With the world in recession, the plight of the nations of the third world, particularly those of Africa, becomes increasingly acute. Dependent as so many are on the export of primary products for which world markets and prices have deteriorated, they suffer deeply. It is clearly in the interest of the West to help Africans reach the level of development which will help them take advantage of improvements in the world economy and permanently to avoid future recessions. But how?
The nations of Africa clamor for massive redirections of the flows of trade, and of stabilization schemes for commodities like cocoa and copper which would provide steady profits to indigenous growers and miners. But the administration of President Reagan is hostile to these and analogous suggestions, as it again demonstrated earlier this month at the United Nations conference on the environment in Kenya.
Other Western governments are also opposed to most of the proposals of the developing countries regarding raw materials, seabed mining, or levels of guaranteed assistance.
Accelerating African development, or even arresting the decline in African growth, will not come about by any rapid restructurings of the international economic order. Indeed, before the West can help, Africa needs to address its own complex problems with energy, intelligence, and integrity. That is the sober message of a recent, controversial World Bank report called ''Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action.''
What the report concludes, many African economists only assert in private. In the 1960s and 1970s, the first two decades of black African independence, the new nations pursued strategies of economic growth which poorly used their own human and physical resources. They biased their own economies against agriculture, turning the terms of trade away from the common man and transforming themselves from food-sufficient countries into net food importers. They created economically draining, inefficient public sectors. They poorly utilized the foreign assistance and foreign investment which they attracted.
As a result of the deficiencies of the two initial decades of independence, only two or three African countries feed themselves. Some, like Zambia, are more dependent on the export of single commodities than they were at independence. Some, again with Zambia in the lead, are massively more urbanized than they were during the colonial period.
Fertility is a problem. Although underpopulated in comparison with Asia, Africa's population increases have outstripped its real rates of economic growth. At an average yearly increase of 2.7 percent in the 1970s, Africa had the highest rate of growth in the world. Zimbabwe and Kenya had increases of about 4 percent per year.
By the year 2000 the population of Africa will double, to nearly 700 million, and Zimbabwe and Kenya will better than double their present populations of 7 and 16 million without the ability easily to create jobs or even maintain current, low standards of living per head.
Moreover, high net population increases and declining agricultural returns have driven Africans off the land. In 1960 three cities in Africa had populations greater than 500,000. Now there are 28.
Pressure on the governments of Africa for urban services increases exponentially with the growth in cities. Moreover, cities breed demands for subsidized staples, which in turn lowers the real returns to the farmer and encourages a further cycle of migration to the towns.
Africa has seen its hopes for real growth dashed despite the grand plans of the 1960s and early 1970s. Not only have there been too many new mouths to feed, and too little demand for commodities like copper, sisal, cocoa, and cotton, but imports (especially petroleum) have become so much more costly that several countries now devote all of their export earnings to the purchase of fuel and food.
Soon, as has happened to several, their balances of payment collapse and the International Monetary Fund enters the scene to order a mandatory housecleaning and a devaluation of currencies.
Increasingly during the 1970s African countries let their exchange rates rise appreciably, and their currencies become over-valued. This led to the loss of the market shares of commodity exports, to foreign exchange scarcities, to imposed import quotas (rather than devaluation), wasteful import-substitution and noncompetitive local industrialization, and the devotion of high proportions of scarce administrative talent to nonproductive regulation and restriction of the economies.
The cycle of negative growth, near national bankruptcy, and lowered standards of living can be broken. To do so, however, the leaders of black Africa will have to tighten the belts of their people and lessen their sometimes overweening expectations of development.
They will have to listen to their own planners, most of whom have had their advice rejected on grounds of political expediency. They will want to find a means of encouraging birth control. They will have to rearrange their economies in ways which may cause political dissent, and many may be too weak to do so.
The West can help by targeting its aid to those who are conscious of the need to clean house. But since housecleaning will be labeled by some as capitalism, when it may simply be common sense, the road to economic reform in Africa may be long and rocky.