Holding up development: the effects of small arms and light weapons in developing countries

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Feature by Robert Muggah

Cheap, portable and readily available: every year more than half a million people are killed through the misuse of small arms such as handguns, assault rifles and grenades. Millions more are crippled. With poverty providing an ideal breeding ground for small arms proliferation, African countries are currently the worst hit by a global epidemic of armed violence which threatens the safety and well-being of people in developed and developing countries alike.

The human costs of small arms misuse have social and economic consequences also--affecting the opportunities and productivity of poor communities further still. From Latin America and the Caribbean to sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, research has shown how scarce household resources are being devoted to the treatment and care of the victims of violence, as well as to informal and unregulated forms of security--such as para-militarism and vigilantism. Small arms misuse is also strongly associated with the increasing lethality of criminality, forced migration, the deterioration of investment and trade and the obstruction of aid delivery and assistance. Both directly and indirectly then, small arms misuse undermines the quality and quantity of development in poor countries.

Community solutions

Just as poverty and violence are intertwined, so too must be their effective remedies. Research has shown that investments in improving public security--from the strengthening of community policing in Malawi to investments in better lighting and communications infrastructure in districts of Albania—are strongly correlated with reductions in violence and poverty. But the development community has yet to fully wake up to the wide-ranging effects of small arms. The issue is often treated as somebody else's problem, as too big and complex and therefore not amenable to a developmental response.

Fortunately, innovative and proactive approaches to the issue are emerging from the affected communities themselves. Research has revealed for example that local Kosovo-Albanian and Serb communities are less attached to their weapons than commonly believed, and that many civilians recognise the importance of reducing the number of arms in their community in order for trust to take hold, and development to flourish.

Such findings challenge the popular assumption that once arms become embedded within a culture they cannot be removed. To the contrary, many communities eagerly participate in measures to reduce the threat of violence and the misuse of small arms. The International Action Network on Small Arms has documented a vast array of community-led efforts that often escape the headlines:from anti-weapons campaigns in Rio de Janeiro to gun-free zones in Johannesburg.

Small arms

The proliferation of small arms has been increasingly motivating the establishment of public advocacy organisations and the United Nations.


The impact of small arms appears to be more devastating than other sectors of the arms trade, as firearms account for up to 90 per cent of fatalities in modern conflict according to the UN. The Small Arms Survey - a much-admired Geneva-based research-tank - estimate that over half a million people are killed every year by small arms and even more injured.

This number is sure to increase as more and more countries continue to manufacture small arms, often replicating famous models such as the AK-47. During the Cold War only a handful of countries produced small arms. Now 95 countries legally produce guns, almost half the nations on earth. Some of these countries, such as Pakistan, have allowed gun-making “cottage industries” to flourish. Mixed with lax export controls, and poor economic conditions that create an urgency to sell and export, it seems unlikely that many states will stop production without a massive focus of outside assistance.

Legal small arms trading amounts to about US$5bn a year - around 10 percent of all global arms trading. Inevitably, as production increases prices are driven lower and lower and firearms become more readily available.

There are approximately 500 million small arms in circulation around the world - one for every twelve people. Firearms are therefore now more widely available than ever before - especially in developing countries where they can be obtained for relatively low prices. Oxfam recently uncovered that in Sudan, Kalashnikov rifles could be bought for the same price as a chicken. In 2001, the Small Arms Survey reported that there were more gun shops in the US than McDonald's restaurants.

Low price guns have a devastating effect on the maintenance of peace and order, as many developing countries are embroiled in some form of conflict. But it also creates a greater danger that everyday human altercations and crime will turn into situations of fatal violence. The wide availability of firearms also poses great challenges to countries attempting to rebuild their communities after a war. The scarcity of resources and the absence of law and order could lead many people to resort to violence.

The light weight of small arms means that children can easily be trained to use them. The UN estimates there to be more than 300,000 child soldiers currently involved in 30 conflicts around the world. Children are often recruited to fight in these conflicts as they are agile, fast and obedient.

It is estimated that around half the combatants in Liberia's bloody civil war are under the age of 18, the overwhelming majority of whom are fighting using small arms.

Top small arms sellers


Rank Country US$Milllions
1 USA Over 1,200 2 Germany 384 3 Russia 100-150 4 Brazil 100-150 5 Austria 60 6 Czech Rep. 59 7 UK 44 8 South Korea 43 9 Sweden 40 10 Poland 40  
Source: Small Arms Survey 2001


A central pillar of security

What is needed now is more concentrated investment in these efforts from the inter-national development community. Small arms control should no longer be con-fined to a narrow group of experts in the disarmament sector or conceived purely as a “soft” or low-priority security issue. Instead, it should be re-positioned as one of many central pillars of the security and development agendas of the international community and affected states.

Whilst international and national agencies have begun to recognise weapon trafficking and small arms control as a development issue, converting noble aspirations into action presents a number of challenges. Firstly, many of the ongoing efforts to reduce small arms misuse focus too simplistically on the supply of arms alone, ignoring reasons for their demand,or the effects they have on communities. To be effective, these efforts need to complement their top-down control of arms supplies with increased involvement from affected communities in the design, implementation and monitoring of strategies to reduce armed violence.

Politically averse

Secondly, there are still many governments, and thus development aid departments,that are politically averse to recognising small arms control as a development issue. A number of these are reluctant to regulate civilian possession, or restrain local markets in small arms. Alarmingly, some development agencies also still require convincing of the importance of the issue in relation to their mainstream activities. The World Bank, for example, supports demobilisation and reintegration(DDR) programmes to reduce armed violence in war-torn areas, and has recently called for the DDR of over 350,000 ex-combatants in nine countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa alone. Yet the World Bank's own Operational Policy (2.30) insists that no funds be devoted to the first “D” of “DDR”--disarmament-- nor to small arms control. That the World Bank is unable to directly support disarmament is paradoxical and threatens to undermine the success of the regional initiative.

US's narrow focus

Thirdly, the UN Programme of Action to Combat the Illicit Trafficking of Small Arms was drawn up in July 2001, and makes passing reference to the importance of curbing small arms availability and misuse in relation to development. Whilst the programme is a start, many member states, and particular those in Africa, were disappointed at the United States' insistence on focusing the matter only on illegal and not legal trade in small arms, and its refusal to endorse a programme which placed restrictions on supplying non-state actors with arms, or prohibiting civilian possession.

Finally, it is vital that NGOs, UN agencies and interested parties articulate relevant campaigning goals that are easily communicated to the public and politicians and translatable into policy objectives for donors and affected countries. Given the far-reaching consequences of small arms misuse on development, aid targeted at small arms reduction represents a cost-effective investment. But the real test is for the development community to think creatively about how to successfully and sustainably “roll” small arms reduction into current and future poverty-reduction priorities.

In conclusion

Freedom from fear and the promotion of safety and security are indisputable pre-conditions for human development. Though the development sector faces a host of competing priorities, its proponents should recall that the reduction and destruction of small arms can play a significant role in advancing greater security and development for all.