Toward the end of the 1970s it was possible to look back on the decade and conclude that the Third World's economic record was, all things considered, not too bad.

It averaged an annual growth rate of 5.7 percent, compared to the industrialized countries' average of 3.4 percent. Most of the developing countries, with the aid of the commercial banks, had survived the 1974 oil shock with their economies reasonably intact. They expanded their exports of manufactured goods at an annual rate of more than 10 percent; they financed most of their own development, principally by saving and investing nearby a quarter of their limited national incomes.

These, or course, are just average figures hiding great diversity. Nevertheless, it was possible to conclude that much of the Third World was on the bright side of history, making inroads on poverty, building the infrastructure and industrial base for an improved future and making the countries increasingly indispensable, both as markets and purchasers, to the economies off the industralized world.

The demographers also had welcome evidence to share, as birth rates began to decline, at least outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

Travelers, too had interesting tales. The Thais may have built parking garages over the old canals of Bangkok and the Tanzanians knocked down the wooden-shuttered New Africa Hotel built in Kaiser Wilhem's time. To offset that, however, the Singaporeans have introduced a most effective traffic control scheme, the Mexicans have built a subway system with Bach piped into the stations and experiments in slum-ridden Manila showed that when the poor are given secure tenure, they make dramatic improvements on their housing.

Five months into the 1980s it is all beginning to look different.

The world economy has suffered its second major shock in six years. Not only are the oil price increases of 1979 and 1980 larger in absolute terms than the 1974 one, but they appear to be producing much more serious adjustment problems.

After the 1974 oil price increase it was widely felt that the commercial banks would have an impossible task in recycling the OPEC surpluses. That they succeeded was in large measure due to two factors. First, the OPEC countries spent faster than anyone expected on industrailizing and modernizing their economies. Second, the developing countries borrowed huge amounts of it to finance record growth rates.

Neither of these two things is likely to recur. The OPEC countries for their own good must slow down their rate off expenditure on modernization. Their social and economic structures are already too overburdened.

Moreover, the banks are becoming increasingly cautions about going in for another round of huge loans to the Third World. And with good reason. With the industrialized world moving into recession, the Third World is going to bear the brunt of reduced Western deficits and large OPEC surpluses. The Third World deficit next year could be as high as $80 billion.

Many banks are calling for new initiatives by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the OPEC banks. They are also telling the industrailized countries that they must learn to grow and conserve energy at the same time.

Yet even if this is done -- which, to judge from the meeting a month ago in Hamburg of finance ministers, is not about to happen -- the Third World cannot expect to get back to the growth rates of the last decade.

Whereas the last big recycling efffort of the banks enabled the developing countries to grow at 6 percent a year in 1974-1975, expected growth rates for the next two years will be nearer 3 percent.

The average growth in more than 100 countries in the 1970s, 5.2 percent, masks such anomalies as that per capita income grew at only .2 percent in Africa and food production per person went down. In Kingston, Jamaica, tuberculosis increased. In Sao Paulo, the hub of Brazil's 1970s economic "miracle," where growth rate was above average, infant mortality rose and there was a resurgence off malaria and bubonic plague.

World Bank President Robert McNamara, in an address last October in Belgrade, argued that an average growth rate of 5.6 percent was necessary during the 1980s, but warned that even this would still leave "600 million individuals trapped at the very margin of life in the year 200."

He then said it was likely that the average growth rate might be as low as 4.8 percent, leaving 700 million in dire poverty. In his wildest moments of realism" he never conceived a 3 percent rate.

The oil price rise and its effects come at a time when a number of other things are going wrong. After four years of good harvests and expanding food production, world food production per capita fell last year for only the third time since World War II.

The terms of trade have been moving steadily against the developing countries in recent years. Real commodity prices are the lowest on record since 1950.

Trade barriers, which fell away significant during the 1960s and 1970s and contributed to the boom in world trade, are now being restored on some critical products.

Aid budgets are being pruned in nearly all the main industrial countries. Even Zimbabwe and Nicaragua cannot get the aid they have been promised.

Not since the late 1950s has the situation looked so bleak. The Third World is on its back, yet the will to get it on its feet again is difficult to find.