Helping the third world. Famine and debt are two staggering problems that Africa faces. They point to a broader need to overcome underdevelopment in the third world. A consensus is now emerging on how to alleviate underdevelopment.

LAST year, Africa's food crisis focused world attention on the plight of millions of famine victims. The result: an unprecedented mobilization of public concern and money to feed a starving continent. Less noticed, the famine also triggered a debate among experts and policymakers over the failings -- and the future -- of American and international efforts to address the worsening problem of third-world underdevelopment.

``The famine has added poignancy to the realization of how difficult development is,'' says a senior official at the United States Agency for International Development (AID).

One report says that ``proliferating and overlapping projects have drained the administrative energies of African officials and left the continent's landscape strewn with rusted-out bright ideas.''

Since World War II, the US alone has given nearly $150 billion in humanitarian aid to foreign countries. Even so, 800 million people still live in absolute poverty, according to UN figures. Five hundred million are malnourished. Countless millions have no access to potable water, to the income necessary to purchase food, or to protection against the consequences of natural disasters and environmental degradation.

Meanwhile, third-world development efforts are threatened by huge external debts and by birthrates that promise to double the world's population by the year 2000, and to quadruple Africa's population by the year 2025.

All this has sent development experts back to the drawing board to draft new blueprints for the future.

Liberals say the critical need now is a transfusion of new foreign aid for the third world, combined with efforts to alleviate the debt crisis that burdens development efforts in Latin American and Africa.

Conservatives stress market reforms as the key to unleashing third-world economic growth.

But between them, small but important common ground now exists.

``I don't think there's any absolute model of development. But I do think there are some fundamentals,'' says AID administrator M. Peter McPherson. These fundamentals include an emphasis on free-market forces, combined with the outside resources needed to make training and technology more available to developing countries, Mr. McPherson says. ``Yes, you need the resources, but that's only one side of the equation,'' he added. ``The way they're being used and what countries do for themselves are at least as important.'' Thorny problem of underdevelopment

Many Western analysts view underdevelopment as a problem indigenous to the third world. They note that, for years, government-run agricultural pricing boards, responding to rapid urban growth, have adopted policies that favor urban consumers over rural producers. As a result, there are fewer farmers at a time when rapidly growing populations and bad weather combined to create the current food crisis.

They also point out that even the best development efforts have difficulty keeping pace with racing third-world birthrates or working around the dislocations produced in regions prone to political violence. In recent years, five civil or cross-border wars in Africa alone have bedeviled famine relief efforts, driven farmers off the land, and swelled refugee populations to over 10 million.

Many third-world leaders, on the other hand, say the real sources of underdevelopment are external. They say the legacy of centuries of colonial rule has been the collapse of economic self-sufficiency, especially in Africa. Colonial policies that forced farmers to grow for export, rather than local consumption, have left African economies more dependent, more vulnerable to fluctuations in the international economy.

As world prices of commodities grown or produced in the developing world have plummeted, developing nations have been left without the hard currency needed to import food supplies or invest in the domestic economy. What income poor nations do earn often goes to repay debts to anxious foreign bankers, extending the cycle of dependence and poverty.

Whatever the underlying cause of underdevelopment, getting at the roots of third-world poverty has been complicated by confusion over appropriate development strategies. A cacophony of voices full of contradictions

``All the talk of development and partnership in development does not really reflect a consensus on what development is or how it might be realized,'' writes Claude Ake, professor of political economy at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria. ``Below the surface appearance of common concerns is a cacophony of voices talking different languages, swaying policies here and there, and filling them with contradictions.''

During the 1960s, experts agreed that the key to development was injecting enough foreign aid and private investment into a given economy to force it to ``take off,'' much as the economies of many developed nations ``took off'' at the start of the industrial revolution. Among international donors, the accent was on ``infrastructure'' development: building roads, dams, and hospitals.

In one region, the theory worked. Four East Asian states -- Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- parleyed outside aid and a skilled local labor force into phenomenal export-led economic growth. But in many other parts of the world, where the emphasis remained on increasing agricultural exports, economic gains were modest. Such gains often enriched only local elites, largely bypassing the impoverished majority.

During the 1970s, aid-giving was partially refocused on meeting basic needs. Multilateral and bilateral donors began investing in new housing and health-care projects for the poor. Accomplishments of the period include the ``green revolution'' that made India nearly self-sufficient in agriculture and declines in third-world infant mortality rates. But in Africa in particular, such aid was often too little, too late and -- by failing to build on successful indigenous self-help enterprises -- often misapplied.

``The problem with this `basic needs' approach was that outside donors continued to superimpose their own solutions instead of learning from local experience,'' says Steven Hellinger, co-director of the Development Group for Alternative Policies.

Meanwhile, major donors like the World Bank, in what it now describes as ``white elephants,'' continued to invest heavily in large, technology-intensive projects now widely considered to be inappropriate to third-world needs. Relatively small amounts of foreign aid went into agriculture. Less still reached rural areas, where 70 percent of all Africans still live.

