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A best seller on -- less-developed countries?

In a quick trip to Washington former British Prime Minister Edward Heath told Congress and the public his anxieties over the maldistribution of wealth between "have" and "have-not" countries. His thoughts are incorporated in the so-called Brandt Report drawn up by a distinguished group of 18 international figures under the chairmanship of Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany, 1969-74. Their study, "North-South: A Program for Survival," is a best seller in Britain but little noticed in the United States. It comes as a paperback from the MIT Press.

Mr. Heath fears among other things that a series of defaults by the less-developed countries will touch off a run on the capitalist banking system. It would be cheaper to aid these countries now, he says, than risk what may come later.

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Some of his views are reinforced by an independent and particularly grim survey by Walter J. Levy, international oil expert, who says in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the inequilibrium between oil-producing countries and oil-buying countries may bring confrontations. The oil producers are piling up big balances, and their capacity to reinvest the money is stretched thin.

The oil producers (OPEC) might accumulate a surplus of $115 billion this year , and of $350 to $450 billion by 1985. What in the world will they do with it? The internal deficit of the customers buying their oil is $50 billion for the "haves" and $70 billion for the "have-nots." But for the latter the external obligation is the important thing: Their foreign debt might reach the horrendous total of $440 billion in 1981, he thinks. Mr. Levy throws up his hands. He doesn't quite see how this can be "recycled".

Mr. Heath is a calm, ruddy-faced, vivid figure whose face is already half-familiar to Americans from British caricatures. He has stepped out of a Punch cartoon. The story he brings is grave.

It is not only the problem of energy prices in less-developed countries (called, for convenience, "the South"), but the hunger, the poverty, the social unrest which their situation creates. The industrialized countries -- the North -- have grown tired of assisting the South, and their aid has diminished. Former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance made the same point recently at Harvard. The US is 13th, he says, among the 17 major industrial powers in percentage of GNP devoted to development assistance. "Disgraceful," he called it.

Mr. Brandt also looks at the fall-off of US aid with concern: "The most powerful and wealthy nation cannot be content to play a marginal role," he pleads.

What should be done? The Brandt Report is a handbook on the subject. One thing, of course, would be for the world just to spend less money on arms. Global military expenditures now approach $450 billion annually (half by the Soviets and the US). This is in a world where a billion of the 4.5 billion inhabitants go to bed hungry at night.

The report has no hesitation in recommending birth control, "family planning." Population explosion seems less violent than it used to be, but it is not easy for the non-statistically-minded to discern the difference: Over one million people are added to the population of the world every five days. The report suspends judgment on the outcome: "Whether the nightmarish vision of a hopelessly overcrowded planet in the next century can be averted depends gravely on what is done now to hasten the stabilization of population."

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Messrs. Heath and Brandt don't ask charity: The developing countries whose finances are stabilized are markets for United States farms and factories. Their well-being and stability are critical to us. Mr. Heath cited specifically the Caribbean and Jamaica. Since he testified, there has been a threat of a Jamaican uprising; said Mr. Heath to Americans before it happened, "For Caribbean stability you cannot wait until a left-wing movement sweeps Jamaica towards Cuba. The issues are too urgent.'

The foreign aid bill hung in the balance in Congress as he spoke.

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