Getting the priorities right: human or military security?

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Comment by Richard Jolly

World military spending has returned to Cold War levels. Between 2001 and 2003, world military spending increased by 18 percent to reach US$956 billion - very close to the Cold War peak in 1987. Three quarters of that spending was by high income countries, who together spent well over ten times more on the military than on official development assistance to poorer countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

There is a deep irony in the rich world going to ever-greater expense to arm itself against a terror that in part at least feeds on conditions of poverty and feelings of injustice - while holding back on development assistance that could alleviate some of them. But attention also needs to be given to high and increasing military spending by some poor developing counties. Whereas the top 15 military spenders are mainly developed countries - such as the US, Japan, the UK, France and Germany - China and India also increased their military spending in real terms in 2002 by 18% and 9% respectively.

It is not only these high growth rates that are worrying. In terms of national resources, some developing countries spend a higher share of their national resources than many of the top 15. Including the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it now looks like the US spent in the region of 5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military in 2003. Yet in 2001, five Middle Eastern countries spent proportionately more. Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman spent between 8% and 13% of their GDP on the military. Burundi and Ethiopia also spent 8% and 6% respectively.

A development issue

Military spending is a development issue on both economic and humanitarian grounds. On humanitarian grounds, military spending detracts from spending on schools, hospitals and social development. Amongst the economic grounds it is important to note that, in poorer countries, increases in military spending as a percentage of GDP are associated with slow-downs in economic growth.

But the outlook is not altogether depressing. The global increase in military spending is being driven by a minority of high spenders, not a generalised mania. Out of the 90 countries for which there are 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 during 1988- 2001. The numbers of “high” and “medium” human development countries that reduced their spending were even higher - 86% and 72% respectively. The challenge is to continue and extend this trend over the coming months and years, despite the chilling climate of the War on Terror.

Increasing security

But not only is too much being spent on military equipment and personnel, money is often being spent in the wrong places. Over recent decades the nature of insecurity has changed. No longer does most insecurity stem from “traditional threats” across national borders created by an identifiable enemy state. The predominant threats today are increasingly those to human security - from urban crime, HIV/AIDS, population displacement and gender violence, which themselves arise from a variety of causes but have a common impact - making the lives of large numbers of people in many countries less secure and more vulnerable.

Spending on military equipment and personnel typically increases rather than reduces these everyday experiences of human insecurity. What is needed is a “human security” approach that directs resources and action to the security of people's lives, well-being and welfare. Such an approach would shift attention to the security of individuals and communities and away from the security of territory or nations. It would also emphasise the security of people everywhere - in their homes, in their jobs, in their streets, in their communities and in the environment. Above all, it would give priority to action to improve security through economic, social and institutional development, rather than through arms and military action.

Shifting resources

The beginnings of just such an approach were set out in the UNDP's Human Development Report of 1994, and later in various documents prepared by the governments of Canada, Japan and Norway, and in 2003 in the report of the UN's Commission on Human Security entitled “Human Security Now - protecting and empowering people”. Governments and donor agencies now need to respond to these conceptual and humanitarian developments by shifting resources from the military and towards actions for human security and development. These would include spending on the police force, judges and courts, public health services, and on a broad range of social and economic measures to tackle unemployment and environmental deterioration. It would also include support for demilitarisation programmes to undo the negative effects of earlier rounds of military spending and the resultant proliferation of small arms, landmines and cultures of violence.

For most people in developing countries, the largest threats to human security come from urban crime, drug and mafia wars, land mines and small arms proliferation, and violence stirred by racial, cultural or religious intolerance. Gender violence affects many women in both developing and developed countries. There are threats to human security from HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, environmental threats from floods and drought, earthquakes or typhoons - as well as human-made causes of environmental deterioration. The list is long and one of the real challenges is to define a core of threats to human security in order to make the priorities operational.

The most important reason for adopting human security as the frame is to present a full range of choices in deciding how to allocate resources. Each country needs to explore the balance of expenditures to prevent or control the leading threats to its security, across the core of causes of human insecurity. Countries exporting arms also need to assess their own economic needs against their commitments to support sustainable development in other countries.

Such analysis is never easy - but neither are decisions on military budgets. At least in focusing on the core causes of human insecurity, a broader range of concerns and measures is brought into the analysis. For most countries, this will reveal gross imbalances - too much spending on the military, and too little on other measures for the prevention and control of threats to human security. Mediation and negotiation are also vital steps for the prevention and control of dissident and marginalised groups, and for building bridges of reconciliation and inclusion. NNOOTTEE::NN

Topics: Anti-militarism