Global Policy Forum

Military Gobbles Funds


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
February 7, 2005

The rise in global defence spending and the ongoing war on terrorism are diverting scarce economic resources from social development to the military, says a new U.N. report released here [at the United Nations]. The study, a 10-year review of a plan of action adopted at the 1995 World Summit on Social Development (WSSD), concludes that the international community has achieved little or no progress on most of the 10 commitments made by world leaders at the U.N. talkfest that took place in Copenhagen. "There have been both advances and severe disappointments in the social situation with respect to the summit's priority areas of poverty, employment, social integration, gender equality and universal access to education and primary health care," says the 66-page report.

An unprecedented 186 million people were unemployed in 2003, accounting for 6.2 percent of the working population, up from 140 million a decade earlier. While there has been "some progress" in social integration, "horrific and tragic events of ethnic cleansing, genocide and armed conflict continue to take place." In 2003, women held only 15 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide. In 2001, they were just 35.7 percent of the global workforce in paid non-agricultural jobs, according to the latest available figures.

One of the few bright spots is that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty declined: from around 30 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2001. "But while the situation had improved in most regions, it was stagnant in sub-Saharan Africa, while in Western Asia poverty actually increased," researchers found. "Overall, a lack of sustained pro-poor growth has been a major obstacle in reducing poverty."

The study, which goes before a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Social Development Feb. 9-18, says that a "novel and disturbing component" of the international climate for social development has been the re-appearance of security issues on the centre stage of national and international debate. "An increasing focus on combating international violence has diverted attention and human and financial resources away from development," the study points out.

Beginning in 1993, world military expenditures declined for five straight years: from 762 billion dollars to a low of 690 billion dollars in 1998, at which point it began increasing. By 2002, global military spending rose to 784 billion dollars, surpassing the 1993 level for the first time, and increasing to a record 900 billion dollars in 2003 and an estimated 950 billion dollars in 2004. If current trends continue, the estimated figure for 2005 is expected to reach over one trillion dollars.

"Siphoning off resources from social programmes to the military is a return to the politics of barbarism, abandoning the lessons of the twentieth century that a dollar of prevention of social disruption can save a million in war spending," Dan Plesch, a research fellow at the school of politics and sociology at the University of London, told IPS. "No one could have imagined that after the Cold War we would abandon arms control in favour of armed anarchy and forget that 95 percent of defeating terrorism and civil war requires social programmes," said Plesch, author of the acclaimed "Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace."

Over the last two years, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has spent over 300 billion dollars on two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, the Bush administration requested 80 billion dollars in new funding for continued military operations in both countries. Plesch said that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 that freedom from want and social security were key strategies for defeating fascism and preventing new wars. "But today's world leaders ignore this wisdom at their peril," he said.

The U.N. study says that the decline in military spending observed at the time of the Copenhagen summit in 1995 "has now been dramatically reversed." These figures, however, offer a sharp contrast with estimates suggested that all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could be met by 2015 if official development assistance (ODA) were increased by 50 billion dollars per year and sustained at that level, which represents only a fraction -- about five percent -- of what the world is now spending on arms and other means of destruction.

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in September 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015. But their implementation has depended primarily on increased development aid by Western donors. A second summit meeting, scheduled to take place in New York in September this year, will review the progress made so far and set the world's development agenda for the next decade. "The reallocation of defence-related expenditures to social development requires the concerted action of the international community, not only as a means of funding social programmes, but to also address the summit's concern for reducing armed conflict and violence," the study notes.

Werner Fornos, president of the Washington-based Population Institute, told IPS that it is "a global scandal that the funding estimated to be spent on the military and the war on terrorism is nearly 20 times higher than the amount currently allocated for economic and social development worldwide." It is incredibly shortsighted to short-change programmes for improving lives by diverting resources to programmes of death and destruction, he said. "The proliferation of poverty and hunger and the lack of health care, education and employment fuel the push factor of desperation and despair that, in turn, breeds alienation, discontent, rebellion, and terrorism," Fornos said.

Military solutions may be necessary short-term security responses, but the improvement of the human condition in the poorest parts of the world is the best and, in fact, the only long-term solution to winning the war on terrorism, he added. Population stabilisation is an indispensable pillar of global security over the long term in a world of 6.4 billion people projected to grow by another 2.6 billion in the very poorest countries by 2050, he argued. Balancing population with environment and resources is especially significant in a dangerous world where nuclear capability extends to virtually every continent, where random acts of terrorism present a constant threat to the lives and property of everyone, everywhere, Fornos said.

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