No recession for global military forces

It seems the military is one economic sector that is pretty much recession proof. While global government spending generally fell in 2009 in the wake of the great recession, and while budgetary deficits soared, there was little interruption to the steady post 9-11 growth in global military spending.

Global military spending reached $1.5 trillion in 2009 – a six percent jump over 2008 and 50 percent higher than it was in 2000.[i]

The annual Stockholm International Peace Research (SIPRI) review of arms control and security reports that in 2009 almost two-thirds of all states surveyed had increased their spending on military forces. More than three-quarters of the G-20 states registered an increase. It was mainly in poorer states, those less able to accommodate higher deficits, where military spending fell.

The bulk of military spending is heavily concentrated in a very few states. The US alone accounts for 40 per cent of the world total. The top five (that’s the same five that enjoy permanent membership in the Security Council) account for 60 per cent, and the top 15 military spenders account for 75 per cent – the remaining 177 states account for 25 per cent of global military spending.

 Canada reflects the global trend. Both SIPRI and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) rank Canada within the top 15, as the 13th highest military spender in the world.[ii] IISS figures, which are in US dollars and and so comparable with other states, show that Canadian military spending (in current dollars) increased from $354 per capita in 2004 to $597 per capita in 2008 – adjusted for inflation it would still be roughly a 40 per cent increase over four years.[iii]

 Spending obviously reflects national priorities, and a comparison of military and development assistance spending in OECD donor states offers at least one insight into how a country tries to spread its influence and make an impact on the world beyond its borders.

 The Table below looks at Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) relative to military spending, comparing that to the ODA to military spending ratio within the OECD collectively, and to the US and two other NATO partners (Norway and Netherlands, both much smaller than Canada and with a lot less territory to patrol, but arguably with similar values and global objectives).

 The Canadian ODA to military spending ratio is generally about 1:4 – that is, Canada spends at least four times as much on military forces as on development assistance (sometimes it is five times as much). In Norway and Netherlands the ratio in both cases is below 1:2 – that is, these two Canadian allies, known for their generally ambitious and effective engagement in international peace and security efforts, spend less than twice as much on their militaries as on development assistance.

 To be fair, Canada, with its much larger land mass (which, on the other hand, is certainly now and foreseeably not under any military threat), is still much closer to the Norway/Netherlands model than to the US model or the OECD average. The US spends more than 25 times as much on its military as on development assistance, and within the OECD the average is just under 10 times as much.

 Ratios of ODA to Military Spending[iv]

  2001 2005 2006 2007 2008
Canada 1:5.6 1:3.4 1:4.1 1:4.4 1:4.1
Norway 1:1.9 1:1.7 1:1.7 1:1.6 1:1.5
Netherlands 1:2.0 1:1.9 1:1.9 1:1.8 1:1.8
US 1:26.7 1:25.1 1:22.0 1:28.5 1:25.8
OECD 1:9.9 1:7.5     1:9.4

 With the Cold War long over, and with some post 9-11 attempts to militarily engineer peace and stability having faltered rather dramatically, there is a wide range of voices calling for some serious rebalancing.[v] One simple and modest, yet sensible, suggestion is to shift some of the excessive military spending in OECD countries to ODA (a suggestion that comes with recognition of the need for much improved aid effectiveness).

 Obviously, governments don’t make those kinds of direct spending transfers, but the point is to promote a shift in priorities that more credibly recognizes the extent to which peace and stability are built on sustainable conditions of social and economic well-being.

 For example, the globally representative interfaith organization, Religions for Peace, currently has a campaign, undertaken through its Youth Program, to “ask all governments to make an official pledge to cut their military budgets by 10% and to re-allocate those funds toward development.”[vi]  The Nobel Prize winning International Peace Bureau has issued a similar call for a shift of 10 percent of military spending to poverty reduction.[vii]

 Well, if Canada were to implement such a modest shift, its ODA as a percentage of GNI would go from .33 percent (using the 2008 figures) to .46 percent – remaining well short of the official goal of .7 percent. The ratio of ODA to military spending would move from 1:4.1 to 1:2.6 (bringing it a lot closer, but still not equal, to the ratio already reached by Norway and the Netherlands).

 More fundamentally, it would be a symbolic and practical recognition that to address insecurity the way most people experience it, there needs to be a whole lot more, and more effective, attention to redressing unmet basic needs, political exclusion, denied rights, social and political disintegration, and the criminal and political violence that invariably attend such conditions of insecurity.


[i] Sam Perlo-Freeman, Olawale Ismail, and Carina Solmirano, “Military Expenditure,” SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 177.

[ii] SIPRI Yearbook 2010, p. 203; and The Military Balance 2010, International Institute for Strategic Studies, pp. 462-468.

[iii]  A Conference of Defence Associations analysis of the Defence Budgets for the years 2006 through 2010 shows an increase of 44 per cent over those four years. Brian MacDonald, CDA Commentary 1-2010, 18 February 2010.

[iv] Based on figures (Current US$) from the IISS Military Balance (2010, 2007, and 2004-5 yearbooks) and the OECD database, the ODA by Donors Table (in Current US$). (

[v] George Hamzo and Ernie Regehr, “Canadian peace and security spending: An update on the 5 Ds,” Ploughshares Monitor, Autumn 2008, volume 29, no. 3.

[vi] The Religions for Peace Campaign for Shared Security had by mid-October  collected an amazing 20,102,746 signatures

[vii] Provide link to website.

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