$17 Trillion? That's a Lot of Money So What Do We Have to Show for It?


London. The political obsession with military force which has dominated the priorities of too many countries has drained the world's wealth and vitality beyond all reasonable measure.

Ruth Sivard in the 13th edition of her remarkable "World Military and Social Expenditures" calculates that in the short span of three decades expenditures on the global arms race have consumed $17 trillion of the world's resources. This rate of spending on guns has grown faster than the world's economic product, denying to a rapidly growing population the earned benefits of an expanding economy. In the course of the 1980s two governments out of three have spent more on defense than on the everyday hazards of disease, accidents and ill health.

It is no fluke of economics that the United States and the Soviet Union, first in military power, rank 17th and 45th among all nations in their infant-mortality rates.

1991 is the year we should have turned the corner and put these misappropriations behind us. On September 30 last year 71 presidents and prime ministers came together for the first World Summit for Children. It was the largest gathering of heads of government in history and concluded with a bold commitment to cut child deaths by a third and child malnutrition by a half by the end of the century.

Briefly it seemed a credible promise; it was a season of raised expectations. Only a month later the heads of government of Europe and North America toasted the end of the Cold War in Paris with a solemn declaration that they were "no longer adversaries." From the Third World came confirmation that the number of wars was declining substantially. Wars long in process -- Namibia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, Cambodia and Angola -- had either ended or were in the midst of serious peace negotiations. Even more important, no new wars were starting up.

Now we are plunged into what shows signs of becoming the most serious armed conflict since World War II. It effects will be painful for all, but most harmful to the poor. Such money as is available for relief and aid is going to the so-called front-line states, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Africa and Latin America? Simply put, no one in authority in the rich countries has time to give them a thought.

Within a week of the outbreak of hostilities, the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome had to cancel a meeting meant to discuss new funding for agricultural projects in poor countries, and in particular an effort to combat the impact of the drought in sub-Saharan Africa.

Also canceled that week in Rome was a critically important meeting on the campaign to eradicate the deadly screw worm fly, which threatens livestock in northern and central Africa.

UNICEF, host to the children's summit, is already being forced to rethink some of its optimistic assumptions. And the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa reports that the gulf war threatens to sweep away what little economic growth Africa made in the last three years. The crisis so far has cost Africa an extra $2.7 billion in more expensive oil. As for the famine now squeezing the life out of Ethiopia and the Sudan, and said by some observers to be the worst in African history, media attention is scant and public sympathy too drained by the emotions of the gulf war to give it much thought.

This is the nature of the beast of war: It absorbs our energies, sucks dry the well of human interest for other problems and, not least, pre-empts the budget for the really important things of life -- how to nurture and preserve it, how to make it less painful and more fulfilled.

President Bush's war has now got all the makings of an enterprise that will drag on for years, destroying not only the lives of those engaged but the hopes and aspirations of hundreds of millions of the poor, hungry and diseased all over the world. Henry Kissinger's much vaunted "surgical strikes" have not only failed to deliver the military short cut, they have destroyed the future of those who had reason to believe this decade would be theirs.

A mere 5 percent reduction in the current annual military outlays of $1 trillion, which certainly would have come to pass if there'd been no gulf war, could have made possible a doubling of public expenditure on the health care of the 4 billion people in the Third World, providing enough resources to immunize every baby and to bring fresh water and basic sanitation within 10 years to every village.

This, baldly put, is the cost of Saddam Hussein's avaricious invasion of Kuwait and George Bush's rush to war without giving sanctions the chance they deserved.

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