The Marshall Plan was rooted in a sense of enlightened US self-interest. With Germany and much of continental Europe in ruins, the spectre of Thirties- style mass unemployment, instability and future conflict loomed large. Reading the debates which accompanied the Marshall Plan one is struck by the fact that the case for assistance to Europe was couched not in terms of aid, but of hard-nosed investment. Failure to support recovery in Europe, so the argument ran, would undermine markets for American exports, and cost jobs at home.
At the time the plan was agreed, the US was delivering two per cent of its national income to assist European recovery, laying the foundations for two decades of unprecedented growth. Today, when America's wealth is three times greater, it is providing one 20th of this amount in development assistance to the world's poorest countries.
It is a similar picture elsewhere. As a group the OECD countries have spent the Nineties emasculating their aid budgets, with particularly damaging consequences for sub-Saharan Africa. Developing assistance flows to the region has fallen by a quarter since 1992. Meanwhile, a catastrophic slump in prices for primary commodity exports has wiped an estimated five per cent off regional GDP since the early Eighties. Add to this lethal combination a crushing foreign debt and you have the ingredients of a disaster.
On average, African incomes have been falling by one per cent a year since 1980. As living standards in much of Asia and parts of Latin America forge ahead, Africa is becoming a continent apart. In 30 years, per capita income has halved from an already low base. The result is that preventable infectious disease claims the lives of almost one in five children. More than 40 million children are not in primary school and the numbers are rising.
Can Africa's apparently relentless slide be halted? New hope is emerging in the region itself. In countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Mozambique, a new generation of self-confident leaders is emerging. They are committed to breaking the shackles of dependence and forging a more self-reliant future. In a handful of countries economic recovery is taking fragile root.
Yet the obstacles remain formidable, with governments lacking the resources to restore the social and economic infrastructures needed to sustain growth.
International support for Africa's recovery efforts remains lamentably inadequate. Next month, the Clinton administration plans to launch an Africa Growth and Opportunity Plan. Marshall Plan it is not. Reduced to its essentials, the US initiative offers limited trade preferences, no new aid, and vague pledges of private capital flows. Africa needs much more. It needs an international plan of action which removes the crippling burden of debt and mobilises investment finance for economic infrastructure, health and education.
The British government could help to make such an agenda possible. It should challenge the Clinton administration to accept deeper and earlier debt relief under the IMF-World Bank debt initiative. And it could use the Denver summit to call for an international effort - to raise the cash to get Africa's children back in school, making education a priority abroad as at home.
Reversing Africa's marginalisation will not be cost free. Then again, neither is the alternative. Rising poverty is fuelling social and political tensions across the region, culminating in extreme cases in the collapse of states, with devastating humanitarian consequences for Africa and the rest of the world. The question for the international community is whether it wants to respond to the growing number of crises that will follow Rwanda, Liberia and Zaire. Or whether it wants to seize the opportunities for peace, stability and self-reliance which are now emerging.
The writer is Oxfam's senior policy adviser.