WASHINGTON -- After decades of meddling and of humanitarian rescues, the United States and Europe are freezing or cutting back aid programs for Africa and looking to that troubled continent to solve its problems on its own.
The one-two shock of a failed United Nations peacekeeping mission in Somalia and of genocide that the world proved helpless to stop in Rwanda has left the major aid nations all but drained of sympathy, patience and money. Even businesses are wary of Africa: They have found better trading partners and faster-growing markets elsewhere in the developing world.
"I think, frankly, that the international community is fatigued of all of this," Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, recently told a gathering of Africa specialists here. "Budgets are low, political will is low and patience is low."
This change in attitude toward Africa comes as the continent hovers between hope and hopelessness. One group of nations is on the upswing; another group faces nearly overwhelming problems, including widespread corruption and tribal conflicts that are nowhere near being solved.
South Africa, with its new multiracial democracy and advanced economy, has the potential to be an engine of growth and stability for the southern third of the continent. Uganda, in Central Africa, and Ghana, in the west, are oft-cited pillars of internal peace and market reform.
Angola, with its abundant underground wealth of oil and diamonds, may finally have exhausted its long civil war and gained new stability through with the presence of 7,000 international peacekeepers.
"There are some real measures of improvement in important places," says Terrence Lyons of the Brookings Institution. "The problem is, there are absolute disasters and nobody has found a way to respond."
Civil war, for example, consumes Sudan. Nigeria, the continent's most populous state and rich in oil, is trapped by corruption and political strife. Zaire has degenerated into virtual statelessness. Liberia is in chaos, Sierra Leone nearly so. The Hutu-Tutsi hatred that devastated Rwanda last year now threatens neighboring Burundi. Kenya's elected government shows signs of becoming a dictatorship.
Western nations can't escape blame for some of these problems. European colonial rulers -- France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and Portugal -- often sided with certain ethnic groups at the expense of others, and left the states that they relinquished in the 1950s and 1960s unprepared to fend for themselves.
Through much of the Cold War, the main U.S. goal was to keep communism out of the continent. One legacy of this drive is Angola, scene of a drawn-out civil war between U.S.-backed rebels and a Marxist government, where there are now more land mines than people.
But Western interest began to dissipate with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"If you talk about development, people don't want to support it," says Melvin Foote, executive director of the lobbying group Constituency for Africa. Indeed, more private capital flows out of Africa than into it.
The Clinton White House has shown more high-level interest in Africa than any administration since that of John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, but is hard pressed to combat the congressional revolt against foreign aid. The annual $800 million earmarked for African development is bound to be cut; some members of the new Republican majority in Congress want to eliminate it altogether.
The European powers that once ruled the continent are also reassessing their relationships in the face of competing demands for help.
Belgium recently announced that it was shifting away from its paternalistic direct links with Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire in Central Africa, and devoting more attention to southern Africa.
Britain keeps strong commonwealth ties with former colonies in Africa, but relations with the two most important, Nigeria and Kenya, are strained.
France jealously guards commercial, linguistic and political links with Africa, partly out of national ego. But trade between France and the continent is dropping.
"Africa, for both France and Britain, is not nearly as important commercially or politically as it was 15 years ago," says Walter Kansteiner, who advised President George Bush on Africa policy.
Not all foreign aid will disappear. The World Bank maintains loan programs in Africa worth $22 billion. African countries that reform their economies can also draw on $7.5 billion in low-cost loans from the International Monetary Fund. But Africans will have to make a stronger case for financing.
"The old rationales for international intervention on the African continent will no longer carry the day," warns Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, the Kansas Republican who chairs an Africa subcommittee.
U.S. conservatives say a hands-off approach by the West may be what African countries need to force them to complete reforms. Experts note that even those countries that have already lowered investment barriers still have a long way to go in jettisoning state-controlled enterprises.
But if and when the continent takes these steps, it will still be left with backward health, education, roads, telephones and postal and banking systems.
Without financial assistance, say supporters of international aid, Africa faces a potentially devastating growth of disease, warfare, environmental degradation and starvation, requiring eventual costly Western intervention.
Vivien Lowery-Derryck, president of the New York-based African-American Institute, argues that it is in the collective interest of the United States and other major powers "to invest preventively."