WHILE RICH countries have a responsibility to help poor ones, the poor countries have to help themselves. Many kinds of economic development require little financial aid, or none at all. The World Bank's report -- its annual assessment of progress -- is especially interesting on the subject of these strategies. Americans, who sometimes grow tired of hearing the bank's pleas for more help might like to know that the bank also has a message for the recipients.

"Educating girls may be one of the best investments a country can make in future economic growth and welfare," the report observes. That's aimed at the discrimination still prevalent in, particularly, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.Among families of equal incomes, children's nourishment is better where mothers have had more education. In those families, both birth rates and children's death rates are significantly lower.

To have trained physicians and large hospitals is splendid. But where there are none, community health workers and the simplest medication can accomplish a lot.Similarly, schools with classes of 20 pupils are desirable. But several central African countries, which can't afford that many teachers, have shown that classes can be as large as 60 pupils with only minor losses in achievement.

Where malnutrition is endemic, governments need to pay attention to the foods of the poor. In tropical countries people eat a lot of cassava because it's cheap. But it's also very low in protein. Wise policy encourages production of complementary foods that are also cheap but high on protein, like beans and lentils.

The World Bank describes absolute poverty as a state of malnutrition, illiteracy and disease "beneath any reasonable definition of human decency." Out of the world's population of 4.4 billion, more than one in six -- 780 million people -- live in that condition. That number, incidentally, does not include China's poor, about whom not much is known. Nearly half of those 780 million live in India and Bangladesh. One-sixth live in Southeast Asia, mostly in Indonesia. Another sixth are in sub-Saharan Africa. The rest are scattered through Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Two out of every five of them are children. The great majority live in rural areas, where the men are usually landless agricultural laborers. But the countries in which they live are not without resources, and in most of them economic output has been steadily rising.

Even in the very poor countries, in response to a great deal of hard and skillful work, life is improving. The question is whether that rise can be accelerated a little. That's what the aid is for.