"I had a farm in Africa." So intones Meryle Streep in "Out of Africa," a movie made from the novel in which Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) wrote of her interlude in Kenya before and during World War 1. Do you believe that there are no accidents in the poplular culter, that novels and films appear only when cirumstances are ripe for them? "Out of Africa" is a love story but also a study in Third World develpment. The writer had not only a romance in Africa but, in fact, a farm. It failed, and the heroine went back to Denmark. The film appears just as an immense calamity has overtaken African agriculture, and made the story truer than it has ever been. Millions of Africans can say, literally, they had a farm in Africa.

At the United Nations this week, the General Assembly has been bolding its first-ever special session on the economic ills of one region, Africa. It would be frivolous to say the delegates should interrupt the someber proceedings and go see a movie. But for the rest of us, the movie provides a rare close-up, though one rouged up by the romance, of African development. It depicts an effort to join Western capital, management and technology to Third War land and labor. This is a classic model of development. It has left black Africa a basket case, worse off despite a recent arrest in the fall than it was at independence a quarter century ago.There is a new style of discourse about African development. Pretty much gone, and mercifully so, are the often-strident appeals for a "new international economic order by which, by political fiat, world resources were to be redistribute from haves to have-nots -- that is, from capitalist haves: the communist haves always successfully eluded these appeals.

Instead, in the wake of widespread drought and famine and the vulnerabilities they exposed and exacerbated, there is what two apostles of the changed outlook, former American diplomats Lawrence Eagleburger and Donald McHenry, call "a need mood of realism in Africa -- a willingness to enter into a tough analysis of past mistakes and present confusion, a sobriety that verges on humiliation."

The World Bank, which has had many bold ideas for development in the past, seems now to be in a repentant mood, and quietly speaks of and lends for structural reform. The Reagan administration, from the start a champion of the market ideology, embraces it with ardor of a preacher who has finally seen to the conversion of the infidels. Indeed, so wide is the informed consenus now supporting Third World structural reform that the rest of us can only hope that we will not learn 10 or 15 years hence that the experts have gotten it wrong, or somewhat wrong, too much wrong, again.

In the year of Gramm-Rudman, the Reagan administration champions Third World structural reform not simply as the key to unkocking the vaunted magic of the marketplace but for its promise of savings on the American budget. It is the less-is-more theory of developoment, and it is bound to create friction between the administration's more simplistic free marketers on one side and the Africans and friends of African development like the Eagleburger-McHenry Committee on African Development Strategies on the other.

The latter still have a good way to go to demonstrate that the would-be recipients of aid have undergone the requisite changes of heart and political style. But, arguing for a new "compact," they make a strong case that major new help is needed in the form of development money and debt relief, plus wider access to Western markets, in order to make structural reform work. Africa's readiness for reform makes it worthy of a great new surge of public and private investment, they say.

The implicit promise is that this time the aid will not go for foolish industrial and prestige projects, for political favors for the cities and privileged classes, and for waste and corruption; this time it will help Africans have farms in Africa.