At the U.N. Millennium Summit held in September, world leaders pledged both to “free our peoples from the scourge of war, whether within or between states” and to halve global poverty by 2015.
That these should be global imperatives is apparent from two statistics: Wars claimed more than 5 million lives in the 1990s and that nearly 3 billion people, almost half the world’s population, live on a daily income of less than two dollars a day. In an era of unprecedented progress, this extent of conflict and poverty is an affront to humankind.
Poverty and conflict often reinforce each other and create a vicious cycle. Poverty is a potent catalyst for conflict and violence within and among states, particularly at a time when poor countries and peoples are increasingly aware of the relative affluence of others.
Conflicts not only exact a human price, but also plunge many individuals into poverty and deal a severe blow to a country’s longer-term development efforts. Even where there is no active conflict, military spending absorbs resources that could be used to attack poverty.
During the Cold War, total world defense spending peaked at around $1.2 trillion in 1987. With the end of the Cold War, the first half of the 1990s saw some sharp reductions in military expenditures, especially within the developed countries. Partially as a result, Western countries reaped a substantial “peace dividend” in the form of an extended period of economic prosperity.
However, by 1997, global military expenditures were rising again. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military-expenditures rose by more than 2 percent in 1999 and a further increase is expected for the year 2000. World defense spending is now around $800 billion, a level equal to more than 2.5 percent of the world’s output of goods and services.
The share of the developed world in global defense-spending continues to exceed 70 percent, with five countries accounting for the bulk. The share of the developing world, however, has grown over the past decade, mainly because of significant increases in some regions. During the 1990s, spending on arms and the maintenance of military forces increased by one-fifth in East Asia, by one-quarter in South Asia and by over one-third in South America.
High military spending has been both a cause and a result of the large number of conflicts in the developing world. On average, defense spending absorbs over 10 percent of central government budgets around the world. In several developing countries, including some of the largest, the defense burden is considerably higher than this average.
These increasing military expenditures in developing countries are reflected in international arms sales. Global arms transfer agreements with developing nations increased from $16.8 billion in 1998 to $20.6 billion last year. The United States Congressional Research Service estimates that worldwide arms deliveries during 1992-1999 totaled more than $296 billion, of which nearly 70 percent went to developing countries. Developed countries accounted for more than 90 percent of these sales.
The rising levels of military spending in some developing countries impair development by crowding out private and public investment. Moreover, since developing countries import most of their military equipment, spending on foreign armaments reduces the scope for imports of capital goods that would allow the economy to expand and diversify.
Most important, high military expenditures aggravate tensions and engender mutual suspicion, encouraging higher defense spending in other countries and creating conditions ripe for conflict.
Meanwhile, world poverty is not being conquered: According to the World Bank, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day rose between 1987 and 1998. Even in those countries where some progress has been made, the proportion of the population still living in poverty remains high. At present rates, the goal of reducing world poverty by half by 2015 is unlikely to be achieved.
A number of U.N. agencies have estimated that it would require an additional $70-80 billion per year — some 50 percent more than at present — to provide primary education, low-cost water, sanitation and public health facilities and reproductive health, family planning and clinical services to all those in need. Sustained over a period of time, such a package of measures would go a long way toward achieving the poverty reduction goal established for 2015.
Developing countries, particularly those in which military expenditures are high, could demonstrate their commitment to reducing poverty in their own countries by reallocating some military spending to social expenditures. Developed countries could support this effort by using part of their widespread government surpluses to increase assistance to the developing world. At the same time, being the principal suppliers of arms, they should reduce their arms exports to poor countries to enhance security and stability in developing regions.
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