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Arms Spending Instead of Basic Aid

Authors: Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, Peter Prove, and Arnold Kohen
August 22, 2002
International Herald Tribune


Despite the coming World Summit on Sustainable Development, it is nearly certain that the tens of billions of additional dollars needed to attack world poverty seriously will be unavailable. So it is an appropriate time to address the issue of budget priorities.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has received only $2.1 billion in pledges toward the $13 billion needed. Hundreds of millions of people lack the most basic health care, education and sanitation. But world military spending is increasing. Some limited progress was made this year with promises of an increase in development assistance at the International Conference on Financing for Development held in Monterrey, Mexico. But these promises are not significant given the scale of the need, even more so when compared with the sums spent on military hardware.

Johannesburg, like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is aimed at confronting the long-term consequences of environmental degradation. World poverty is an essential element in any environmental equation, leaving aside the overwhelming ethical issues involved.

In its report "The State of the World's Children 2000," Unicef stresses that the world could meet basic human needs for everyone on earth by redirecting $70 billion to $80 billion a year, or less than 10 percent of the world's military spending, to this purpose.

To be sure, better use must be made of existing financial resources so that they actually address unmet human needs. Effectiveness must be the watchword. Indeed, human needs should be determined in accordance with local priorities within a framework of rigorous accountability. But such accountability must apply to all. Global military expenditures in 2002 are estimated to be at least $700 billion. Spending on development aid in 2001 was estimated at $50 billion

Budgets for assistance to some of the world's poorest people and vulnerable groups like refugees and victims of famine in regions like southern Africa and Central America have atrophied.

No responsible effort to address these issues can sidestep the disparities that exist in spending priorities. In the last two years alone the military budget of the United States has increased by $80 billion

Partly in the name of the war against terrorism, European nations are also being urged to augment their defense budgets. But to the extent that vast resources are diverted from meeting human needs, we are only postponing the day of reckoning. Worsening poverty throughout the world can only create conditions of desperation that may lead to more terrorism.

The substantially increased military spending that was already taking place did not prevent the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even more military spending in the future is no guarantee of success in the war against terrorism.

Redressing the imbalance between military spending and efforts to reduce poverty would create vast resources to tackle pressing human and social needs. Such efforts would create a better quality of life for people on a worldwide scale and foster a more harmonious global community.

In concert with secular allies, religious communities can play a vital part in addressing these disparities. In poor communities in the richer countries, religious groups have a special social role, while in parts of the developing world religious institutions are often the only reliable providers of basic services. Thus, almost everywhere religious institutions have an enormous stake in finding ways to alter the apportionment of financial resources.

Polls indicate that Americans are willing to support increased spending on the hungry and destitute at home and abroad. Such sentiments could, in time, lead to changes in political thinking and help close the gap in development assistance spending that exists between the United States and other rich nations.

But a change is not only needed in America, it is also needed worldwide.

Lawrence J. Korb, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Arnold Kohen is international coordinator of Global Priorities, an inter-religious campaign to change budget priorities. Peter Prove is a member of the Lutheran World Federation's office for international affairs and human rights. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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