THE prospect of diverting Western aid from the third world to newly democratized Eastern Europe seems certain to embitter debate at the week-long special United Nations General Assembly session opening here today. Debt-burdened African countries have raised the issue with mounting insistence since the Soviet bloc began to crumble.
Assembly President Joseph Garba of Nigeria set the tone two weeks ago when he said ``as Eastern Europeans open up to embrace democratic principles, they have instantly become the favorites to receive Western aid and assistance which have never so freely been given to African countries.''
The outspoken Nigerian general said ``I hesitate to bring up a matter of race,'' but ``Western economic assistance, however minuscule, meant for African states will now be diverted toward the emerging, and white, democracies in Eastern Europe.''
In 1988, when this special assembly session was authorized, it was envisioned as a ``highest-level'' conference to create a blueprint for action to rescue the third world from economic stagnation and retrogression.
The UN released a paper in advance of the session, pointing to the ``tumultuous pace'' of economic and social change in Eastern Europe. It says that ``one troubling prospect is that foreign aid and credits from the most-developed countries might be routed toward Eastern Europe and ... away from the debt-stricken and impoverished nations of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia.''
Says the paper: ``it is feared that business investment that otherwise would seek cheap labor from the developing countries will turn instead to the low-priced but relatively skilled labor market in Eastern Europe.''
Similar expressions of concern, frustration, and anger have been voiced by third-world representatives in almost every development-related UN forum.
Recently, for example, the issue was raised at a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) board meeting. Speaker after speaker hailed the changes in Eastern Europe - while reminding UNICEF Director James Grant of his pledge that there would be no cutbacks for children of developing nations.
Eastern European delegates echoed Hungary's Mihaly Simai, who disavowed any intention of diverting third-world aid.
But simultaneously, he insisted on the right of the reformed European governments to receive additional assistance to buttress their transition to ``a democratic pluralistic system.''
Most observers agree that because of budget constraints, UNICEF cannot satisfy both the East and South.
Earlier this month, European integration and East Europe-Soviet restructuring dominated debates at a conference of the Commission on Transnational Corporations. Delegates were concerned that transnational corporations would divert investment from developing countries.
In Venice, diplomats at a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference advocated active support for Eastern Europe's reforms. They said that additional funds would be poured into Eastern Europe, though not at the expense of undernourished developing countries.
But observing that FAO conferees represented East and West European nations exclusively, diplomats here were skeptical.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, the so-called ``Group of 77'' developing countries demanded that the UN Conference on Trade and Development safeguard third-world interests ``irrespective of whatever social and economic systems'' evolve in Europe.
And Egypt's Mohamed Rifaah Sard says ``the dramatic political and economic changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union do not and should not diminish the importance of these countries in our foreign economic sector.'' He hopes East-South trade will expand via greater access to the East of third-world manufactured goods.
PROJECTED 1990 US FOREIGN AID BY REGION Africa total: $3.2 billion
All others $0.9 Middle East: $3.9 billion
All others $0.9 Pacific: $1.7 billion
All others $1.1 Central America: $1.0 billion
El Salvador $0.4
Others $0.6 Europe: $0.55 billion
All others $0.20 South America: $0.2 billion
All others $0.1 Source: US Agency for International Development