While the loss of life in Indonesia was the highest -- the death toll there is estimated at 94,200 -- the coast of Sumatra, where the wave inflicted its worst damage, is an area of mostly small-scale fishing and agriculture, accounting for just one or two percentage points of Indonesia's annual economic output. Likewise, the national economies of Sri Lanka, India and Thailand are not expected to falter much, even though millions of people lost their livelihoods and areas such as the Thai resort Phuket have been ravaged.
Other natural disasters have set back nations' economies to a far greater extent, such asthe widespread destruction of farmland in Honduras and Nicaragua caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
The financial response to the tsunami nonetheless looks set to outstrip other such events, in part because of the scenes broadcast around the world of whole families being wiped out in a flash. "It's what we see on our TV screens which is the driving force," Egeland said, adding that in western countries, particularly Scandinavian nations, "it means also a lot that they have lost many of their own citizens."
Egeland expressed gratitude for the international community's generosity. But he noted that last year, only about $5.8 billion was spent on humanitarian crises in 100 countries such as Sudan, Congo, and Guinea -- many of which are "tsunami-style emergencies, really."
So while he was pleased that many donor countries have promised to add their tsunami relief funds to existing humanitarian contributions, if they fail to follow through, "it will be destruction for programs in Africa," he said.
The pattern in many previous disasters is not encouraging in that regard, aid experts said. Governments often pledge huge amounts when crises are in the headlines and then fail to deliver anywhere near those sums, they said. An example is the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, where officials report that only a small fraction of the more than $1 billion pledged was sent.
In an apparent reference to that pattern, Louis Michel, the European Union's commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, yesterday warned at a news conference, "We have to be careful and not participate in a beauty contest where we are competing to give higher figures."
Although the Bush administration has repeatedly said new aid donations and programs will notsiphon funds from existing U.S. assistance, the money given for tsunami relief will almost certainly add to pressure on Congress to trim the aid budget, said Radelet, who until recently worked in the Treasury Department.
Existing aid programs already face a severe pinch because of administration commitments to increase reconstruction funding for Iraq, provide more money for HIV/AIDS programs and create a program to reward poor countries that maintain good economic policies. "Congress will cut what's left, and if on top of these other things, we get many hundreds of millions of dollars for disaster relief, what's left is going to be cut even more," Radelet said.
One possibility, said DATA's Drummond hopefully, is that the sympathy generated for tsunami victims will spill over and help boost support for aid elsewhere.
"It's a terrible tragedy, but it has helped explain to people in the West what happens when you live on the margins," he said. "We can say, 'There are a lot of other people living on the edge in Africa and Asia, and they need our assistance, too.' "