Warning: it's dangerous for Americans to ignore the plight of the world's poor

DEMOGRAPHERS tell us that 950 out of every 1,000 people born between now and the end of the century will be born in the third world. Only 50 will occupy space in the industrialized world of East and West. American politicians are morally right to reexamine the meaning of Nazism and to wrestle with the pros and cons of intervention in the affairs of 2.8 million Nicaraguans. But they are dangerously negligent if they fail to develop creative policies for dealing with the massive problem accumulating in the rest of the third world.

Three factors have tended to make American political leaders ignore the problems of the global South:

1. They have fixed on Soviet-American nuclear relations and Mideastern oil lifelines as being so vital as to wipe out concern for other strategic questions.

2. They have tended to accept the neoconservative view that third-world leaders constitute a monolithic bloc that is anti-first world (the West) and pro-second world (the communist East).

3. They have become complacent because the third-world debt problem appears to be patched up.

It is understandable (and proper) that nuclear arms control be a major aim of America and its Western allies. It is understandable that keeping the flow of Mideastern oil open remains a high priority, particularly for Japan and Western Europe. But that should not so monopolize policy planning as to overshadow at least two global needs of equal long-term importance.

One is the need to get investment capital flowing into at least the more promising parts of the third world. The other is to tackle with the governments of tropical nations methods for ending the obliteration of rain forest and grassland that endangers the atmosphere and rainfall of the globe.

Last week's 30th anniversary conference of third-world leaders in Bandung, Indonesia, serves as a reminder of how oversimplified is the neoconservative view that the South is anti-West and pro-communist. In the three decades since the first Bandung Conference, a few African nations have flirted with, then rejected communism. The three Indochinese states have been embroiled in communist experiments or invasions. Cuba has become a client of Moscow. The rise and fall of romantic Ch'e Guevarism caused anxiety in Latin American governments.

But, overall, the Afro-Asian-Latin world has sampled the smorgasbord of political systems available to its leaders since decolonization swelled its ranks in the mid-1950s, and has rejected the Stalinist-Marxist model. Guinea, Ghana, Egypt, and Sudan showed Soviet advisers the door. Mozambique has more recently turned Westward. Angola seems tempted to do likewise when the opportunity arises. Zimbabwe did not ally it self with Moscow as some diplomats had forecast. Countries like Tanzania, which adopted a form of socialism, have recently been studying China's turn toward a free-market economic system.

The original Bandung conference was a meeting of stars. India's Nehru, Indonesia's Sukarno, Egypt's Nasser, China's Chou En-lai, and Ghana's Nkrumah were all staple heavies or heroes in world media. When they organized their club at Bandung, the sessions brought together more Fathers of Their Countries than any previous diplomatic parley. Their theme was that newer and poorer nations could jointly influence the two superpower blocs to moderate the cold war, moderate weapons development, and invest instead in developing the newcomers.

Thirty years later that theme is still valid. But in the meantime many of the developing nations have done their bit to add to the world's $850 billion annual arms bill. And, although the roving third-world stars were mostly replaced by leaders who looked inward to development at home, that development has often concentrated on expensive show projects.

That's why a major aim of North-South negotiations ought to be to further the idea of third-world acceptance of more private-sector investment. That investment should emphasize profitable, job-creating, smaller-scale industries. Planners North and South have learned from such excesses as the world binge of building steel plants, which has left us with global overcapacity and export dumping. Such dumping and government subsidies are uneconomic. It has added to the recent rise in protectionism that is exactly what the world economy does not need. Trade expansions, not barriers, are needed if even the interest on debt is to be paid, if youths are to have jobs, and if income and productivity are to grow.

The world economy today faces the risk that none of the major debtor nations will ever pay back principal, and that Peru, Argentina, Chile, or Nigeria could halt repayment even of interest. To avoid such default, world trade must grow. Stagnation or retrenchment will not do.

Third-world leaders ought to resist the instinct to make Western private investment more difficult. That is precisely the wrong reaction to the squeeze from debt owed to Western banks. It restricts the ability of third-world economies to grow.

The Bandung leaders have the dramatic example of their fellow Asian states on the Pacific rim -- South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand -- to confirm the value of such investment. Hard work and a free-market economy are the other ingredients. That's the best way to greet those 950 out of each 1,000 new additions to the world labor, learning, and consumer pools.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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