WHEN IT COMES to helping Africans, there has been much rhetoric of late and considerably less action. Congress now has an opportunity to right the balance, at least in part. The House will vote, perhaps as early as tomorrow, on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is intended to encourage trade with and investment in sub-Saharan Africa. There are no good reasons to oppose the bill and a number of sensible ones to support it.

The United States has trade agreements with just about everyone in the world -- Asia, Europe, Israel, Mexico. Only Africa has been left out. This bill, backed by Republican Rep. Phil Crane and Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, among others, would allow African products to enter the United States free of duty or quota. It would provide a further incentive to African economies that already are seeking to help themselves.

Predictably if depressingly, the bill is opposed by the usual protectionist lobbies. African textiles comprise less than one percent of American textile imports, and in the most optimistic (by African lights) of circumstances they won't grow significantly beyond that. Yet the textile industry and its unions are raising alarms. So are some critics on the left, who regard the modest conditionality of the bill -- on human rights, labor standards and fiscal reform -- as a kind of neocolonialism. However, all of the supposed victims of this imperialist plot -- that is, the African countries themselves -- support the bill.

Of course, a modest trade bill isn't enough to rescue Africa's poorest nations, many of which hardly have the infrastructure to enter the global economy. They need aid and debt relief; this bill isn't a substitute for either, as its backers readily acknowledge. But even the poorest countries also need some hope of moving beyond aid dependency. The bill is a modest step toward that goal. As an overdue expression of U.S. interest and commitment, it is a more than modest step; its defeat would be a more than modest setback.