The poor nations of the world have asked the rich nations for a larger share of the global wealth and have been told that they are out of order. ''They are asking for the earth. We're ready to give something, but not the earth,'' said a North American delegate after a world conference here intended to bring the ''have'' and ''have-not'' countries of the world closer together.
In terms of mere dialogue - more gentle persuasion and less fist-banging - the sixth United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD VI) was generally rated a success.
''This was the first time there has been a (UNCTAD) conference where there was no confrontation,'' said a leading Scandinavian delegate.
But the change in tactics was deceptive. For all the diplomatic graces, expressed in nonpolemical debates and the polishing of fine phrases in resolutions, UNCTAD VI showed that the industrialized North and the developing South are no closer to bridging the great economic divide that lies between them.
After UNCTAD VI creaked to a close July 3 - three days late - following nearly four weeks of exhaustive negotiations, a Caribbean diplomat summed up the frustration of many of his third-world colleagues:
''I don't know how to write up my report in a way that will convince my superiors back home that it was worth a four-week expense account,'' he said.
What the poorer nations wanted was billions of dollars from the richer nations to help refloat their economies marooned by the current world economic downturn. That downturn has left 94 of the 125 developing countries saddled with debts amounting to $700 billion.
What the poorer nations wound up getting were largely minor concessions.
They were offered no fresh financial commitments nor did they win approval for a doubling of quotas to the International Monetary Fund, which assists countries with balance-of-payments difficulties.
The Western powers did agree to try to halt protectionism by sticking to standstill provisions, but that fell short of their demand for a rollback of protectionist measures. On commodities, the third-world countries failed to carry the United States along with them on a conference resolution to ratify the common fund to boost low commodity prices.
The impotence that many delegates from developing nations felt after the conference underscored their lack of economic clout.
''When did you last hear of the OPEC weapon?'' said a European delegate. He alluded to the weakening of the third-world bargaining position since UNCTAD V in Manila four years ago when the oil-producing countries were in the ascendancy.
More than anything, UNCTAD VI stumbled because of a problem of perceptions.
At first the rich nations assumed that since the poor nations were adopting a conciliatory rather than confrontational stance, it signaled a moderation in the actual substance of their platform. It did not.
The developing world in turn misinterpreted the endorsement by the rich nations of their more moderate attitude as a sign of consensus that the two sides could move forward on the actual specifics of the third-world package.
They were wrong. They had misjudged the determination of the ''haves'' to hold on to the status quo. When after 21/2 weeks both sides suddenly realized they were not really in step, the conference began to unravel.
Central to everything was the radically different interpretation of what had produced the current world economic downturn and what measures should be taken to remedy it.
The developed countries largely view the problem as cyclical. In crude terms what they were saying to the poorer countries was: ''A world recovery is now in place. The benefits will trickle down to you because recovery means commodity prices will be stablized; your export prices will go up and you will be able to pay your debts.''
For these reasons, the developed world stuck to its guns. It was not about to upset a perceived global economic recovery by injecting additional liquidity through a new allocation of special drawing rights (central bank reserves created by the International Monetary Fund or IMF) or fiddling with existing financial institutions, such as the IMF or the World Bank.
The view of the developing countries is diametrically opposite. They see the world problems as structural, not cyclical. They do not hold with the trickle-down theory and are convinced that even if there is a recovery, another recession will only put them back in the economic hole out of which they are now trying to climb. The remedy, then, is a redistribution of world resources and a revamping of the global economic system that they say discriminates against them.
For many delegates here, the challenge is not only that UNCTAD becomes a place of conflicting and apparently irreconcilable demands, but that the participants are operating on different wave lengths.