment periods, some further funding, and forgiveness of loans to the most impoverished nations.
Accommodation can presumably be made between the lending banks and the international agencies and Africa's many debtor nations. They have had financial problems since the latter half of the last decade, when the price of the oil most of them had to import rose steeply while the prices for the raw materials they export declined sharply.
Africa is now in the uncontested position of being the world's poorest continent: To pull itself up requires the cooperation of creditors and other developed nations. As African leaders noted during the opening of the OAU meeting, the short-term food and other assistance so generously being provided to the continent's hungry people now needs to be accompanied by longer-term assistance. African farmers need tools and seeds to plant crops, many nations require much better transportation and distribution networks, individual villages could greatly benefit from small projects, and most nations' economies ought to be strengthened.
Equally important is what African leaders and their countries are willing to do for themselves. Economic incentives need to be restored. Agriculture policies should encourage farmers to till their land, not move to the cities. Many nations need better overall planning, greater personal freedom, an end to government corruption, and greater efficiency.
The OAU is on the right track with its idea of a five-year program that would emphasize self-reliance and economic cooperation among African nations. A similar plan was adopted several years ago but not successfully carried out, because of drought and adverse developments in the world's economy.
Cooperation between African leaders and the developed world is important to stop the continent's slide. It is time for action.