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Gun control, international style.

The Mexican government announced in 1982 that it was unable to repay its foreign debt. Within months, it became clear that numerous other countries might also default on their loans. The causes ranged from mismanagement, or sheer graft, to soaring global interest rates and collapsing commodity prices. But a largely unmentioned factor was military spending.

Military priorities have not only contributed to crippling indebtedness, but also have drained resources from programs that could alleviate poverty and underdevelopment. In the decade since Mexico's action, the situation has only become worse. This squandering of critically needed aid has largely gone unchallenged, at least until recently, by Western lending agencies - including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In recent months, the lenders' Cold War taboo against questioning how many tanks or missiles a country really needs has been broken. Not only demilitarization, but also such related considerations as respect for human rights and the health of the environment, are becoming determinants for the flow of aid.

Rather than apply strictly military-related conditions to their lending, the World Bank and the IMF have opted for an indirect strategy: for a debtor to receive new credits, the country is required to meet certain economic targets, such as getting government budgets under control, that can't be reached without reducing military budgets. And both institutions have issued public statements acknowledging the conflict between military and development objectives.

Individual donor countries - notably Canada, Germany, and Japan - have also begun to explore how to apply conditions to their foreign aid. But the status quo of aid politics still holds. Those governments that have regarded aid primarily as a tool of geopolitical influence - in particular, the United States, Britain, and France - have made no moves in this direction. Of course, it's not a simple issue, since some level of military readiness may be necessary for even the poorest country to protect what meager assets it has. The challenge to lenders is how to define "excessive" military spending. But however it is defined, it appears to be blatantly out of proportion in much of the world. In almost 20 percent of all Third World countries, military spending surpasses the combined public expenditures on health and education. The worst misallocations are those of Afghanistan, Burma, Chad, North Korea, and virtually all of the Middle Eastern countries.

In Pakistan, for example, military expenditures and foreign debt repayments absorb almost two-thirds of government revenue. The country's military budget is almost three times as large as its health and education budgets combined. Yet living conditions remain squalid: half the population must drink from unsafe water sources, the female literacy rate is below 20 percent, and infant mortality stands at 109 deaths per 1,000 live births. Given this imbalance military budgets would seem to be prime targets in the effort to cope with the international debt crisis. Yet, lenders have traditionally regarded a nation's security policy as a sacred emblem of sovereignty. These same lenders have no reservation about routinely shaping the spending priorities of debtor nations by insisting that recipients submit to the International Monetary Fund's (and more recently the World Bank's) medicine of "structural adjustment" as a precondition for financial assistance.

This blind spot was noted a few years ago by Susan George, author of A Fate Worse than Debt, who observed: "When asked about this anomaly, Fund personnel recoil and explain in pained tones that such measures would be |interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations' (which is exactly what the Fund does every working day)." What could constitute greater interference than dictating to a country how much it spends to improve its citizens' well-being?

Countries ruled by armed forces or embroiled in external conflict have strong incentives to oppose aid that comes with strings attached. Others may reject it as paternalistic. But some nations that are emerging from devastating wars or trying to shake off the legacy of military dictatorship, such as El Salvador and Chile, are more receptive.

One major limitation of the "aid conditionality" strategy is that not all heavily militarized countries need aid badly enough to give up military muscle. Although the most aid-dependent countries arc probably devoting too many resources to the military, they tend not to be the ones with the largest military establishments.

"There is a very real possibility that lenders may find themselves pressing for military reform in the economically weakest countries, while some of the major military powers in the developing world may escape control," cautions Nicole Ball, author of a 1992 study of aid conditionality for the Overseas Development Council. For countries such as China, India, and Pakistan, or the wealthy countries in the Persian Gulf region, trade, investment, and technology transfer might be more effective levers.

Another limitation is that while it may be a welcome change, the idea of wealthy donor countries advising other countries to scale down their military spending may be perceived as throwing stones from a glass house. Many donors maintain bloated military establishments. Throughout the Cold War, they regarded Third World nations as mere pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, supplying them with large quantities of weapons and often overlooking massive human rights violations. Official development aid - which did not grow during the 1980s - is dwarfed by arms sales.

Ironically, the arms that donors are asking the developing countries to lay down may be the same ones they sold the Third World in the first place. Even now, as they begin to preach a new religion, the industrialized countries continue to provide military aid, peddle arms, and reserve the right to intervene militarily abroad. Unless the industrial world seriously curbs its own military spending, encouraging such reform in the South will lack legitimacy.
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Title Annotation:control of military spending
Author:Renner, Michael
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:949
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