Inflation and the third world; World Inflation and the Developing Countries, by William R. Cline & Associates. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution. $15.95 in hard-cover, $5.95 in paperback.; The World Energy Triangle: A Strategy for Cooperation, by Thomas Hoffman and Brian Johnson, International Institute for Environment and Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Company. $25.50; The Third World Calamity, by Brian May. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. $19.95 .

Who gets what, and how can it be increased? Inescapably linked, these are the bottom-line questions of third-world development. Millions of words get churned out about them every week. How much it all illuminates is a moot point.

These first two books are written by established authorities on global inflation and energy. Mr. Cline's book will satisfy those who want to know where the Great Inflation that began in the 1970s stands now.

Successive oil shocks have put the world's money system under great strain and sent third-world debts soaring. Cline provides important knowledge, showing how inflation works two ways. Poor countries get uncertain prices for their exports, and inflation has cut the real value of aid. But it has also reduced the real value of debts, and a few newly rich nations, the OPEC oil producers, are getting more generous.

Nor is Mr. Cline stuck for answers on sensible strategies for third-world policymakers to follow. He and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution struggle valiantly to increase understanding, even if their arcane language and mathematical formulas can be hard to fathom.

"The World Energy Triangle" also offers concrete proposals. Cheap oil and free firewood are getting scarce. The authors would transform what they call a "triangle of suspicion" -- the West, oil producers, and poor oil consumers -- into a new cooperative venture to develop the third world's own untapped energy resources. The proposals, in this worthy but routine effort, are generally sound, especially to revamp the World Bank and AID to meet an energy-hungry world. A few are naive, such as those reviving appeals that OPEC evolve a two-tier price system for the rich and the poor or that the United States commit 1 percent of its GNP to concessional aid. President Kennedy first proposed this 18 years ago, and the percentage has steadily dropped; now it's down to a mean 0 .19 percent.

The authors are weak when it comes to spelling out just what the third world's energy potential is. They touch on oil, hydropower, coal, nuclear power , solar energy, and firewood. But there is no mention of the need to fully harness such big rivers as the Zambesi, Congo, Senegal, Niger and Volta in Africa or the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow in Asia. Most of the earth's hydropower potential is still untapped.

Brian May's book offers a striking contrast to the others. He seems to be saying we might as well forget about the impact of inflation or energy needs, as the third world is utterly hopeless anyway.

Mr. May is a retired veteran political journalist (Agence France-Presse, the Guardian). A political journalist assigned to some big third-world city can spend years on end putting up with corrupt generals, supercilious bureaucrats, absentee ministers, censorship, police harassment, hot and uncomfortable climates, and telephones that don't work.

The temptation is to get your exasperated revenge by writing about a country in the manner of a sour critic reviewing a particularly lousy play. Mr. May has not resisted it.

He plainly states his objective is to prove that the third world is irredeemably "stagnant." It suffers from a "fundamental cultural inertia." There is some sound political journalism along the way. His accounts of Nigeria's turmoil, the Shah's fall in Iran, and Indira Gandhi's emergency in India are workmanlike and competent.

But he ends up 250 pages later presenting his "hypothesis" that racial inferiority may be behind it all. There may be "psychic differences between societies -- perhaps of bio-chemical origin." We are left to conclude that the Indians, Indonesians, and Nigerians are destined to eternal poverty because of psychological shortcomings.

This is utter nonsense.

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