NEW DELHI -- Fears that war in the Persian Gulf would send catastrophic shocks through the teetering economies of the world's poorest countries have so far not been borne out, as vital lifelines to developing nations -- oil flows and international shipping -- remain almost completely intact almost two weeks into the war.
Still, some economists say ill-conceived wartime austerity measures imposed by Third World governments are doing as much harm to their fragile economies as the fighting in the gulf.
From Eastern Europe to Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia, countries with little cash, heavy debt and a strong reliance on imported oil watched the buildup to war with dread. The World Bank warned in September that because of high debt levels and a decade of economic contraction in Africa and Latin America, the world's poorest countries were unusually vulnerable to war-related economic shocks.
The biggest fears in poor countries were that war would send spot market oil prices soaring, disrupt Saudi Arabian production and Iranian shipping and close sea lanes over which vital Third World exports reach markets in industrialized countries. Many poor countries depend on foreign exchange earned from exports to pay for oil on the spot markets.
None of these fears has yet been realized. Oil prices have fallen, Saudi production has been uninterrupted, Iranian tankers continue to ply the gulf, and shipping lanes such as the Red Sea and the Suez Canal remain open, although costs have risen due to war-risk insurance premiums.
"The developing world has heaved a big sigh of relief," said an Asian economist at an international aid organization in Washington.
Anxiety that the initial good news will not last remains high in Third World capitals and business centers, according to economists, development specialists and businessmen. Some worry that disaster has merely been postponed.
Scattered reports in Africa and Asia of hoarding, financial market shutdowns and the refusal of government-owned banks to accept letters of credit for cargo traversing the Middle East indicate a significant degree of persistent panic. Traders in the bustling Pakistani port of Karachi, a transshipment point for Africa and Asia, say traffic has fallen off badly because of fear and uncertainty among transporters.
A military turnabout such as a successful Iraqi strike south of Kuwait or a widening of the war to include Israel -- a development likely to disrupt shipping through the Suez Canal -- could quickly inflame such panic, traders and businessmen said.
Shipping executives in the gulf said they are working hard to persuade clients that the present danger to oil tankers and international cargo ships is limited. "There were greater worries that are proving to not be working out," said James Baldwin, shipping services manager at the giant Gray Mackenzie Group in Dubai.
For the Third World's poorest -- more than 2 billion people in Asia and Africa who survive on per capita income of less than $500 annually -- a danger rivaling economic disruption from war may be misguided austerity programs imposed by their governments, several economists specializing in the developing world argued.
Forced to plan for worst-case contingencies in the event of a prolonged conflict, socialist governments such as India's have clamped down on energy supplies, fueling inflation and crimping economic activity. Less disruptive alternatives, such as saving money by slashing price subsidies or trimming bureaucracy, are deemed politically impossible.
Amid the uncertainties of war, developing countries with vast public bureaucracies and state-owned industries find it difficult to "cut expenses in the short run in a way that does not hamper long-run growth prospects," said Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri, a development specialist who has taught at Harvard University and the Delhi School of Economics.
"The kind of structural rigidity that you have in India -- you have to bail out every firm, nobody can lose a job -- forces them to slash power and transport immediately" when oil supplies are even remotely threatened, Datta-Chaudhuri said. That, in turn, exacerbates the impact of economic disruptions caused by the gulf war, he added.
A World Bank official who specializes in African development said that such a self-defeating response to the economic challenges posed by war "sounds familiar in 30 or 40 countries I know."