For years, African problems and U.S. African interests have been the stepchildren of foreign policy. The Carter administration has not basically altered this long-standing pattern, despite its activist and pro-African rhetoric. Measurement by the level of effort, recent American diplomacy in Africa has not been backed by the real resources -- concrete financial and security tools plus political will and clear priorities at the highest levels of government -- that are required to support it.

At this moment the State Department and the various aid agencies are submitting Fiscal 1981 budget proposals to the White House. Once again, Africanist officials appear to have lost out in the annual scramble for budget resources. Sub-Saharan Africa will receive less than 10 percent of world-wide development assistance, minuscule portions of U.S. arms sales and security training, and well under 10 percent of the politically flexible budget aid known, misleadingly, as security supporting assistance. Africa ranks far behind the Mideast and Asia in all categories, and the modest year-to-year increases are in reality offset by inflation and other factors. The overall aid package falls short of African requirements and of past pledges by both the president and the secretary of state.

American black leaders have recently become a vocal pressure in urging officials and legislators to approve "massive increases" in U.S. aid for Africa. Their argument is that sub-Saharan Africa's 40-plus nations are receiving short rations when compared with other regions and with such leading recipients as Israel and Egypt. Many black opinion leaders would agree with former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young in viewing the future issue in Africa and the Third World as more a "battle for markets" than a political or military struggle. The clear implication is that Washington should sharpen and upgrade its economic tools.

These leaders are correct in focusing on the lack of resources behind our Africa policy. But increasing the level of U.S. assistance is only the first step. The administration's black critics have not offered us much in the way of an overall strategy that would justify the additional sums. It will not do to deal with Africa from essentially philanthropic premises, flinging money at a continent as though it were a United Givers Fund beneficiary. Some guidelines are needed.

First, our national interests in Africa are not self-executing. There is a pressing need for greater U.S. influence and effectiveness in the region -- a need that is not met by seeking to win a beauty contest with the other outside powers active in the area. Equally important, Africa's problems must be squarely faced, as well as its great potential. Political fragmentation, economic stagnation, refugee problems and domestic and regional strife are important features of the scene. Despite political independence, many states remain highly dependent on outside actors. As a result, the continent is a tempting place for outsiders in search of U.N. votes, military bases, global political prestige or old-fashioned grandeur. Moreover, it is a region in flux after several decades of largely Western orientation, both politically and economically.

In these circumstances, it is not helpful to obscure the issues, as both the administration and some black leaders do, by claiming that our interests coincide with "Africa's interest." Such a claim misreads the very nature of foreign policy, and it trivializes Africa's complexities. Nor can our policy have as its main objective to displace from African markets and development projects our West European allies, who have a more natural interdependence with Africa than we do. Rather, the U.S. economic interest is to encourage African growth and a continued Western economic orientation from which all parties would benefit.

Second, growing instability in Africa demands a balanced and cautious approach, engaging American resources in both the security and the development fields. If African security problems get worse, trade and development are unlikely to prosper. This does not mean that Washington should seek to create a new Pax Americana in the region, or that it should respond reflexively to each Soviet move. But the United States should shed its complex about arms sales, military training and political support for friendly governments facing severe security problems. Security assistance should be directed toward strengthening the foundations for stability and growth of Africa's more decent, durable and (let's say it) helpful political systems.

Third, the traditional bureaucratic trap of evaluating all aid submissions on a country-by-country basis should be avoided. Tanzania cannot compete effectively with Turkey for resource transfers; nor can Senegal hope to achieve the same degree of recognition as Israel or Egypt, despite its contributions to peacekeeping in southern Lebanon. But black Africa as a region does weigh heavily in the American diplomatic balance, and the needs of selected countries would get higher priority if considered in a regional context.

Fourth, our strategy should focus more on the needs of moderate African leaders. They have proved to be an effective stabilizing force over the years. Yet all too often in the recent past we have ignored their appeals for security assistance and various forms of budgetary support. Our refusal, combined with our inordinately cumbersome requirements for development aid, erodes the confidence and the regional credibility of these leaders.

Finally, Washington needs to develop more flexible approaches to Africa's political and economic problems. This means a capacity to respond effectively to refugee problems and infrastructure bottlenecks, to provide support to governments under going short-term financial or security difficulties, to support tangibly and promptly those governments prepared to cooperate with our diplomatic initiatives in southern Africa and elsewhere.

Rhetoric without resources will accomplish little. By the same token, it is quite clear that congress and the American people are unlikely to approve increased resources for Africa without a coherent and persuasive explanation of why they are required and how they will be used.