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The right signal on debt

THE United States is sending the right message in promising a less confrontational approach toward meeting credit needs of third-world nations. The shift in US policy - underscored last week by both President Reagan and Treasury Secretary James Baker III - does not mean that the credit spigots from the US and other Western nations will be opened wide. But it does mean that Washington recognizes the desirability of stepped up financial help for the hard-pressed nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The ``huge debt burden carried in the third world,'' President Reagan told delegates at last week's meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, ``is not just their problem.'' It is, he correctly observed, ``our problem,'' requiring cooperation.

Mr. Reagan's helpful message on the debt front was followed up by Treasury Secretary Baker, who indicated US willingness to increase the resources of the World Bank, to be slightly more flexible on the reforms third-world nations must make before getting loans, and to find ways to cushion debtor nations from higher interest rates.

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Mr. Baker also broached the idea of using the price of gold as one element in a market basket of commodities to help coordinate economic policies among Western nations. Exactly what Baker had in mind is unclear. Some analysts speculate that he was merely taking account of the importance of gold enthusiasts, many of whom are prominent Republicans.

The gold issue aside, the news out of the World Bank-IMF meeting last week was positive: The emphasis is clearly on the need for continued global growth, including growth within the third world.

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