This time, nations must keep their promises

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It is understandable that some should have regarded the scramble of the world's richer governments to outdo each others' donations in the wake of the tsunami disaster as unseemly. There is more than a hint of posturing in some of the pledges made in recent days. Yesterday Saudi Arabia, stung by accusations that it was not doing enough to help its fellow Muslims in Indonesia, raised its pledge to $30m. Germany, another nation perceived to be languishing in the generosity league table, pledged $660m. And Tony Blair has promised that our own government's contribution will rise.

At times it has looked less like an international aid effort and more like a bidding war for the title "most generous nation". But a degree of political posturing is a small price to pay for the unprecedented sums that have been promised in the wake of this disaster. Even if some governments have been motivated by an instinct less noble than altruism, this will make little difference to the communities that stand to benefit.

There are, however, important caveats. The world must not lose sight of the things that will really save lives in the coming days. It will take time for government pledges to materialise. The most useful resources from the developed world that have been made available so far may be the helicopters and landing vehicles of the US Navy. It is military hardware, not paper promises, that will bring aid to survivors in an environment of downed bridges and flooded roads. Thanks to the magnificent efforts of aid organisations and charities, there is no shortage of food, water or medicines in the region. The problem is finding ways to distribute it.

It is also vital to bear in mind that a promise of aid becomes worthless if broken. Oxfam, which was not invited to yesterday's emergency conference in Jakarta, has stressed that every single pledge must be turned into real aid as soon as possible. In the wake of the Bam earthquake just over a year ago, and after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, huge donations to facilitate reconstruction were spoken of, but little materialised. Only when nations have delivered on their promises will we know for sure how generous they have been.

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