In his article "African Dilemma" {op-ed, Aug. 21}, regarding the U.S. foreign assistance program, Salim Lone thoughtfully expressed the fears and frustrations of many less-developed countries and of many international development assistance professionals. Mr. Lone may be surprised to learn that his article inadvertently underscored the suspicions harbored by many Americans about foreign assistance.

The public wishes to help the world's poor and oppressed, but it also has an abiding doubt that assistance, with the exception of famine relief, has any impact. The perception is that much of our assistance is misdirected, abused or wasted.

The new emphasis in foreign assistance, to which Mr. Lone objects, on political pluralism (free elections) and economic pluralism (free markets) has grown from the perception that one-party government and state-controlled economies have always become mechanisms for corruption and oppression. In the face of this, foreign assistance is overwhelmed by the problems of economic stagnation and capital flight.

Mr. Lone is quite correct that "no reforms will work unless they are, and are seen to be, nationally inspired." It does not follow, however, that the United States, with its limited budget, should not prefer to give priority to countries that adopt reforms.

During the past decade, the Agency for International Development has developed a significant ability to provide support to governments and groups within the less-developed countries that wish to implement reforms toward free elections and free markets. Perhaps both Mr. Lone and the American people would be a little less skeptical of our foreign assistance policies if they knew of the success of such AID initiatives as the creation of a Bureau for Private Enterprise and the Economic Policy Initiative for Africa and AID's efforts in a variety of countries to support free elections.

It is not, as Mr. Lone describes, "developments in Eastern Europe that pose the greatest challenge to African governments." There have been many important individual instances of successful or proposed reforms in Africa ranging from movement toward a multiparty system in Mozambique to abolition of government agricultural monopolies in Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and others. Without reforms, U.S. assistance will only continue to slow the rate of decline. On the other hand, there is a bright future for any African country that unleashes the creativity of its people. PAUL J. HAIRE Arlington

The writer is a former special assistant for international monetary affairs at the Agency for International Development.