``Scattered projects based on Western models have done little to stimulate agricultural production,'' says Bill Rau of Bread for the World, a Washington-based development group. ``What's worse, they've strengthened the trend that began in the colonial era towards producing crops and minerals for exports instead of self-sufficiency.''

Thus, despite some notable success stories, especially in East and West Asia, the generally worsening crisis in the third world has forced many development experts to acknowledge the shortcomings of past policies.

``Most donors, including international institutions, have jumped from one fad to another to justify development expenditures -- from the support of infrastructure development, to a concern with basic human needs, to the most recent heavy focus on agriculture and encouragement of the private sector,'' concludes a group of development specialists in ``The Compact for African Development,'' a report issued recently by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Overseas Development Council.

``In reality, a properly executed, long-term development process probably requires a balance of all these approaches and others.''

Today, many conservatives continue to emphasize a free-market approach that emulates the experience of Singapore and Taiwan. They say the developing nations should concentrate on exporting food, raw materials, and labor-intensive manufactures in exchange for technology and industrial goods from the developed countries. In the prosperity that would follow, they argue, the benefits of this ``export-led'' growth would ``trickle down'' even to the poorest.

Others disagree, saying the internal mechanisms to make the fair distribution implied in ``trickle down'' economics just don't exist in most countries. Even if they did, they add, export-led growth may now be an anachronism.

``The economic conditions that made `success' stories like Korea and Taiwan possible no longer exist,'' says John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies. Mr. Cavanagh points out that the trade growth and open markets of the 1960s have given way to the low growth and protectionism of the 1980s.

``Developing countries have no chance of copying Korea,'' says Cavanagh. ``To force export-led growth now can only lead to disaster.'' Consensus on development emerges

Although there's no agreement on an overall strategy for dealing with underdevelopment, experts note the emergence of a consensus on key tactical approaches in Africa, where the development crisis is most severe:

Rejuvenation of small-scale agriculture. Specialists agree that one key to Africa's food future will be refocusing development aid on smaller-scale, more intensive agriculture at the grass-roots level, where numerous private voluntary organizations have been active for years. Raising the output and income of small farmers, through training in soil conservation, food processing, and basic agricultural marketing techniques, will provide the key to self-sufficiency in the future.

``Combining the knowledge of peasant farmers with outside resources is absolutely critical to African recovery,'' says Lloyd Timberlake of Earthscan, a London- and Washington-based development group.

Structural reforms. Making it worthwhile for farmers to grow more food will require major policy changes in developing countries, where food prices have been kept artificially low for political reasons.

To prod reform, outside donors will need to increase ``structural adjustment'' programs. Usually in the form of balance-of-payments support, such programs provide the extra foreign exchange needed to help governments devalue their currencies (thus making exports more attractive on the world market) -- or to buy food or import more consumer goods to blunt the political impact of higher food prices in urban areas.

Expanding the ``green revolution.'' During the 1950s, new strains of higher-yielding, more productive crops were introduced in Asia and Latin America. Combined with better agricultural management techniques, they produced the so-called green revolution that helped transform countries like India into agricultural self-sufficiency. Duplicating the green revolution in Africa wouldn't be easy, experts say. But research can be intensified to develop tropical and arid food crops.

Controlling population growth. Over 90 percent of the world's population growth is occuring in the third world. Experts agree that the increased demand for food, shelter, jobs, water supplies, health care, and sanitation posed by such growth -- and by rapid urbanization -- has put enormous pressures on many third-world governments.

Many experts say family-planning services need to be made more widely available. They urge broader support for international agencies like Planned Parenthood and the UN Fund for Population Activities to help individual countries establish national plans for population control.

``Supply-side'' economists say such direct intervention to reduce birthrates may be unnecessary, since economic growth itself will eventually result in reduced family size.

Debt relief. As former World Bank president Robert McNamara notes, Africa's external debt of $100 million accounts for only 10 percent of total developing-country debt. ``But in relation to Africa's ability to repay,'' writes Mr. McNamara, ``the burden is staggering.'' In Africa, debt service amounts to two-thirds of all external aid, hurting prospects for economic development.

To relieve the debt burden, experts recommend stretching out third-world debt-repayment schedules. Many also urge creditors to accept repayment in local currencies, thus making scarce foreign exchange available for domestic investment or badly needed imports.

Many experts agree that the success of any strategy for third-world economic development will depend on the availability of major outside financing to develop infrastructure, to provide emergency relief, and to create incentives for third-world governments to make needed policy reforms.

In a recent report to Congress, McNamara called for major increases in direct US assistance, plus increased support for the World Bank and other multilateral lenders. The ``Compact for African Development'' calls for increasing US aid to Africa to $3 billion a year.

But given current budget pressures, analysts say such increases are not in the cards.

``We're faced with the real world of [the] Gramm-Rudman [budget-balancing law]. Just so much is available for foreign aid,'' says AID administrator McPherson.

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