Even in the wasteland of Third World development dreams gone wrong, Sudan stands apart, a continent-sized country with problems to match.

Arguably no other developing country has received so much aid -- from bankers, international organizations and friendly governments both capitalist and socialist -- and had so little to show for it.

It is saddled with debts three times larger than its shrunken export earnings, a sizable brain drain coupled with an exodus of the unemployed young and prospects of externally imposed long-term austerity that seem a prescription for a coup. The country is a textbook example of 1970s economic development models gone mad.

Exports amount to $700 million, imports are running at $1.7 billion and even optimists doubt any meaningful improvement can be expected for the next few years. For all intents and purposes the country is bankrupt, although such language is never used.

Yet the Sudan was supposed to be the pacesetter in the days after the quadrupling of world oil prices in 1973.

Then, Arab petrodollars, coupled with Western technology and Sudanese manpower, were supposed to turn the country into the Arab world's breadbasket, delivering it from dependence on imported food from the West.

Such goals for self-sufficiency received official Arab League endorsement.

Adnan Kashoggi, the Saudi Arabian financier, commuted to Khartoum in his private jet amid rumors of schemes involving a million-acre agricultural development.

Cattle raising dwarfing Texas-sized spreads was considered a natural for the Sudan. There was no limit to the Sudan's agricultural potential in those days.

Almost a decade later, of all the schemes, only the giant Kenana sugar project has come to even partial fruition -- will behind schedule, with huge cost overruns and doubtful financial prospects.

According to the bankers, analysts and economists diagnosing the situation, the handwriting was on the wall by 1975 or 1976 although the facade began cracking only in 1978.

What happened was that the big Arab money sources, frightened by the size of the problems, never really delivered. The government neglected going concerns in favor of newer projects, often too gigantic for the Sudan's overtaxed and insufficient infrastructure. Western salesman unloaded outdated and unsound equipment.

The government sequestered property, drove out the longtime foreign business community, which knew the local problems, nationalized private companies and turned them into over-staffed, ill-managed, money-losing public corporations.

Cotton, the one crop for which Sudan has a clear comparative advantage, was neglected through a series of official disincentives in favor of wheat.

Top talent and unemployed youths fled the consequences of Sudan's mistaken policies and ended up working in the labor-hungry oil-producing countries. The bottom had dropped out of the triangular capital-technology-manpower equation.

By the time the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were asked to help, the Sudanese had no idea of how much money they had borrowed, under what terms and from whom.

"There was no national planning," a banker said. "They ran wild with development on a broad front with no one adding up the bills. There was a lot of uncontrolled borrowing and no one thought how to pay it back."

With the Sudan technically in default, although no creditor chose to say so officially, creditor governments, banks and suppliers devised, with IMF and World Bank help, an economic recovery plan that eventually will help dig the country out from more than $2 billion in debt.

The centerpiece is World Bank projects to revamp cotton growing, which once again will be attractively enough remunerated to stimulate production.

A serious problem now is that the commercial banks, owed in excess of $450 million, are still holding out for interest unpaid since 1978 in return for rolling over the debt and providing fresh funds. Some specialists feel the Sudan is in no position to meet these demands.

A further factor is that Saudi Arabia has not yet agreed to provide the $300 million needed to keep the edifice of World Bank and IMF reforms in motion.

Tha only unadulterated good news has been provided by overseas workers' remittances, which are worth as much as $350 million and constitute a much-needed political safety valve for the restless young. The completion of the Khartoum-to-Port Sudan highway, facilitating exports, is another plus.

In the meantime, the old railroad is hauling less freight than a decade ago and some experts insists it should be torn up and rebuilt. More roads are desperately needed.

Much to the despair of economists who insist the Sudan needs fast-dispersing aid -- cash, spare parts, oil imports, pesticides, fungicides and the like -- two white-elephant projects are going ahead.

The Abu Dhabi fund is committed to building a new Khartoum airport and the Soudis and West Germans are to build a new Red Sea post at Suakin. Neither is needed at this point, according to critics.

"Thank the Lord this country enjoys a lot of international good will," one economist said, "because it is going to take the best part of a decade to straighten out the mess. It's going to be very difficult and people are going to have to accept lower living standards."

Whether the Sudan can withstand such austerity, given its history of political instability, is an open question, but few economists believe the basic infrastructure required for breadbasket schemes will be in place for another 15 to 20 years.