During the past two years, Ghana's young leader, Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, has lent his name first to a collar, then to an overcoat.

In the process he's endeared himself to an increasing number of initially lukewarm, if not necessarily hostile, Ghanaians.

The "Rawlings collar" was how the ever ironic Ghanaians referred to the protruding bones that were the lot of many two years ago, when the country was experiencing a major famine.

The "Rawlings overcoat" is that beefy look around the middle that some Ghanaians are displaying again now that there's enough to eat.

At 38, Rawlings is far from jowly, but, as one Accra matron noted, "He's beginning to have that physical presence that we like in our politicians."

Back in power since his New Year's Eve coup in 1981 -- he had seized control earlier but relinquished it within months to an inept civilian government -- Rawlings is beginning to be accepted by many Ghanaians who long looked on him as a dashing helicopter pilot with an eye for pretty women.

"He may not be loved," a prominent, middle-class Ghanaian noted, "but he is tolerated. Anything seems better than another coup, which would just set us back another five years."

Although Rawlings' government employs Third World rhetoric, its policies have moderated as the country's fortunes have improved.

Buoyed by a billion dollars in support from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Community and individual western governments, Ghana has arrested its long economic decline.

So far the important economic indicators are positive, and IMF and World Bank officials note that Ghana is meeting its stringent commitments in full. It is the only black African country to do so at a time when many governments are refusing such discipline as an alleged infringement of sovereignty.

Reversing a decade of decline, the economy posted a 7.6 percent improvement last year, with a further 5.3 to 5.6 percent increase predicted for 1985.

The once wildly overvalued currency, the cedi, after much initial government soul-searching, has been devalued successively to the point where it takes 18 times as many cedis to buy the same amount of hard currency as it used to. It is still traded on the black market at more than three times its official 53-to-the-dollar rate, but only two years ago the black market spread was 29 to 1.

Accordingly, both international institutions and donor countries are expected to continue -- and perhaps even increase -- support when various financial agreements come up for renewal at the end of the year.

Yet, despite the turnaround, many Ghanaian intellectuals and foreigners question whether the government can stay the austerity course for a decade or more. That is what economists insist is required for Ghana to get its agriculture and mineral riches back on the rails.

Seung H. Choi, the otherwise optimistic resident representative of the World Bank, summed up Ghana's problems: "There's no easy way out."

"People here are a lot poorer than they think," he said, "and average purchasing power is only 25 percent of 1970 levels."

Some doubters feel that the present improvement -- visible in soap, canned goods and even local plantains on display for the first time in years -- is due almost entirely to the foreign-provided cash flow. They fear that the economy easily could collapse if the aid were cut off.

Although Rawlings and other government officials privately concede to diplomats that Ghana has a tough decade ahead, in public they are reluctant to say so or even to explain in detail their economic recovery program.

In part, the government appears to fear that the public would not accept such long-term hardship. Economists calculate that no one can live on the 70-cedi-a-day minimum wage.

As of now, however, the relative improvement of the economy has brought a self-reinforcing impression of political stability. Thanks to loyalist commanders, the once ragtag Army and police have come under a semblance of control. No longer do armed men patrol Accra Airport, and if police still check cars entering and leaving the capital, the number of nighttime flying roadblocks has diminished.

So, too, have the number of Ghanaians arbitrarily hauled into Army and police barracks and beaten or the number of cases tried before revolutionary tribunals likened by the opposition to kangaroo courts.

Some Ghanaians are convinced that the more extreme phase of Rawlings' revolution is over. In the words of one woman, "Jerry is no longer screaming about class struggle because people like me have two toilets in our homes." More meaningfully, Rawlings has established himself as the only real source of power.

In the process of eliminating or sidetracking once-powerful leftists in the ruling Provisional National Defense Council, Rawlings also has done away with his own radical innovations.

Last December, for example, he dissolved the powerful Workers Defense Committees and People's Defense Committees that often had contested official policy and management decisions on the shop floor or in villages.

Similarly, Rawlings has improved his once-abysmal relations with western governments, which, in the case of the United States and West Germany, came close to breaking in 1983. Both countries interrupted their aid, but renewed it the following year.

Rawlings also has moved away from once close ties with Libya, apparently largely because Col. Muammar Qaddafi upset the Ghanaian nationalist in him by seeking a mutual defense pact.

Into the breach have moved such moderate Arab states as Algeria and, especially, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which are likely sources of aid.

Nonetheless, Ghana sticks to the well-worn rhetoric of Third World radicalism, a cultural hangover from the country's first postcolonial prime minister, the late Kwame Nkrumah.

Only last week, Accra played host to a regional conference of the World Peace Council, a self-styled nonaligned organization long associated with the Kremlin.

"That keeps the vestigial left happy," one Ghanaian intellectual explained, "and prevents the radicals from claiming Jerry has sold out to the West."

At times the policy seems self-defeating. Recently, two Dutch Catholic priests in trouble with the Vatican for their radical views criticized the government's cooperation with the IMF and nonetheless were appointed to positions on the official prisons and health boards.

More seriously, such lingering attachment to verbal radicalism seems part of Ghana's self-image as a leader in Africa.

Despite the steady economic decline since independence from Britain in 1957, many Ghanaians fancy their country as the center of the Third World.

A businessman contemptuously brushed aside a $55 million loan -- the largest such loan ever made by the World Bank -- to the Ashanti Goldfields, owned partly by the government, partly by Britain's Lonrho company, on the ground that Ghana's deposits of gold were the world's largest and justified even more investment.

"We're not getting enough aid, given our potential," he added.

Both the World Bank and the government stress the need to boost exports -- especially cocoa, gold and timber -- and talk confidently of covering the cost of imports by 1988. Many diplomats find that goal overly ambitious.

Although there are plans to roughly double the price paid to cocoa farmers, at best they would receive only 50 percent of the official export price -- and about 17 percent of black-market rates -- for their cocoa, which accounts for more than half of Ghana's exports, according to economists.

Unless farmers are paid as much as producers in neighboring Ivory Coast, economists also doubt that the cocoa crop will amount to the 200,000 tons the government says it is counting on. As much as 20 percent of Ghana's dwindling cocoa crop is smuggled into the hard-currency franc zone next door in Ivory Coast and Togo.

Gold production is not expected to begin reversing a long decline for another year or so despite the World Bank loan.

Timber, the smallest of the three potential major export earners, should produce as much as $120 million, up from a low of $20 million, according to Finance Secretary Kwesi Botchwey, a key figure in the recovery plan.

One unresolved issue is whether the government will reduce the featherbedded payrolls of 164 mostly money-losing parastatal enterprises that employ about 70 percent of Ghana's nonfarm salaried workers. Some analysts are convinced that most should be privatized, shut down or put under rigorous western-style management.

Although Rawlings shouts himself hoarse repeating that Ghanaians must start working and count less on government and outside aid, there's a curious belief here that the world should beat a path to Ghana's doorstep.

"They don't realize that they've got to compete in the marketplace for aid," one western diplomat said, "and with countries which spout a lot less guff than they do."

Even such as a realist as Botchwey ticked off Ghana's reasons for claiming a special place in the sun -- "size, diversity of natural resources, resilience, better moral and economic incentives and a long tradition of education in the professions."

But some Ghanaians fear that over the years the work ethic has eroded and with it, in the words of a well-traveled businesswoman, "We have lost our self-respect and sense of our own worth."