President Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first and only president, comes to Washington this week with all the prestige of one of Africa's most notable elder statesmen, but burdened by the heavy baggage of problems in his economically troubled state.
The son of a Christian minister in a country that still honors Dr. David Livingstone, the explorer-missionary, Dr. Kaunda holds to a vision of a moderate , nonracial state. He calls his political philosophy ''humanistic socialism.'' Others in Lusaka call it the ''gospel according to Kaunda.''
After nearly 20 years in office, Kaunda's landlocked country is in a parlous economic state with one of the worst debts in the third world.
But the view from Washington is that President Kaunda has not come with hat in hand. Rather his March 29-April 2 visit is seen as a recognition by Washington that for all his country's drawbacks, Kaunda remains one of the luminaries in the third world.
Talks between the Zambian President and Washington officials are expected to focus mainly on major foreign policy issues.
The United States is courting Zambia for support on a US-backed plan to get Cuban troops out of Angola and South African troops out of Namibia as a preliminary step to Namibian independence.
At the same time, Zambia's economic problems are a source of concern to both Washington policymakers and to the International Monetary Fund.
According to the World Bank, Zambia's external debt was some $2.3 billion in 1981, a large figure for a country of 6 million people. Some 24 percent of its foreign exchange earnings goes toward servicing that debt.
Some diplomatic sources in Washington say Zambia's deteriorating economic situation is the result of mismanagement and the depressed world prices for copper, on which the prosperity of this African state had flourished soon after independence.
Although an adroit politician at home - he has survived 19 years in office, including a 1980 coup attempt - Kaunda has miscalculated on a number of key fronts, according to those who follow southern Africa closely.
Politically, they say, he has failed to reap any tangible benefits from his willingness to meet with South African leaders. His last meeting, in April last year, in a mobile trailer parked in thorn-tree studded veld in Botswana with South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha did nothing to change Pretoria's course on such matters as a Namibian solution or releasing political prisoners. At the same time, it brought cries of ''sellout'' from his peers.
One observer at the recent meeting in Mozambique of the Southern African Development Coordination Council, an alliance of nine black states committed to reducing economic dependence on South Africa, noted that Zambia adopted a low profile at the talks, presumably because of black African displeasure over Zambia's contacts with South Africa.
Kaunda's hopes of reducing economic dependence on South Africa, while maintaining a dialogue, have also not materialized.
It was against Western advice in the 1970s that Kaunda went ahead with the Chinese-built Tazara railway between the Zambian copper belt and the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. The plan was to divert Zambian exports eastward to avoid reliance on the South African-controlled southern African rail network. But the line has been so hampered by maintenance problems that less than 40 percent of Zambia's traffic goes by this route.
And with the Benguela Railroad to Angola in the West constantly disrupted by guerrillas, Zambia has reverted to its earlier dependence on South African railways and ports to get out its overseas exports.
Zambians had hoped to benefit economically from an end to the war in 1980 in neighboring Zimbabwe (formerly white-ruled Rhodesia). The reopening of its southern route through Zimbabwe for the shipment of copper and cobalt exports through South African ports was regarded as the most important factor in reviving the economy.
In fact, Zambia is worse off today than at any time since independence. It has neglected most segments of the economy, particularly agriculture, and counted too heavily on copper and cobalt exports, which bring in 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings.
The country's economic planners had thought copper and cobalt prices would remain high. But the copper market crashed in 1974-75, and is still in a depressed state. World cobalt prices have also fallen markedly.
But many economists blame much of Zambia's problems on its inefficient largely state-run economy.
Like its northern neighbor Zaire, Zambia has incurred the displeasure of the IMF in failing to meet past conditions on borrowing and tighter fiscal management.
But Washington officials say there now is a recognition among Zambia's leaders that it must get its economic house in order. For example, Zambia devalued its currency by 20 percent against the special drawing rights to which it was pegged at the beginning of the year. It has also raised interest rates, reduced some price controls, while increasing the prices of such basic commodities as cooking oil, rice, and soap by up to 20 percent.
This was done to land a new financial arrangement with the IMF. Negotiations are in the final stages and the package is expected to come to some $230 million for one year. Monitor contributor Alexander MacLeod reports from London:
President Kaunda enjoys as lustrous a reputation in Britain as in Africa - if the attention focused on the Zambian leader's visit to Britain last week is any measure.
Kaunda, known as ''KK'' in Zambia, steered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher toward one of her early political successes - the 1979 independence talks that shaped Rhodesia's transition into Zimbabwe - and the prime minister went to great lengths last week to show her appreciation.
Mrs. Thatcher personally authorized nearly (STR)10 million ($14.6 million) in British aid for the ailing Zambian economy. The prime minister was also mindful that Kaunda was in the vanguard of heads of government condemning Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands last year.
She did not like Kaunda's advice last week that Britain move faster on talks with Argentina over the Falklands, but she listened. Kaunda also warned her that Western financial support for South Africa was dangerous.