Trying to draft a plan to reduce third-world debt

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank await orders to intervene more actively in one of the worst international debt crises in history.

Officials meet here Sept. 27-30 to try to figure out the best way to use the banks' resources to solve the world debt problem.

The meeting is set to take place as the United States Congress wrestles with President Reagan's request for an additional $8.4 billion for the IMF. This is part of the $42 billion increase in contributions that members of the international lending agency agreed to earlier this year.

Opponents of the measure ask, in essence, ''Why should US taxpayers bail out international banks that have gone in over their heads?''

The administration answers that it will be the worse for everybody if the rescue attempt doesn't start.

Among the world's current crises, this seems the one least understood by the American in the street. But its scope is huge.

Brazil can't make repayments on a $90 billion foreign debt; a year ago Mexico nearly defaulted on foreign loans. Managing director of the First Boston Corporation, Pedro-Pablo Kuczynski, says, ''Latin American debt is a far graver problem than the debt . . . in other areas.'' Social unrest is ''a potentially explosive mixture,'' he says.

It's also touch-and-go for debtor countries elsewhere, which either borrowed heavily against oil revenues only to see the oil glut depress prices and hence their income, or were forced by skyrocketing oil prices to increase their borrowing to pay for oil imports.

The Senate has passed one funding bill and the House another, and the gulf between the two is wide. Each touches on the goal of a $8.4 billion increase in the US share of the proposed credit. The House narrowly accepted a series of restrictive amendments to broaden the bill's political appeal. Now comes bargaining with the Senate; as House amendments are thrown out, support is likely to diminish.

The IMF crisis comes when the international financial system is already questioned. The system is based on faith; experience shows that when this is weakened there is often a surge of demand for gold. Indeed, -Eugene J. Sherman, economist with the International Gold Corporation Ltd., has warned Congress that delays in passing the IMF aid package ''would start a new climb in gold prices.''

Foreign bankers argue that Americans and Congress have not seen the linkage between the proposed quota increase and world debts. Irritated by congressional delay, some big European nations and Saudi Arabia have vetoed another IMF request - for $6 billion advance ($3 billion from Saudi Arabia and $3 billion from Western European countries) to tide the fund over to next year. The veto is widely seen as an attempt to pressure Congress into passing the IMF aid bill.

World Bank president A. W. Clausen, whose organization provides loans to developing nations from contributions by its members, asks for a minimum donation of $16 billion to the bank's International Development Association, which makes interest-free, long-term loans to the poorest of developing nations. President Reagan says that $9 billion is enough. He would limit the US annual contribution to the IDA to $750 million.

Another way to meet the world debt problem, writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief in the New York Times, is a second Marshall Plan. Mr. Leontief, director of the Institute for Economic Analysis at New York University , says democracies should intervene to support private banks to meet the world credit shortage: He would combine government guarantees of old and new bank loans with large amounts of direct government assistance to poor nations.

This would be cheap, he says, compared with threatened financial collapse. In 1982, he says, the annual interest payments owed by all third-world countries was $27 billion. Combined annual military spending by advanced free-world nations on the other hand was $400 billion that year. He argues that governments of rich democracies should use some of their funds to lift the debt burden off the developing world.

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