UN secretary-general António Guterres has issued his first official report on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the world’s pre-eminent road map to fighting poverty, inequality and injustice by 2030. … Across the globe, over 795m people are chronically undernourished, nearly 2bn face water insecurity, and nearly 65m were forced out of their homes last year by war and violence. And the world is not becoming any more hospitable: in over 68 countries, levels of peace declined while over 800m people are vulnerable to the extreme impacts of climate change, through droughts, heatwaves or rising sea levels.

The secretary-general’s report, issued July 17, argues for greater financing and political will. This may be needed but it is unlikely to get to the root of the problem. A lot of good people work in development, trying to make progress on those 17 goals that may change the world. But until policymakers and the development community set their sights on the defence sector, they are facing a Sisyphean task.

The report frequently mentions the impact of violence and insecurity, with conflict identified as “the most insurmountable barrier to poverty eradication and sustainable development”. And yet the defence and security sector is not mentioned once.

Katherine Dixon, Director for defence and security at Transparency, July 2017

SDG 16: To promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

The 12 targets within SDG 16 are wide-ranging and include those that relate to rule of law, corruption, accountability and transparency, access to justice and extended participation in democratic processes. In relation to conflict there is one target that specifically references the arms trade and it reflects the work undertaken by civil society on the Arms Trade Treaty – it is the target to significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows by 2030. This is a good starting point. But when 70% of arms sales are made by the P5 members of the security council and those same five nations charged with keeping the peace of the world while the majority of their arms sales go to the global south, SDG 16 is sorely lacking.

SDG 16: Not far-reaching enough

Many of the Sustainable Development Goals are impacted by conflict.

Meantime, many of the world’s poorest countries and fastest growing economies (both measured in terms of GDP per capita) spend much more on their military than either on education or on health; excessive military spending impedes economic development (SDG 8) and significantly impacts on the efforts to reducing poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2) and improving health (SDG 3) and education (SDG 4).

SDG 16 on peaceful societies needs to go much further than presently constituted. Sustainable development requires that global runaway military spending be regarded as an international development issue.

And we need the hypocrisy of the P5 nations to be called out on this. Approximately 80% of global arms sales are made by the Permanent 5 members of the security council (USA, UK, Russia, China, France) plus Germany – the same nations charged with keeping the peace of the world. All this while the majority of their arms sales go to the global south.

Let’s take the UK. It is one of the world’s biggest arms traders; it has one of the world’s largest defence budgets; it has a seat on all the major global institutions and is also widely recognised for its progressive int’l development policy – often led by effective civil society campaigns.

This affords UK civil society – indeed all P5 nations’ civil society – an opportunity to lead the way in shaping this debate and rise to the challenge to look at many of the key SDGs through the prism of global (and runaway) military spending: currently we have a global refugee crisis of a scale not seen since WW2, much of it driven by wars past and present (and in which UK foreign policy and military action has often played a pivotal role).

SDG 16 is sorely lacking. It is time to call out the unsustainable scandal that is getting us close to a $2 trillion annual global spend (this figure is before the full costs of war are added in). While poverty and hunger are widespread and we now face climate catastrophe, global military expenditure is greater now than at height of Cold War, with excessive billions of tax-payers pounds, dollars and euros flowing into defence and arms industries.

The impact of military spending on the development narrative is huge and it is as every bit as central to understanding power, poverty, economic crises and unjust distribution of resources as other structural issues (and civil society campaigns) such as debt, trade, tax, climate change and most recently the ‘war on drugs’.  This needs to be taken account as and when SGD 16 is revised in future.