Pinpricks of light in third world's economic tunnel

Somewhere around noon civil servants in Bamako, the capital of the French-speaking West African state of Mali, drop their pencils and pens, clear their desks, and head outdoors. No, they are not going out for lunch.

Instead of a period of relaxation, they have something much more labor intensive on their minds - such as making ends meet by chopping wood, tending their vegetable plots, or running small chicken farms.

The government of Mali, one of the world's most impoverished states, is desperately short of cash. Invariably its civil servants don't get paid on time or don't get paid for months at a stretch. In such cases, working on the side not only becomes attractive. It is essential to stay alive.

Mali is one of scores of developing countries that are clinging to survival in the face of awesome economic odds. Teachers in other parts of West Africa and soldiers in Uganda also find that on occasions they go home empty-handed on payday. To cut costs, Senegal has eliminated more than a dozen of its embassies.

The recent worldwide slump in commodity prices, the massive $600 billion to $ 700 billion third world debt, and high interest rates mean that much of the third world has its back against the wall.

Yet there are flickering signs of an economic recovery in the developing world that give rise to hopes there is some light at the end of what has been a dark economic tunnel.

An American businessman who returned from the Orient last week says he noticed definite signs of a pickup in the three Asian countries he visited: Thailand, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Malaysia, another Asian country, will wipe out last year's trade deficit with a projected $43.9 million surplus this year, a result of a 9.7 percent economic growth rate over the previous year. This is largely due to an upswing in commodity prices.

Jamaica, one of the world's major producers of bauxite, is benefiting from the rapid pickup in demand for aluminum - one pointer to industrial recovery, at least in the United States. Roy Anderson, commercial attache at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, says: ''There is no question the recovery has started and is likely to continue. Certainly it will be global.'' He is not so sure, though, that the recovery can be sustained or that all developing countries will benefit.

A. K. Chowdhury, minister at Bangladesh's mission to the United Nations in New York, echoes that last caution. ''For Bangladesh the first signs of recovery have not yet had a perceptible impact. On a global basis, talk of recovery is too tenuous. Europe is still in the throes of a recession, and (recovery) is not pervading all the developing countries.''

The signs of a broad-based third world recovery are at best tentative. For every analyst who thinks the developing world is on the verge of an upturn, there is another expert who thinks it too early to draw sweeping conclusions from the positive indicators at hand. But among the encouraging indicators:

* Nominal interest rates have fallen well below their peak in 1981, according to the World Bank's 1983 World Development Report. The ratio of what is spent on servicing the third world's staggering debts against what these nations receive from export earnings is now expected to fall from a peak of 20.7 percent in 1982 to below 17 percent in 1984.

* Oil prices have come down. For net oil-importing developing countries every dollar off the price of a barrel of oil reduces the third world's annual import bill by approximately $2 billion.

* An appreciable rise in commodity prices. The World Bank's commodity price index shows commodity prices for 30 primary commodities rose 11 percent from January to July this year. Of all the indicators, this is seen as the most impressive harbinger of an economic turnaround in the third world. More than half the developing countries' earnings come from exporting raw materials.

And nowhere do commodities figure more prominently in third world economies than in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by the recession. Living standards there are lower now than they were a decade ago.

Commodities, which had reached their peak in 1980, slumped in the last quarter of 1982 to their lowest levels since 1950. It is estimated that between 1980 and 1982 the third world's aggregate loss in exports, resulting essentially from the plummeting of commodity prices, was $21 billion.

Among the countries hardest hit by the world's economic downturn are states that are overwhelmingly dependent on commodities. Take Zambia, for example. As much as 70 percent of its export earnings come from the sale of copper. But copper prices, reflecting the world's hard economic times, have been in the doldrums.

Development experts say that Zambia's standard of living has been cut by as much as half in recent decades by the copper slump.

An anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology who has monitored developments in Zambia over a long period of time sees disturbing signs of social dislocation caused by the economic downturn. According to his evidence, when Zambia was enjoying boom times in 1974 and again in 1980, about 10 percent of the people attributed adverse happenings to evil spirits. Now with increasing economic hardships because of the sharp falloff in copper prices, between 40 and 50 percent blame evil spirits - a trend that one development specialist familiar with Africa says points to a receding of civilization in Zambia.

Zambia, a major world supplier of copper, will be a principal beneficiary of the recent upsurge in the mineral's price. Copper has gone up from about 73 cents a pound last year to 88.25 cents a pound last Friday.

Certainly the jump in commodity prices has been a factor enabling Malaysia (principal commodities: rubber, petroleum, tin, palm oil, logs) to turn last year's trade deficit into a projected surplus this year.

The rise in many, but not all, commodity prices will boost desperately needed third world exports. And without the prospect of expanded export earnings, developing countries would be unable to sustain their debt service obligations and attract fresh flows of capital investment.

Not as readily discernible are the geopolitical implications of commodity prices.

In his recently published book, ''The Intemperate Zone: The Third World Challenge to US Foreign Policy,'' author Richard E. Feinberg says: ''US efforts to stabilize the governments of Mobutu (Sese Seko) in Zaire and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and to guarantee the liberalizing process in Peru were all hampered, although not fatally, by the fluctuating and generally weak international copper market. . . . The decline of coffee prices in 1980-81 severely affected the economies of Central America, including that of the US-supported junta in El Salvador.''

To what extent a sustained upsurge in commodity prices will help lift the depressed third world out of its economic trough is debatable.

The Reagan administration - which beat back a concerted effort by third world nations at the sixth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Belgrade last summer to bail out debt-ridden third world countries - has argued that the remedy for struggling developing nations is a global economic recovery.

That recovery, which Washington says originated in the US, is now believed to be in place and is expected eventually to trickle down to the third world. The recent lift in commodity prices is taken as an indicator of that global recovery.

But there are many in the third world which dispute this trickle-down theory. For some 35 third world countries, the so-called least developed countries who are poor in commodities, any surge in the price of raw materials is irrelevant, they say. These countries still need substantial aid and assistance if they are to survive.

Some third world critics charge that looking to the United States to pull the rest of the world - including eventually the third world - out of recession is to give either the US more credit than it deserves or to overlook the fact that the US itself is blamed by some developing countries for their economic problems.

The US is under attack for its huge budget deficit and for introducing high interest rates, which have compounded the debt problems in third world countries.

The International Monetary Fund estimates, for example, that higher interest rates alone have accounted for almost 40 percent of the increase in the external trade deficits of non-oil developing countries since 1979.

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