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Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Ever since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by the United Nations in 2000, there has been an intense debate around the world. How to finance them? How to organise development programmes to ensure that the targets are met? How to evaluate progress? And so on.

The deadline in 2015 for achieving the MDGs is fast approaching. Governments have only 3 more years to halve poverty, to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality rate, to halt the spread of HIV, etc. Only a few of the 8 MDG targets have been achieved, and only for some states. None of the fragile and conflict-affected countries have achieved any of them. For many of the poorest people in the world, conflict and violence make the development of their region impossible.

As the thinking develops on what will be the follow-up to the MDGs, a new debate is under way. Some governments and NGOs are promoting the idea of a fresh set of targets called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is some rather preliminary language on this in the Rio+20 Outcome Document ‘The Future We Want’. But neither in the original Millennium Development Goals nor in the proposed SDG principles can we find any mention of either Disarmament or Peace.

From within the UN agencies there is a wider concept emerging, the ‘Post-2015 Development Agenda’, and to help frame the debate the UN Secretary-General has charged the UN System Task Team to come up with an initial report Realising the Future We Want for All. The Task Team is composed of some 60 UN bodies, but with the notable exclusion of the Office of Disarmament Affairs.

In contrast to the SDG approach, this document does identify Peace and Security as one of the 4 ‘core dimensions’, the other 3 being Inclusive Economic Development; Inclusive Social Development, and Environmental Sustainability. Yet the text describing peace and security is very general and has no reference either to disarmament and weapons (e.g. small arms, landmines) or military spending.

The Task Team has also published a Thematic Think Piece on Peace and Security. They point out that among the weaknesses of the MDGs is the absence of goals related to peace, security, human rights and justice. This paper focuses very clearly on the links between violent conflicts and development. It identifies 3 goals or pillars: Peace & Security; Sustainable Socio-Economic development and Human Rights.

In the view of the IPB, the new emphasis on peace and security is welcome, but does not go nearly far enough. We believe it is vital that reductions in military spending be specifically highlighted. After all, how will governments find the resources to meet the new targets if they continue to spend $1700 billion per year on the military? Rich and poor states alike are pressured into arms races, spending more on armament than they need and at the same time often unable to meet the basic needs of their population or (in the case of rich countries) to reach the agreed UN target of 0.7% (of GNP) for development assistance.

This proposal from IPB is hardly a revolutionary one: at the Earth Summit in 1992, 178 states adopted the Agenda 21 programme in which one chapter focuses on the financial aspects of development. This action plan lists ‘reducing military spending’ as one of the possible ‘innovative financing’ mechanisms for development. However, this idea has not been carried over into states’ budgeting practices – nor has it been featured in the many subsequent international conferences on innovative financing for development.

Fortunately the UN leadership has taken a firm stand on this point. It is one of the core missions of the UN to encourage states to rethink their budgeting priorities. Ban Ki-moon himself frequently repeats that “The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded” – the title of a new UN exhibit on the relationship between military and development spending. Using the figures for 2010, the exhibit juxtaposes global military expenditure and the UN budget. The comparisons are shocking: military spending was 12.7 times higher than overall Official Development Assistance ($128 bn), 604 times higher than the combined regular UN budgets for Peace and Security, Development, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and International Law ($2.7 bn), and 2508 times higher than the expenditures of the (UN) International Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Organizations ($0.65 bn).

The more than $1.6 trillion spent each year by the world’s Governments to arm and make themselves ready for war could go a long way towards easing poverty, providing universal access to education and healthcare, fighting discrimination and inequities and protecting the environment and human rights. In short, redirecting these funds could go a long way towards making the world more secure than it is right now.

(Disarmament: A Basic Guide – UN, 2011)

Critics may argue against reducing military expenditure by justifying the need for robust armed forces and high levels of spending to ensure national security and technical innovation. But the counter-arguments are powerful too. It is crucial that human security becomes the over-riding paradigm, rather than the narrow parameters of state security, and that it translates into new budget priorities. Though a handful of states may disagree, almost all accept in principle the linkage between disarmament and development. It does not advanced mathematics to figure out that $1 billion spent on nuclear missiles, for example, is $1 billion missing from a budget to provide clear water or prevent malaria. That is what ‘opportunity costs’ signifies.

The debate over the Post-2015 agenda will be a drawn-out one. There is a very large consultation exercise under way, with formal stakeholder dialogues in at least 50 countries, and also in various UN bodies. The Secretary-General has recently set up a High-level Panel to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015 which will draw on all the sources mentioned above. In September 2013 a special event on the MDGs will be held at the General Assembly and resolutions on the Post-2015 Development Agenda are expected. Hopefully, our disarmament perspective will be included and transfers away from military spending encouraged.

For the time being, all development actors within or outside of the UN rightly insist on keeping the immediate focus on the MDGs until 2015 and putting all possible efforts into achieving them. However, as the Post-2015 debate hots up, it is extremely important that the opportunity is not lost to make sure that governments genuinely commit themselves to reducing their investments in militarism, and to shifting resources to development programmes that are in desperate need of financing. At this crossroads in the history of sustainable development, we can say this is an issue whose time truly has come.

** Colin Archer and Annette Willi, Geneva, 11 September, 2012


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