New message to the third world

Much of the intellectual rhetoric in the so-called North-South dialogue in recent years has been directed against the industrial countries of the North. These "have" nations are excoriated for not doing more to aid the "have-not" developing nations of the South. We therefore sit up and take notice when one of the world's leading exponents of help for the third world pointedly aims his fire not at the North, as he customarily has, but at the South as well.

The gentleman in question is none other than Raul Prebisch, the Argentine economist who among other things was the first secretary general of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development. In recent pronouncements Dr. Prebisch criticizes the developing countries for what he sees as massive waste -- in their bloated bureaucracies, huge defense spending, and consumption of luxuries by the elites and the growing middle classes. He calls for a "dynamic redistribution" of income, not by more and more aid from abroad but by tapping this waste.

This requires, says Dr. Prebisch, a change of social and cultural attitudes in order to increase savings and investment. Instead of looking only to outside help, governments must look within and build an "interior concept of development." They should, for instance, curb government spending, tax consumption instead of income, and pursue other austerity measures that make possible long- range growth and a lifting of the living standard of the poorest segments of society.

Significantly, Mr. Prebisch is not alone in enunciating such views. Frustration over the slow pace of cooperation with the North has led many other third-world economists to place more stress on self-help. A UN-sponsored meeting of senior economic officials from the Latin American countries last month similarly adopted a more inward-looking focus on South-South cooperation. "There is a growing feeling to look to ourselves," a high official of the Economic Commission for Latin America is quoted as saying. "the mood now is to reevaluate, to see what we can do individually and together."

The trend is heartening. Not because we believe the "haves" of the North should abandon their global responsibilities for helping the developing nations. They cannot and must not. But because such aid is more effective and is less grudgingly given when it is seen that the developing nations are themselves tackling their internal problems and cooperating with each other. Not least of all, this attitude could help persuade President Reagan not to let the United States abdicate its role in the North-South discussions -- a possibility many people fear as the new administration takes a tougher line on third-world development issues.

At the moment the whole North-South dialogue seems to be in limbo. But this period of "benign neglect" may just be spurring the needed self-examination in the developing countries. This could mean more hardheaded and workable approaches once the dialogue pic ks up again, Dr. Prebisch lends weighty voice to this hope.

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