The executive board of the International Monetary Fund may liberalize its lending policies to encourage member countries to ask for help "at an early stage of difficulty," IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus disclosed yesterday.

In a speech to central bank governors in Singapore, he said the new policy is likely to require additional lending resources from all IMF member countries.

The centerpiece of Camdessus' proposal to the executive board is that it consider the advance commitment of "contingent resources in specified amounts" that would assure political leaders of Third World countries that if they undertake difficult policy reforms the IMF will make help available promptly.

This potentially significant shift in IMF policy would be aimed particularly at middle-income countries, such as those in Latin America with heavy international debt burdens.

In recent years, Camdessus said, members have been slow to ask the fund for help, requiring the fund to impose more strict borrowing conditions. This, said Camdessus, has fostered the impression that the IMF is "harsh" and has created serious tensions with borrowing countries.

IMF sources said that the proposal, in an early stage of discussion, was made recently by Camdessus as part of his pledge to get the agency to respond more imaginatively and flexibly to member countries' needs.

Camdessus already has brought to fruition one such initiative on behalf of the low-income countries, a new Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility that has tripled concessional aid funds to more than $12 billion.

Camdessus said in his speech that a continuing "fragile" world economic outlook creates the need for assistance to many countries for longer periods of time than once thought necessary. Those poorer countries willing to make "adjustments" -- economic changes and reforms -- will be helped by the expanded adjustment facility, he said.

But Camdessus noted that the IMF has "a weak spot" in its ability to encourage middle-income countries to undertake similar reforms, except for short-range periods in connection with its Extended Fund Facility (EFF), which has seen little use since 1984.

He said that in addition to the sheer size of the balance of payments deficits accumulated by some of these countries, there "is a growing sense of adjustment fatigue in many countries, coupled with an increased vulnerability to adverse external developments." As a result, the IMF staff has concluded, some governments find it politically impossible to take bold actions that are critically necessary.

Camdessus acknowledged that setting up a contingency mechanism would be complicated, and that its purpose would be "to provide assistance only where factors substantially beyond a country's control had a significant net impact on the country's balance of payments."

Camdessus said the IMF must try to encourage earlier reliance on the fund "while remaining a prudent institution" by amending the way in which it does business. He conceded that if, as a consequence, the fund lends more money, it will need more resources, and that these should be provided through the Ninth General Review of quotas -- deposits by member countries -- now under consideration by the various member governments.