ROME — Rome. As large parts of Africa slide further into the economic mud, as famine again rages through Ethiopia and the Sudan, as the African National Congress postures in a way sure to undermine the powerful South African economy, we are tempted to throw up our hands in despair and agree with those who call Africa a continent in dereliction and decay, moving backward as the rest of the world is moving ahead.
There is a tendency, seen in the influential Foreign Affairs article on future objectives of American foreign policy, co-authored by the past secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance, just to ignore the very existence of Africa.
To do so is grossly unfair. Africa can produce all the ingredients of recovery: economic growth, agricultural productivity, democracy and able political leadership. The problem is not that these don't exist in Africa. The problem is their insufficiency.
Reasons for optimism? Here are a few:
Although famine stalks the mountains of Ethiopia and the desert of the Sudan, for the continent as whole food production has risen faster than population the last five years. This is the first time in 20 years that Africa has had such agricultural success. Better weather was one reason, but economic reform was a critical contributor.
Four countries in Africa have been consistently high performers -- Botswana, Cameroon, Lesotho and Mauritius.
A larger group of countries, not doing so well right now, have had long enough periods of good growth in the recent past to reveal their potential once economic reforms are allowed to work themselves through: the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi, Niger, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
The much maligned, but quite aggressive, economic reform based on ''stabilization'' and ''structural adjustment'' inflicted by the the medicine men of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has done good even while it hurt. It has prepared the way for a better future.
Critics of the squeeze argue that reform has not produced the results promised. True, the earlier optimism of the doctors from Washington was misplaced. They believed too simply that if they got prices right, supply would look after itself. But in Africa, where the environmental and political obstacles are so severe, it is a lot more complicated than that.
Nevertheless, a number of countries with strong reform programs have made significant advances. Ghana and Guinea have averaged growth rates of 5 percent over the last four years. For the rest reform has at least halted the terrible slide.
What we need now is less pointless rhetoric from African leaders blaming Africa's belt tightening, cuts in social services and education on the IMF and the World Bank. They must be clear about the causes of this pain. It was brought on by the economic chaos inflicted mainly by their bad management. To hold the U.N.'s financial institutions responsible is to blame the medicine for the disease.
At last reform, getting to grips with the essential African malaise, is shifting the balance of advantage back to the farmers. For too long farmers, the backbone of the economy, have been politically impotent while the urban elites who are economically parasitic have been politically dominant.
Population growth has long been Africa's burning necklace. Fifteen years ago African governments wouldn't even acknowledge the problem. Now they do. Zimbabwe has shown that given government programs ordinary African families will take to family planning -- its number of births per women is down to nearly five, compared with the continent's average of seven.
Africa is beginning to realize democracy is important as a way of legitimizing the profound changes now necessary for survival. The countries with the best economic record over the last 20 years, Cameroon, Mauritius, Lesotho and Botswana, have either been democratic or at least benignly authoritarian; those with the worst, Zaire, Ghana and Uganda, had corrupt and capricious dictatorships.
Fourteen of the ex-French colonies started down democracy road in the course of 1990. In Portugal's former colonies Marxism once universally triumphant is dead, and democracy is either being practiced or seriously promised. In English-speaking Africa two of its most influential countries, Zambia and Nigeria, have promised elections.
Africa does not have to be downwardly mobile. Most of it indeed is beginning a slow, arduous, but definite revival in fortune. Mood is infectious. Pessimism, especially from outsiders, is debilitating. Let us cheer Africa on, encourage the real promise of a brighter tomorrow and do our part with aid and expertise to turn the wheel.