For some time now, and especially since international interest and resources began to turn dramatically toward Eastern Europe last year, Africa has been struggling to find ways to ensure that the West continues to consider the world's neediest and most crisis-ridden region an important policy concern. But the overwhelming Western response to the invasion of Kuwait shows how tough this is going to be for a continent becoming increasingly marginalized in international policy terms. It is unimaginable, for instance, that any inter-African crisis would lead to a similarly strong international reaction.

Even before the Gulf crisis symbolically brought home how far the continent has drifted from mainstream Western interests, Africans were becoming skeptical of assurances that the turn toward Eastern Europe would not be at their expense. That skepticism had deepened last month, when the Houston international economic summit's aid deliberations focused not on Africa but on the Soviet Union. Since 1986, when the United Nations recognized the imperiled state of African economies, each of these summits had regularly adopted special measures to foster economic recovery on the continent. Before last year's summit in Paris, for example, Presidents Bush and Mitterrand had both announced their first-ever debt write-offs for a group of sub-Saharan countries.

It is clear that in the post-Cold War era, which has robbed Africa of whatever strategic significance that super-power rivalry provided it, the continent and its supporters have an extraordinary task ahead of them: to convince increasingly hard-headed policy makers of the need to assist a region whose problematic economies and poor future prospects seem less and less relevant to the growth of richer countries. This task will be made even more difficult if oil prices escalate and cripple African economies as well as Western aid budgets.

But in the long run, it is not the Gulf region but developments in Eastern Europe that pose the greatest challenges to African governments. Already under severe pressure from restive populations bridling at years of unfulfilling austerity programs, the continent has been confronted in recent months with a wave of demands for political pluralism triggered by popular repudiation of single-party rule in the Eastern-bloc countries. Adding to the pressure on governments in this area is the demand by senior U.S. and other Western officials that, as with Eastern Europe, the level of democratization within Africa will soon condition the amount of assistance allocated to it.

Everywhere one travels on the continent, one finds intense concern about these developments and conditionalities. Africans note that donors are not saying that political pluralism will lead to more aid, only that those countries not democratizing will receive less. Most Africans also know that the continent cannot possibly compete with Eastern Europe as a magnet for Western investment -- indeed, this had trickled to a virtual halt even in once-favored countries such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Kenya well before the new opportunities opened up in Eastern Europe.

So they suspect on the whole that the toughened donor attitudes actually herald a cutback on aid and a general disengagement from a region that is becoming more and more isolated geopolitically and economically.

Naturally, there is bitterness in many quarters about these new attitudes, as there is about the speed and volume of assistance being organized for developed Eastern Europe economies when compared with the slow pace of desperately needed debt relief and resource inflows for the world's most impoverished continent. There is particular bitterness over the fact that the seeming disengagement from the continent comes while the vast majority of African countries are pursuing politically risky economic policy reforms that had been urged on them by the donors as prerequisites for increased assistance and investment.

Donors have a right to play a role in determining how their aid is used and to encourage greater political pluralism and respect for human rights where it is needed. But crude conditionality -- which bases assistance on how strictly a country follows policies chosen by the donors -- is counterproductive. It might elicit compliance from resource-starved states, but it also breeds deep resentment.

In any event, no reforms will work unless they are, and are seen to be, nationally inspired. Nor can the diversity of African situations be addressed through the application of standard formulas that many donors advocate for all African countries.

Donors need to look carefully at how each country is proceeding in its own context. Most African countries have broken radically with their past orientations and have initiated actions that call for enormous sacrifices from their people and carry real risks for incumbent governments. Politically, many are moving to adjust to new domestic pressure for pluralism.

To succeed, such countries need less, not more, conditionality and more, much more, assistance. Their economic reforms will never succeed without such support, nor can the democratization donors are pushing for take place in a climate of extreme deprivation. The one bright spot in this long and uphill struggle is that Africa's needs for external assistance are minuscule when compared with the resources required for Eastern Europe and the major debt-distressed countries of the Third World.

The writer, a Kenyan, is editor in chief of Africa Recovery, a U.N. publication.