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If you really care about sustainable development, you better think about defense

7th June 2016

Opaque, unaccountable defense spending threatens to derail the global development agenda.  If the United Nations and its member states are serious about implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, they’re going to have to abandon their exceptional treatment of the defense sector and start asking what countries really spend on their militaries.

Since their official adoption in September 2015, the world has in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals a new roadmap for the fight against poverty, inequality, and injustice. Designed to replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals, which expired at the end of 2015, the SDGs are altogether more ambitious in scope and application – aiming for the first time at all states, not just developing countries.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs also recognize the fundamental nexus between development and security.  Seeing how a country at war is less likely to provide basic services to its people, to attract vital investments, and to develop its infrastructure – the connection is clear.  Relatedly, the OECD changed the scope of “Overseas Development Assistance” in February to include peace and security-related costs, a further testament to how interrelated “development” and “security” have become.

For the UN — tasked with overseeing the SGDs’ implementation — the question is how to best address security to make the SDGs more successful than their predecessors. While the causes of internal instability are complicated and varied, there is one major — straightforward — thing that ought to be considered: start asking countries what they actually spend on their militaries.

When the public has little knowledge and oversight of how valuable defense money is being spent, it’s more likely that key tax income will be wasted and is therefore unavailable for strategic development initiatives.  In some cases, earmarked funding is actually diverted from other sectors, like health and education, and used to buy, at worst, non-functional (which can risk soldiers’ lives) or, at best, unnecessary defense equipment.

In 1999’s infamous “arms deal” between South Africa and a number of European defence companies, the initial cost was estimated to be ZAR9.2 billion (US$1.2 billion). Yet by 2005 this had burgeoned to an estimated ZAR66 billion (US$9.1 billion).  This meant that in 2008, for every ZAR spent on providing assistance to South Africa’s AIDS sufferers, an equivalent ZAR7.63 was being spent on financing the arms deal.

Relatedly, in Uganda, an estimated 1700 health centers could have been constructed for the amount of money spent on Russian air superiority fighters – purchased without a plausible end-use or the necessary authorization (or at least knowledge) of Parliament. The government at some point seemed to claim they were needed to fight insurgents in the Great Lakes Region – an oddity considering the fighter jets were designed for air combat and the rebels weren’t flying any planes of their own.

SDG number 16 is calling for “effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels” as a way to promote peace and minimize corruption. Yet the global push for transparency remains highly uneven across sectors leaving defense, arguably one of the most opaque, largely out of view.  Arguments regarding “national security” concerns — while of course sometimes valid — have been grossly abused to justify keeping critical information out of the public domain.

According to research from Transparency International Defence & Security, 25% of countries do not publish their defense budgets, while 30% of military expenditure is by countries with zero meaningful budget transparency at all.  Perhaps most surprisingly, international organisations like the UN and their member states – keen to be promoting “good governance” – have made little issue of states’ partial reporting.

It’s not just the UN and its members of course. As the world’s largest lender, the IMF has also repeatedly acknowledged the consequences of corruption on development and included a series of recommendations for greater transparency.  Yet its recent 2016 report – “Corruption: Costs and Mitigating Strategies” — fails to reference the defense sector even once.  One wonders how the IMF can effectively monitor public expenditure if it ignores arguably one of the most secretive and, in some cases, expensive sectors.

Global defense spending is not only rising—up $675 billion since 2005— it is increasing fastest where standards of governance and levels of transparency are lowest.  The gap between defense spending and public accountability becomes particularly salient when you combine Stockholm Peace and Research Institute’s (SIPRI) new  2015 Trends in World Military Expenditure and Transparency International’s 2015 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (GI). This crosscheck reveals, among other things: 

  • None of the top 10 countries with the highest relative increase in defense spending from 2014-2015 received higher than a D on Transparency International’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index, which grades countries on a scale from A (best) to F (worst) for defense transparency and accountability.
  • Of the 41 countries that spent more than 2 percent of their GDP on defense in 2015, none received an A, while only three received a B.
  • Of the 69 countries that spent more than 5 percent of their government budgets on defense in 2015, only five received an A or B.

SIPRI also found that reallocating only around 10% of world military spending would be sufficient to realize some of the main SDG goals. Countries could easily find that money, without even altering their military ambitions, if less money was wasted on and lost through defense corruption.

Yet across the global defense sector, a lack of transparency and accountability pervades. From arms export controls to budgetary planning, citizens are often denied critical information regarding what their governments are doing. If more isn’t done to ensure minimum standards of transparency and accountability in defense, the SDGs will remain a neat list of aspirations in a more militarized, insecure, world. 

Tobias Bock is Deputy Director of the International Defence and Security Programme at Transparency International UK and a Forum on the Arms Trade-listed expert. Hilary Hurd is Research and Advocacy Officer in the Programme.

Photo: United Nations.

This article was originally published on Forum on the Arms Trade.