President Clinton pledged yesterday to cancel all $5.7 billion of debt that 36 desperately poor countries owe the U.S. government, provided they channel the saved money into programs for education, health and development.

His move, which is subject to congressional approval, builds on an international initiative to remove an additional $27 billion from the books of the world's poorest countries, many of them in Africa. The goal is a fresh break financially in the new millennium for heavily indebted countries such as Uganda, Mali and Bolivia.

"Unsustainable debt is helping to keep too many poor countries and poor people in poverty," Clinton said in an address to the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Countries should not have to "choose between making interest payments on their debt and investing in their children's education."

"Today I am directing my administration to make it possible to forgive 100 percent of the debt these countries owe to the United States, when--and this is quite important--when needed to help them finance basic human needs and when the money will be used to do so," Clinton said.

His words drew first applause, then a wave of excited whispering from hundreds of delegates in a hall at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Many of them represented countries that would qualify for the breaks.

"It is very welcome, of course, most welcome," said Tumusiime Mutebile, permanent secretary to the Ugandan treasury. With a package of new anti-poverty programs in place, his country has been among the first to qualify for the $27 billion international debt-relief initiative. Uganda owes about $3.5 billion to foreign creditors, which equals about half the country's economy as measured by gross domestic product.

"Forgiving debt is good financial practice when it is unpayable, but much more importantly, it is the right way to reduce poverty," said Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

The $27 billion program, in which the United States is also participating, applies to debt owed to international agencies such as the World Bank. Clinton's plan would affect only money owed to U.S. government bodies such as the Agency for International Development and the Export-Import Bank.

The Clinton administration said in June that it would forgive "up to 90 percent" of this debt owed directly to the United States, but it never put a precise number on it.

To qualify for either program, countries must convince international finance officials that they can't pay what they owe and are restructuring their economies and channeling the saved money into specific programs aimed at education, health and poverty reduction in general.

The programs don't wipe away all such debt. Even after the current relief programs and earlier ones run to completion, 26 poor countries first in line to benefit would still carry about $45 billion on their books.

The announcement drew praise from the head of the U.S. branch of Jubilee 2000, an advocacy movement with chapters in more than 50 countries that has campaigned for debt relief since the mid-1990s. It brings together religious leaders, development agencies and politicians.

Clinton's move "represents a significant mobilization of the political clout of the White House to back debt relief," said Carole Collins, national coordinator for Jubilee 2000 USA. She said the movement would like to see a bigger package of relief but welcomes this as progress toward that goal.

The next move is up to Congress. Last week, the Clinton administration sent a bill requesting roughly $1 billion over four years to pay for the U.S. portion of the program; that bill has become part of general budget negotiations underway on Capitol Hill.

That sum would be sufficient to cover the U.S. portion because many of the loans have long since been "written down" to a fraction of their original face value by lenders who concluded they couldn't expect to get the full amount back.