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Balancing Aid With Needs

Tsunami Funds Could Mean Less Elsewhere

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page E01

As pledges from the world's governments neared the $4 billion mark yesterday for countries battered by the Indian Ocean tsunami, international aid officials and development experts voiced concern that the outpouring of generosity may deplete resources for other pressing needs in much poorer countries.

Despite the immense loss of life, economists widely agree that the tsunami's economic toll appears modest and will not significantly affect growth, even in hard-hit countries such as Indonesia, because industrial areas, ports, and other major infrastructure were largely spared.

But the images of devastation have sparked an unprecedented amount of donations by governments and people -- including million-dollar checks written by multinational corporations, gifts from rock groups such as Linkin Park and a benefit show being planned by Irish comedians. Heartening as that response may be, aid experts worry, the contributions will divert donor funds from lower-visibility but lethal problems such as the malaria, diarrhea and other preventable diseases that kill an estimated 6,500 Africans each day.

"There's this enormous tendency to focus on the specific crisis at hand," said Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, a group founded by rock star Bono to mobilize help for impoverished African nations. "There's no moral difference between the extreme, day-in-day-out poverty in Africa and the situation in Asia. If we're not careful, one will carry away from the other."

With Australia announcing a $764 million package for tsunami-stricken countries yesterday and Germany increasing its pledge to $674 million, Jan Egeland, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, sounded almost overwhelmed at the amount of aid coming in, which he could only estimate at somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion. The International Monetary Fund also said yesterday that it would lend up to $1 billion to the affected countries, and some European officials have proposed giving those countries debt relief.

"At the moment, we are not able, really, to record all the generous contributions that we are getting," Egeland said at a news conference. "They are coming so often, and they are so big that you really have to reconfirm many times to be sure that you've heard right, that the number of zeros were right."

The current amount committed for tsunami relief and reconstruction is about 4 to 5 percent of the $70 billion that was spent on all foreign aid last year by governments and multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, noted Steven Radelet, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank.

"That's pretty big, so I think there is reason to believe that maybe at least some of this money could be productively used elsewhere," said Radelet, who warned that "there is a real potential here for [the tsunami donations] to squeeze other aid, particularly in the U.S. foreign aid budget."

Nobody knows how much money will be needed to provide emergency food and shelter for the tidal wave's survivors and to rebuild roads, ports, buildings, power stations and other infrastructure that was destroyed. That question will be a prime topic at a summit underway this week in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

But the consensus view among economists was reflected in a Jan. 3 analysis by Morgan Stanley, which noted that the damage is "largely confined to rural areas rather than the key economic and densely populated urban centers and industrial hubs."

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