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Guns versus Butter
How Arms Sales Compete with Global Anti-Poverty Goals

By H. H. Makhlouf, PhD

Guyana Journal, July 2009

At a time of concern over keeping food exports flowing to developing nations in order to ease food shortages and the accompanying price pressures, and during this period of economic slowdown, the likes of which the world hasn't seen since the Great Depression of 1929, purchase of arms by national governments for upgrading their armed forces is still rising. About $1.46 trillion has been spent on new weapons in 2008, the year the current worldwide recession began. According to an Associated Press report, this amount represents a 4% increase over the previous year, and 45% above the level reached ten years earlier. This level of arms trade comes on top of local production of weapons that are not destined for export.

While the desire to upgrade military capabilities continues, one-third of the world population is still living on less that $1.00 a day, 50% (over 3 billion people) live on $2.50 per day, and 80% earn less that $10.00 per day. Poverty is responsible for the death of 25,000 children every day, according to UNICEF. Equally disturbing is the fact that 400 million children worldwide don't have access to clean water, and of those, 1.4 million die every day due to unsafe water-related diseases. It is further estimated that 790 million adults and children suffer from malnutrition.

In a report to U.S. Congress by Richard Grimmett, entitled “Conventional Arms Transfer to Developing Nations, 2000-2007”, he noted that developing nations are a primary focus of foreign arms sales by weapons suppliers. As a result, it is estimated that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who dominate arms trade, earn more from exporting weapons to low income countries than they give in foreign aid. Transparency International (TI), an organization, which monitors arms trade, accuses arms manufacturers in those countries of using unethical, if not illegal, means to promote their foreign sales. TI describes the arms industry as one of the least regulated and most corrupt in the world. Robert Neild, who wrote “Public Corruption: The Dark Side of Social Evolution”, estimated that $2.5 billion a year is paid by that industry as bribes to foreign officials who have a say in arms acquisitions. These bribes, if they truly take place, boost trade in arms at the expense of other important humanitarian needs.

Arms manufacturers benefit from international tensions, rivalries among traditional adversaries, civil wars, and historical geopolitical disputes that have the potential of leading to open warfare. They have learned how to exploit the climate of fear in the most vulnerable of nations in order to promote a sale. They are also the beneficiaries of foreign aid, extended by the major powers to friendly third world countries, and of subsidies that may be provided by their home country governments to develop new weapons that can be sold both at home and abroad. Sometimes, they extend credit to potential buyers to enhance their competitive standing vis-à-vis their competitors. Although one can't accuse them of being the root cause of wars, the weapons that they sell help in building military strengths and national self-confidence, causing some governments and adventurous national leaders to use the military option in order to simply resolve foreign policy disagreements or deal with perceived threats. The consequences of war to arms suppliers is more lucrative deals and more profits, particularly if they manage to sell to both sides of a dispute.

These concerns about the continued increase in arms sales do not imply that nation-states should stop buying arms, or should abandon or dismantle their armed forces. We still live in a world in which nations have to have the capability to defend themselves. However, one would have hoped that, at least, at this time of global economic slowdown, high unemployment, and financial meltdown, the purchase of new lethal weapons would have declined in order to divert resources to serve the needs of the less fortunate members of society as well as to put added emphasis on programs that aim at the reduction of poverty, disease, and financial insecurity. Indicating how far we are from reaching the UN anti-poverty goals, the Washington Post reported on June 21, 2009 that among the African countries only Ethiopia and Cape Verde have met the world organization's modest anti-poverty targets. The rest didn't.

Dr. H. H. Makhlouf is the Chairman of the Department of Management, Hospitality and Graduate Studies at the University of the District of Columbia.