At a time of worldwide recession and high inflation, the Western industrial powers have a greater obligation than ever to ensure the well-being of poorer developing nations.
That means not only ensuring proper levels of foreign aid and development capital through private banking channels, but also curbing protectionist laws that would inhibit the growth of world trade.
That is one of the main conclusions of the new report of the Washington-based Overseas Development Council (ODC), a nonprofit organization concerned with the role of the United States in relation to economic and social problems in developing nations. The report, "The US and World Development: Agenda 1980," is published each year. It has come to be regarded by those interested in foreign aid and economic development here as one of the most important regular examinations of the well-being of third-world nations and of the status of foreign assistance and international trade and finance carried on with the poorer countries.
This year the report joins two other significant international reports in stressing the need for a more urgent reform of the international economic system as well as urging more direct steps by national governments to help overcome the worst aspects of world poverty and deprivation. There are the report of the US Presidential Commission on World Hunger and the so-called Brandt Report of the independent Commission on International dedevelopment Issues.
Coming out this year, in a period of severe economic challenge, all three reports stress the interdependence of the industrial nations and the third world.
For its part, the Overseas Development Council report finds the US to have a record of "missed opportunities" in reshaping relations with the third world during the past three years of the Carter administration.
The report does not place all the blame on the administration, also faulting Congress and a somewhat indifferent public. The administration is credited with concluding the new Panama Canal treaties, for its much- touted human rights policy, for its efforts to reach a Mideast peace accord, and for its refugee resettlement programs for Southeast Asia.
But on larger issues affecting the US and third world nations, the report charges that "the record of the US has been one of missed opportunities to set North-South relations on a new course."
As noted in the introduction to Agenda: 1980 by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh , chairman of the ODC, "The growth and progress of the poor countries are essential to our own well-being."
The reasons are not hard to find, private and government economists here say. In 1978 alone, the last year for which complete trade figures are available, 38 percent of total US exports went to developing nations. Significantly, of that amount, the lion's share -- 26 percent of US exports -- went to non-OPEC nations.
Throughout the 1970s, in fact, US exports to the third world grew at an average rate of 18 percent, compared with a 15 percent average growth for exports to Western industrial nations.
Although the conclusions of Adenda: 1980 are not startling in the sense of being new, if carried out they would most certainly constitute a historic turning point for the US in its relations with the third world.
But full implementation, analysts note, is nearly impossible, given the current US presidential election. Moreover, no matter who is elected president there will likely be a period of uncertainty and transition about legislative priorities for the first months of 1981.
The ODC report asks the US to "share power more readily with other countries" in international organizations. It calls upon Americans to accept "the need to transfer more real resources [financial and political] to speed up growth and to meet immediate human needs in the third world."
Among other matters, Agenda: 1980 calls for imporving the world's monetary system, sustaining world trade growth, improving world food stocks by in part establishing a global grain reserve, creating an international agreement on oil, and meeting existing development assistance and emergency relief commitments, while working toward boosting the total US foreign aid contributions.
The industrial nations are also asked to pledge increased future development support and "lay the groundwork for longer-range cooperation on issues of world development."
The ODC, as part of its annual agenda-reports, now issues what it calls a "quality of lfie" index. The index seeks to quantify the "physical quantity of life" based on life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.
This year, for example, Japan comes in at the top of the roster, with a score of 97; the US has a score of 95.