Trade, not aid, is the best way to help Africa, says the Clinton administration, especially in the face of congressional reluctance to appropriate money for foreign aid in general. And enlisted in that effort has been James Harmon, an investment banker who is now director of the government-funded Export-Import Bank.

"Two years ago, we financed $50 million in trade with Africa," Harmon said recently. "This year, we'll finance $600 million." That almost matches the amount given to Africa in development assistance.

Following democratic elections in Nigeria, Ex-Im has reopened its office there after a six-year hiatus. The bank also has made an increasing number of small loans, such as a $10,000 loan to finance the purchase of books for a business in Kenya. And it recently made a loan to South Africa in South Africa's own currency, eliminating the risk to the borrower of a devaluation of the rand.

A breakdown of the numbers, however, suggests that the Ex-Im program isn't as broad as it might seem. According to Harmon, 48 percent of this year's loans will finance the purchase of American-made airplanes by African airlines, including two Boeings, worth $185 million, for South African Airways and a Boeing worth nearly $50 million for Namibia's airline.

The bulk of the money lent for non-airplane business has gone to Ghana, long a favorite of international financial institutions because of its cooperation with International Monetary Fund and World Bank reform programs. Ghana received $146 million in trade financing from Ex-Im this year, Harmon said.

Recently, Harmon and Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice held a briefing to tout the virtues of the Ex-Im program in Africa. "There are 700 million consumers in Africa," Rice said. "We export more to Africa by 45 percent than we do to the former Soviet Union."

It's still a drop in the bucket compared with overall U.S. exports. Exports to Africa make up about 1 percent of U.S. exports. Less than 3 percent of Ex-Im's $58 billion active portfolio is made up of loans to Africa, according to Harmon.

One reason U.S. companies and banks have been hesitant to lend money to Africa is because of the continent's horrible repayment record. Torn by war, coups, famine and bad economic policies, the continent has frequently defaulted on debts. Of the $1.9 billion of delinquent debt owed to the governments of major industrial countries known as the Paris Club, nine sub-Saharan countries account for almost $1.1 billion.

Much of that money had gone to finance exports to Africa. In the 1970s and early 1980s, export credit guarantee agencies from the United States, Europe and Japan promoted projects made with material and equipment from the industrialized countries. But many of the projects were inappropriate for Africa and didn't produce the foreign exchange needed to service the debts. A state-of-the-art steel mill, for instance, lay idle in Togo.

When projects failed, the exporting companies were paid by the export credit agencies, but taxpayers in the West and Japan paid the bill and the debts remained on the books.

About 20 years ago, Ex-Im financed the largest of these disasters, the Inga-Shaba electrical transmission line that spans the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It accounts for about 95 percent of the $992 million the Congo owes Ex-Im.

Harmon says he wants to do more, however, and that this time Ex-Im can do better. He says that more of the loans made today are for the private sector. He wants the United States, which has a mere 6 percent share of the goods sold to Africa, to catch up with Germany, Japan and France.

The best opportunities, he says, are in telecommunications, oil and natural gas developments, and airport upgrading. Last month, Ex-Im financed $28 million of a telecommunications project in Mauritius.

But he concedes that there will be losses. "We're expected to take risks. That's why Congress gives us a budget," he said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we can do better than what we were doing before because we weren't doing anything before."