The truth is, many of us have had several reasons -- beyond the horror -- for not wanting to see those television pictures of children starving in Africa. We have squirmed a bit and written the obligatory check, as individuals and as a nation. But it is hard to look at black Africa without feeling that something has gone terribly wrong. It is not just the spectacle of the suffering that troubles us. It is the sense that we -- we of America and the West who thought we knew how to help these people -- did not know well enough, though we acted as though we did.

Money, aid is not the centerpiece here. We have never provided enough to meet our share of the clear human needs and, given Africa's relatively low political and strategic ranking, no more than marginal improvement can be expected, at best. What I am talking about is the quality of our advice. It is now broadly recognized, not simply among critics but in the establishment circles that provide funds and wield power, that our advice has been deeply flawed.

In my mind I set an imaginary scene: a meeting is being held in rather posh surroundings. Three men are at the table. One, with sleeked-back dark hair that makes him look suspiciously like Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, represents enlightened public finance. A second -- who could be mistaken for David Rockefeller, former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank -- is speaking for enlightened private capital. The third man is very black, carrying a scepter and wearing a faint smile -- could it be President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire?

In this imaginary scene, "McNamara" and "Rockefeller" are saying: Sir, allow us to lend you 10 billion easy dollars to build up your country and improve the life of your people.

Replies "Mobutu": Gentlemen, it is strange that you put such confidence in a mere former army sergeant. But you possess the best financial and economic brains in the world, and you have the money. Who am I to say no?

Of course, it is wrong to pile all the blame on individuals, and many factors were at work, and it did not happen this way every place in Africa, etc. Still, in the hopeful glow cast by black Africa's coming to independence in the last generation, many of us thought that Western good will and know-how would help do the development trick.

In other parts of the world, a contribution was made. But much of Africa, lacking the structures to make policy and the resources to cushion mistakes and misfortunes, has turned out to be different. It's the single region going backward -- especially, in food. The optimists, scanning for a turnaround, peer deep in the 1990s and draw their breath.

In these circumstances, it is natural and right that the quality of Western advice should come under scrutiny, as it is. At the World Bank, in the American government and elsewhere, there is a certain refreshing readiness to grant publicly that major errors have been made.

Says the World Bank's senior vice president, Ernest Stern, "We . . . have failed in Africa, along with everybody else. We have not fully understood their problems. We have not identified the priorities. We have not always designed our projects to fit." Says the State Department's Africa chief, Chester Crocker: "Donors have insisted on imposing their own requirements on recipients which, however well-intentioned, cause major problems of absorption and efficient administration." The private banks have their stockholders to enforce similar self-examination.

As a result, a new consensus is taking shape. To give it a name that many donors/lenders (not to speak of recipients) are not particularly eager to accept, it's the Reagan revolution. I the idea of the 1960s and 1970s was that the big public and private lending institutions knew best, the idea of the 1980s is that individual people trying to make a profit know best. Aid donors are focusing on inducing local governments to adopt policies that will spur individual producers, especially in agriculture. Unsung, the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development has been promoting just this course.

One is obliged to ask whether the new policy emphasis will work better than the old. Some of those asking appear mainly interested in doing ideological battle for or against Reagan's belief in the "magic of the marketplace." I am in another group that notes that there need be no contradiction between encouraging free enterprise and providing aid, if the aid is used effectively and if it continues at anything near the necessary levels. The Reagan administration's distaste for multilateral lending leaves this, unfortunately, in doubt.