NEW YORK - In the days after the December earthquake and tsunami in South Asia, industrialized nations engaged in a bout of international one-upmanship, outdoing each other in their pledges of aid for the devastated region.
Six months later, has that "competitive compassion" been converted into dollars and yen and euros? Or, as has happened after other natural disasters, has interest waned now that the world's attention has turned to other issues?
The verdict, at least so far, is that the money is materializing.
Of the $4.2 billion pledged to pay for emergency housing, food and medical help, the United Nations says its agencies, other aid groups and the governments of the affected countries have received cash or binding commitments of $2.8 billion, or two-thirds of the total.
The challenge, said U.N. officials, is to keep donations coming in the transition from the emergency phase to the long-term rebuilding of coastal areas of the dozen nations, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed at least 176,000 and left more than 50,000 missing.
"There is no doubt that the initial humanitarian emergency phase was very successful," said U.N. humanitarian affairs chief Jan Egeland. "It is also very clear that it is not going to be as quick and easy to do the reconstruction of societies and livelihoods as it was to provide food and emergency shelter and emergency health care."
In the six months since the disaster, more than 1 million children have been vaccinated against measles, and more than 2 million people have received food aid. Schools have been rebuilt or set up in temporary quarters for virtually all the children in the affected regions.
"Many children who didn't have schools or health care have them now," said Egeland, who raised hackles in the Bush administration shortly after the tsunami when he called the world's rich nations "stingy" in providing aid.
Egeland estimated that the bill for the tsunami, including the emergency and reconstruction phases, will be $12 billion.
The nations of the world have pledged $6.7 billion in immediate and long-term aid, and individuals have donated several billion dollars more.
No agency keeps exact figures for private donations worldwide, but InterAction, which tracks fund raising by U.S. nonprofits, estimates that Americans have donated about $1.4 billion toward tsunami relief.
Rounding up the additional money needed for reconstruction is one of the jobs of former President Bill Clinton, who is serving as the U.N. envoy for tsunami recovery.
"In the initial emergency phase, governments translated pledges into cash in record time," Clinton said in an e-mail. "Now, as we move from the relief to the recovery phase, there is no room for complacency. Both donor and affected governments need to move quickly to ensure that existing pledges are translated into tangible funding for the recovery effort."
The United States has fulfilled about $132 million of its aid pledge, according to the United Nations' Reliefweb tracking system. That amount, which U.S. officials say was spent on emergency relief efforts, does not include the cost of sending aircraft carriers and helicopters to the disaster-stricken region.
The dollar amount of the U.S. relief package has gone up steadily since then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made an initial commitment of $15 million shortly after the disaster. As other nations weighed in with promises of hundreds of millions, Bush quickly raised the U.S. pledge to $350 million.
Last month, Congress approved the president's request for a larger tsunami aid package that U.S. officials say will raise the total to $906 million. The appropriation received little attention because it was part of an $82 billion emergency spending bill, most of which will go to military operations in Iraq.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.