A plan to cancel up to $27 billion in debt owed by the world's most desperately poor countries won key financial backing from major industrial governments yesterday, clearing the way for funds that now flow to foreign creditors to stay home instead to pay for schools and clinics.

Gordon Brown, Britain's top finance official and chairman of an International Monetary Fund group overseeing the plan, said that enough funding pledges had arrived over the weekend to begin the program "not in years or months, but . . . now."

In the plan, "those to whom the world's greatest wealth has been given are joined with those burdened down by the world's greatest debt," Brown said, calling the relief "historic." Firm numbers for donor contributions will be announced this week.

International banks often are wary of letting borrowers walk away from their signed obligations. This program ranks among their most substantive efforts to date to bend the rules for 26 countries, such as Mozambique, Bolivia and Ivory Coast, which the global economic expansion of recent decades has bypassed.

Rules of the plan require that countries put the saved money into development programs, with an emphasis on education and health, and work with the IMF and World Bank on refining economic policies. Countries that channel saved money to non-approved purposes would risk being thrown out of the program.

The program grew in part from a campaign by a diverse coalition that has united Pope John Paul II, the relief group Oxfam, the Anglican church, the rock star Bono and others. Its members argue that the companies cannot begin to alleviate catastrophic social ills if billions of dollars must go to banks in wealthy countries.

"We need a fresh start for people who are living on the edge of survival itself," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Harvard Institute for International Development. "We're talking about places where people are dying because there's no health facility available, because life expectancy is down, because HIV is the worse epidemic since the bubonic plague."

Many groups view the program that resulted as too small. Even after this and other debt-relief programs, the 26 countries first in line to benefit from the aid still would carry about $45 billion in loans. Groups also have objected to the continued role of the IMF, which they see as an army of accountants that doesn't have human needs at heart. But many in the coalition support the plan as the best there is for now.

"This is real progress," said Seth Amgott, an Oxfam spokesman. "It will mean more children in school and better health care in some of the poorest countries in the world."

Broad outlines of the plan, which focuses on loans by government banks, not private institutions, were approved in June during a summit of the industrial world's leaders in Cologne. After that, haggling began as to which nation will pay to clear the debts from lenders' books.

Attention recently has focused on how to get $4.7 billion for a trust fund that would finance debt-clearing by "multilateral" lenders such as the World Bank.

The Clinton administration last week sent a bill to Congress requesting about $600 million for the fund and $400 million for forgiving debt that the United States extended directly to countries. Britain recently upped its pledge to the fund by $50 million and yesterday other pledges came in the weekend that boosted the fund to about $2.5 billion, Brown said last night, enough to get the program underway.

France is among the countries that hasn't yet announced a contribution to the trust fund. Charles Josselin, the French cabinet member who oversees foreign aid and relations with countries of France's former empire, said last night that France is contributing heavily in forgiving loans it extended directly and believes it and other nations with that record should have a smaller burden for clearing multilateral debt.

The IMF, meanwhile, plans to sell up to 14 million ounces of gold in private transactions to cover its part of the forgiven loans.