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Military expenditure -- the opportunity cost

Even if they have never seen a gun, millions of children suffer from wars, as resources that could have been invested in development are diverted into armaments. Indeed, one of the most distressing realities of our time is that most wars have been fought in precisely those countries that could least afford them.

In 1993, there were 42 countries with major conflicts and another 37 that were suffering from some kind of political violence. Of these 79 countries, 65 were in the developing world.44 And military spending globally in 1993 was estimated to be US$790 billion, of which US$121 billion was spent in developing countries.

It seems clear that poverty and lack of development fuel hatred and escalate hostilities, and that improvements in such areas as nutrition, health, education, water, sanitation and family planning would go far to reduce the underlying causes of so many wars. The year 2000 goals for children, which call for an assault on poverty and underdevelopment through advancement in these areas, could be achieved for US$30 billion to US$40 billion a year more than is currently spent.

By any reasonable international perspective, this seems a relatively small sum of money. Consider the decline in military expenditures from 1987 to 1994: cumulative savings of nearly a trillion dollars. 45 This should have meant a transfer of sizeable sums of money to social, economic and environmental programmes. Instead, it appears that virtually all of these savings have gone to budget deficit reductions and non-development expenditures. This seems an extremely short-sighted policy.


Figure 2: As a percentage of GNP, public spending on the military in industrialized countries has fallen by 40 per cent since 1960; health and education spending has been higher for at least 15 years.

Figure 3: Military spending as a percentage of GNP has also declined in developing countries; expenditures on education almost equal those for the military. Health expenditures remain much lower.

Source for both figures: Sivard, R. L., World military and social expenditures 1993, Washington, D.C., 1993.


At the same time, despite the overall global decline, large amounts of scarce resources continue to be devoted to armaments. Between 1960 and 1991, total annual military expenditures by developing countries rose from US$27 billion to US$121 billion.46 Sadly enough, some of the steepest increases occurred in the poorest countries. Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Somalia and Yemen have for many years spent more on their military than they have on their people's education and health. Money spent on arms could have been put to much better use. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated that redirecting just one quarter of developing countries' military expenditure could have provided the additional resources to implement most of the year 2000 programme: primary health care for all, immunization of all children, elimination of severe malnutrition, provision of safe drinking water for all, universal primary education, reduction of illiteracy, and family planning.47

In recent years, however, there has been, as noted, some limited improvement in both developing and industrialized countries. As a result, a trend has emerged showing a global drop in military expenditures and an upturn in social spending (Figures 2, 3). Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe are examples of developing countries that have managed to reallocate their budgets.

Yet, distorted priorities remain and the industrialized countries must share responsibility since they are the dominant arms suppliers. The top five exporters to developing countries are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. With the end of the cold war, the weapons industries in the rich countries are scrambling for new markets wherever they can find them—often with the enthusiastic support of their political leaders.

While arms sales have dropped significantly in the last few years, sales to developing countries in 1994 still amounted to US$25.4 billion, all of which is money lost to development efforts. The largest single supplier has normally been the US, though in 1994 France acquired that dubious distinction: its sales rose from US$3.8 billion in 1993 to US$11.4 billion in 1994.48

While these sales are largely of expensive hardware such as submarines or sophisticated fighter aircraft, much of the damage is now done by light weapons and smaller arms. Relatively little is known about the international trade in small arms, which often operates through the informal sector and powerful criminal networks. It is clear that in war zones weapons have been accumulating over decades. The arms on sale in the bazaars of Afghanistan, northern India and Pakistan, for example, are a legacy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and of the US pipeline of arms to the Afghan guerrilla groups. Similarly, the arms used in Somalia's civil war had been supplied to the previous regime by the US and the Soviet Union. And more recently, the arms used by the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina include light weapons left over from the Lebanese civil war.49

It is therefore appropriate to repeat a tragically consistent theme in UNICEF reports on the state of the world's children: if even a fraction of the resources devoted to building military capacity could be diverted to achieving basic development goals, we would soon be living in a world with fewer social and environmental problems and far fewer and less destructive wars.


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