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Global defence spending skyrockets, at the expense of development

In a disturbing trend, poorer countries in Asia and Africa are diverting funds from the health and education sectors to defence

Post 9/11, the global war on terrorism and heightened threat perception levels have meant that global defence spending in 2003 touched a record high, even in cash-strapped developing countries. A new report 'Military spending and development', published by the British global research reporting agency id21, finds that military spending reached over US$1 trillion (1,000 billion) -- a level last seen during the Cold War.

The agency notes that while the United States accounts for nearly half the global military spending, developing countries have been devoting a large part of their domestic budgets to defence. The report quotes figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the World Bank.

"Whereas rich developed countries spend the highest dollar figures on military equipment and armed forces, some poorer, developing countries spend proportionately more of their national wealth," says the report.

The world's top 15 military spenders are developed countries, including the United States, Japan, Britain, France and Germany. But, in 2002, China and India increased defence expenditure by 18% and 9% respectively in real terms.

In terms of national resources, many developing nations spend a larger share of their national resources than many of the top 15. Including the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States spent 5-6% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military in 2003, while, according to the latest available figures, five countries in west Asia spent 8-12% of their GDP on defence. Israel devoted 8% of its GDP, Jordan and Kuwait 9% and Saudi Arabia and Oman 12% on defence.

In Africa, Ethiopia's military expenditure was 6.2% and Ethiopia's 8% of GDP, the report states. The fact that many of these countries are in the midst, or are just emerging from, conflict situations does not detract from the concern the development community should have about such high levels of military spending: military spending is a development issue on both economic and humanitarian grounds.

"Such budgetary priorities underlie a grotesque irony: many of the poorest states hoard supplies of tanks and weapons to 'defend' citizens who are far more threatened by malnutrition and preventable diseases," says Nobel Peace laureate and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

The report also highlights the fact that an increase in military spending means less money spent on education and health. It is linked with a slowdown in economic growth. For instance, children in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Burundi and Ethiopia are between four and 19 times more likely to die before the age of one than children in Britain.

"The predominant problems faced by people in developing and developed countries alike are those of urban crime, HIV/AIDS, violence against women, terrorism and poverty -- issues of human, rather than territorial security," says Richard Jolly, honorary professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, England.

"It's these issues that should be given priority in national strategies -- through economic, social and institutional development -- rather than through arms and military action," says Jolly in the report's editorial.

The government of South Africa, for instance, has chosen to spend US$7.7 billion on military equipment at a time when the country is facing a HIV/AIDS epidemic. On the other hand, Costa Rica -- which abolished its army in 1949 -- spends about 25% of its budget on education and has a thriving health sector. Life expectancy in the Central American country is comparable with that in the West.

But the outlook is not altogether depressing. Of the 90 countries for which there is comparable data, military spending in three-quarters of them was less as a percentage of GDP in 2001 than it was in 1988. Of the countries included, which are classified by the UN Human Development Index as 'low human development', two-thirds had reduced their military spending. The numbers of 'high' and 'medium' human development countries that reduced their spending were even higher -- 86% and 72% respectively. The challenge is to extend this trend over the coming months and years, say researchers.

(InfoChange News & Features, June 2004)