If you are like me, listening to Pope John Paul II's critique of world development, you wondered how on earth we could generate the compassion and spirituality he identified as the chief remedy for world poverty. Listening to Fidel Castro's critique, you found it flawed by his harping on the iniquities of "imperialism."

You then heard that a West Indian-born Princeton professor, a British citizen named Sir W. Arthur Lewis, had won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work in development. Could he possibly offer a formula that would be at once helpful to the world's poor and within mortal -- and Western reach -- as well? That seems to me to be what Americans want these days as they contemplate the spectacle of widespread global poverty's being piteously aggravated, as it is, by world recession: something effective, possible to do and politically palatable all at the same time.

It is perhaps the characteristic failing of Americans to keep setting these three conditions on our international involvement. They no doubt constitute too heavy a demand to make even on a Nobel laureate whose Caribbean background and Western training and experience would seem to make him an ideal leader of North-South dialogue.

Still, I did a bit of work on him -- including calling him and some of his friends and critics and reading his latest essay -- and I learned some things that seemed to me to make sense.

Lewis does not come across as a moralist or revolutionary but as a soft-spoken academic economist who is a physical emigre, but not an intellectual emigre, from the Third World: he serves his people from a distance. He is struck these days by the particular dimensions of the less developed countries' (LDCs) situation. In the 25-plus good growth years after World War II, they linked their fortunes -- largely through trade -- to te more developed countries (MDCs). When the MDCs fell into recession after 1973 (thanks in particular to the oil price increases), some LCDs were left in the lurch.

So the question now is to figure out whether trade growth will resume and, since no one can be sure, to plan for different contingencies. Poor countries certainly would not want to miss the relief that would come if the recession ended and global trade speeded up, but neither should they leave themselves at the mercy of an expansion that may not materialize.

The answer, Lewis believes, starts with agriculture. He is known for his work emphasizing the importance of agriculture -- as against industry -- in growing food, supplying jobs and saving foreign exchange in developing countries. He has seen this become the conventional wisdom among development professionals and lenders even as poor countries, their heads turned by visions of industrial prowess, still tend to resist it.

Lewis, you can see, is not hung up on the ideological formulations that provide the drama of confrontation some countries crave and that draw them into high-technology, high-capital development projects that they need like a hole in the head.

He also believes that LDCs should explore more vigorously what possibilities there are for expanding their domestic markets, individually and collectively, for their own food, fertilizer, cement and steel -- the key items. "If MDCs will not play the game, i.e., will not take imports from LDCs, then LDCs have no option but to trade with each other." To me, indisputable.

"In the end," Lewis concludes, "the question whether LDCs can continue to grow rapidly while MDCs stagnate turns not on trade but on the dynamism of the LDCs themselves. Trade will sort itself out if prices are allowed to reflect real costs. But growth has in the past been driven by trade; whereas our scenario calls for trade to be driven by growth.

"What then will drive growth? In [Walt] Rostow's terms it will then turn out that some of the LDCs have already reached the stage of self-sustaining growth, while others have not. The self-sustainers are going to make it whether the rest of the world grows fast or slowly. The rest still need a background of world prosperity if they are themselves to prosper. So the sooner the world economy can recapture those postwar rates of growth, the better it will be for all of us."

When was the last time you heard a Third World voice placing the principal responsibility for development on "the dynamism of the LDCs themselves?" Others may pronounce economic judgment. I will content myself with noting that Lewis' viewpoint is, in polictical terms, a tonic.

Some substantial part of the stinginess and sourness with which Americans have approached aid in recent years arises from a perception that the recipients have not been doing all they could to pull themselves up. There is some unfairness in this perception, but some truth and, if it were changed, a new openess to aid might sprout. It would not be Arthur Lewis' smallest contribution if he helped this to come about.