Attention is not always paid when a third-world country takes the kind of self-correcting economic steps that the industrial world wants. Last week the United States government did pay attention to Zambia, whose President, Kenneth Kaunda, visited Washington in the midst of a drive to bolster the economy at home.
Headlines went to Mr. Kaunda's talk with President Reagan. He would like more US support for independence in nearby Namibia and justice in South Africa. He noted that the two men ''share an abhorrence of the apartheid system'' and agree it should be ended quickly for peace and stability in the region.
But President Kaunda also talked with US foreign aid administrator Peter McPherson. And Mr. McPherson gave strong backing to Zambia's economic reform program, including an austerity drive, currency devaluation, and incentives for higher crop production.
Zambia has been one of those third-world nations making the mistake of subsidizing food costs for urban consumers instead of supplying realistic rewards for the farmers producing the food. Food shortages have resulted, requiring substantial imports.
Meanwhile, there has been the problem of relying heavily on one major resource, copper, with prices depressed in relation to increased costs of production. The US administration has now acted to help by letting unwrought copper from Zambia be imported duty free. It may also ask Congress for more than the $29 million in economic aid already requested for Zambia.
Mr. Kaunda may have served Mr. Reagan by giving him a view of his African policy from the vantage point of a front-line state. Certainly Mr. Reagan could serve a deserving African leader by continuing to act on the idea of helping those who help themselves.