ZERO ECONOMIC GROWTH is an idea with a certain appeal here and there in the rich countries. But among the poor it is an affront. Rising income, in most of the world, immediately buys longer lives, better health, literacy and opportunity -- things of absolute value. The World Bank's annual report, published this week, is an authoritative and deeply illuminating summary of world wide progress against poverty, and of the intricate relationships -- not all of them economic -- on which it depends.

There are several paradoxes of poverty here. The proportion of the world's population in total and squalid poverty is slowly declining -- but the absolute numbers living in that kind of poverty are slowly rising. The poorest countries are getting a little more prosperous, but the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. And yet while the gap in money incomes widens, the gaps in health and education are narrowing. That's because a little money buys much more progress in India than in the United States.

In the industrial countries, from 1950 to 1980, economic output per person more than doubled to $9,700 a year, from 1950 to 1978, and life expectancy increased from 66 to 74 years. Not bad. In the world's several dozen poorest countries, output per person rose from $164 to $245 a year in that same period, and life expectancy rose from 35 to 50 years -- twice as much as in the industrial countries. High birth rates are a response to high death rates. With fewer children dying, birth rates are now dropping sharply throughout most of the Third World. Since the mid-1960s, birth rates have dropped at least 10 percent in India, China, Indonesia and half a dozen other developing countries.

Mainly because of the huge increases in oil prices last year, the World Bank forecasts that economic growth will slow down throughout most of the developing world in the early 1980s. Incomes will continue to rise in most of them -- the exceptions are mainly in sub-Saharan Africa -- but the rise will not be as rapid as in the 1970s. The world is in the midst of a two-step adjustment to much more expensive fuel. Governments tried to soften the impact in the 1974 increases by borrowing abroad to pay their oil bills. Now the debts have risen to a point at which few of them can safely continue to borrow. Instead, the bank warns, many will have to accept lower growth for a time. Money will have to be diverted into structural change -- investment in new machinery and new energy sources. There won't be enough investment capital to go around under even the best of circumstances, particularly since China, for the first time, is likely to begin to borrow heavily abroad.

Much of the responsibility for the Third World's economic growth lies with the Third World itself -- a point that the World Bank's report unsentimentally emphasizes, with many enlightening details. That is a side of the question to which we propose to return subsequently. Meanwhile, there is also responsibility that lies specifically with Americans, as stewards of the richest and most productive of the world's economies. It continues to be a responsibility to maintain a high level of open trade -- which also benefits Americans -- and to step up, just a bit, the present very modest flow of investment aid.