IN the 1960s it was Latin America and Asia; in the 1970s India and Bangladesh. Since the 1980s Africa has held the unflattering title,''the world's basket case.'' An outdated myth has blinded the thinking and policies of Western governments and corporations vis-a-vis Africa: that of a dark, still-unknown continent, beset by overwhelming challenges and led by corrupt elites who squander our money for their golden bathtubs. For most Westerners, African leaders have a whiff of Idi Amin - it is almost as if all German leaders were likened to Adolf Hitler. This myth has produced a dangerous marginalization. Up to the end of the cold war, assistance from both superpowers vying for Africa's attention was virtually certain; in recent years development aid has stagnated, and it actually fell by 13 percent in 1993. So did agricultural assistance from the World Bank: 1994 funding was a mere 15 percent of the $997 million given in 1990. Only five African nations have access to the information superhighway or are likely to gain access in the next decade. Africa's deepening isolation was tellingly symbolized in July when United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali visited Rwanda and neighboring nations, a region with more than 1 million refugees. The trip was greeted with an uproar of indignation by Western governments: The world's top diplomat had abandoned Europe during the height of the Balkan crisis (and its far smaller number of refugees). And no myth could be further from the truth. Unbeknownst to a world that does not seem to care, countless unsung leaders work silently for Africa's future - people like Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who demonstrated his belief that ''personal example can be a persuasive influence'' when he voluntarily transferred the leadership of Nigeria to an elected civilian government in 1979. He then started his own 32-hectare farm, which employs more than 400 workers, producing vegetables, seeds, and other crops as well as livestock; it provides training to local farmers and collaborates with crop and animal research institutes. In July, General Obasanjo was sentenced to a 25-year prison term in a secret trial by Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha, whose court accused the general and 39 other opposition members of plotting a coup. Despite protests by world leaders, today all 40 remain detained and without contact to the outside world; some have apparently been sentenced to death, others to life imprisonment. Obasanjo is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to men and women in all sectors of African society trying to make peaceful change against daunting odds. For instance: * Professor Wangari Matthai of Kenya took matters into her own hands to counter environmental degradation. She founded the ''Green Belt Movement'' and employed 50,000 women in planting more than 10 million trees in Kenya. President Daniel arap Moi's government jailed the award-winning environmentalist several times without trial, and only her visibility, coupled with an international community that cared enough to intervene, freed her. * Sam Nujoma of newly independent Namibia fought for his country's independence for 30 years as rebel leader of SWAPO, the South West Africa People's Organization. Now, as Namibia's democratically elected president, he fights for reconciliation and rural progress. Within two years, maize production has increased by 50 percent and millet production by 75 percent. * Joyce Mungherera, nicknamed ''General Joyce,'' built the Ugandan YWCA into one of Africa's largest nongovernmental organizations, with 1.5 million paid members and 1,000 staff, and made it a force for literacy, family planning, and improved incomes for rural women. When in the 1970s Idi Amin directly threatened Ms. Mungherera with execution unless she closed down the YWCA, she continued underground. No doubt Africa faces enormous ills whose persistence breeds resignation around the world. The continent has witnessed at least 20 civil wars in three decades, not counting small-scale, smothering tribal wars. It is the only continent where food production per capita is declining as population grows rapidly (Rwanda leads the pack with its 8.5 percent fertility rate). An average African today eats 10 percent less than 20 years ago. Most African societies lack a significant middle class: Countries tend to be steep hierarchies, from the head of state and government ministers at the top to rural women and children at the bottom. Women produce 80 to 90 percent of Africa's food, and in rural Cote d'Ivoire women work 47.6 hours each week (mostly unpaid), compared with 27.5 hours for men. An estimated 10 million Africans have been diagnosed with HIV and 2 million have died of AIDS, both figures being two-thirds of the world total. But while this is the only story we are getting, it is by no means the whole story. We do not hear about Africa's progress in drought prevention. We do not hear about the unprecedented wave of democratization and pluralism sweeping the continent (multiparty elections have been held in 34 of 42 sub-Saharan countries). We do not hear about people like General Obasanjo, Professor Matthai, President Nujoma, and Ms. Mungherera, who affirm that the responsibility to cope lies with Africans themselves. Obasanjo, who founded the Africa Leadership Forum to train future leaders, has said: ''In the last resort only we ourselves know what is really amiss with us and, what is more, only we as Africans can tell it as it is to ourselves. Our destiny ultimately lies in our own hands.'' He refused sympathy: ''The people of Africa are a proud and resourceful people. They have an enormous reservoir of natural resources. What they need are capital investment and technical know-how.'' Indeed, Africa needs our investment in human development (schools instead of big dams); investment in all of Africa (not just South Africa) as an emerging market; investment with a long view (beyond the current quarter); and investment in democracy and civic institutions. Unless constructive African leaders are supported by Western governments and corporations, they will fail, and African countries will backslide, a disastrous prospect in an interdependent world in which all major issues - environmental damage and AIDS, crime and drugs, population and refugees - transcend national borders.