Pols and pundits toss the term "Third World" around loosely, as indeed they toss most terms, but the plight of underdeveloped nations really gets little diligent media attention. Channel 26 makes an effort to rectify that with "Global Links," a six-part documentary series that premieres at 10 tonight.

The half-hour reports were produced and directed by Jaime Martin-Escobal, also the host and narrator. He spent three years filming in more than 15 countries to compile a multifaceted portrait that is also a call for action and understanding.

In Part 1, "Traditions and the 20th Century," Martin-Escobal visits the Masai tribe of Kenya, rice farmers of Bali, and other agrarian societies where the past is not so much prologue as it is a contemporary way of life. Cinematographer David Hogoboom captures the hardships and joys of daily work. There are 200 million tribal people on earth, Martin-Escobal says, and they number "among the poorest of the poor."

One West African city spotlighted on the program is said to have remained virtually unchanged for a thousand years. These people definitely do not have cable.

Martin-Escobal doesn't crowd his program with expostulating experts, but one, anthropologist Sheila Walker, warns persuasively of the dangers of ecological imbalance brought on by hasty modernization. Martin-Escobal's key point is that traditions important and indigenous to a culture have to be respected as change, inevitably, occurs.

The third program in the series, "Women in the Third World," begins with a recitation of dismaying statistics: Women comprise one-half the world's population, do two-thirds of the work, yet receive only one-tenth of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of its property.

Visits to a West African village and to the Bolivian highlands, where women do arduous physical labor as part of the daily routine, illustrate and humanize the facts and figures.

From his Washington office, Martin-Escobal said last week he hopes "Global Links" will help correct a deficiency on television generally and public television in particular.

"I would like it to inform people of Third World issues about which we should all be concerned," Martin-Escobal said of the project. "If they are not resolved, they could bring chaos not only to the Third World but to all of human society."

Although the World Bank funded the series and is billed in the credits as having coproduced it (with WETA), Martin-Escobal, a producer of socially relevant documentaries for two decades, said editorial control remained his, and the series was conceived before the funder became involved.

Serious, dry and specialized, each installment of "Global Links" gets right to the hearts of its matters without prefatory delays or coy niceties. The program is instructive and concise, and if Martin-Escobal wants to think of "Global Links" as essentially a beginning, it is a good one.