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Economics 101

Manitobans brave the cold weather to demonstrate for peace in IraqThe Economics of War

One of the most disturbing outcomes of our obsession with the monetary economy, is the notion that war - the destruction of human life - is good for the economy. Many governments have been convinced that war is the spark that can boost a faltering economy, and the industry of killing is an integral part of the economic activity of most countries. Because women are among those most affected by war, it is we who often bear the brunt of this mistaken thinking.

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The business of death
As Marilyn Waring sums up, "War is marketable. War pays, literally."1 Indeed, war is big business. Global military expenditures currently exceed $1.3 trillion dollars per year or 2.7% of the world gross domestic product. Military spending has increased by 49% since the year 2000. The United States spends more than any other country on war, their makes up 46.5% of the global total.2 The appetite for instruments of death is huge. Companies producing armaments are quite literally making a killing from the sale of small arms, landmines, weapons of mass destruction, and the vast array of other instruments of death available around the world. Even in our 'peacekeeping' country of Canada, sales of the top 10 largest military contractors in the country exceed $3 billion. 3

A large part of the economies of all of the world's wealthiest countries derives from the sale of weapons. The United States is the world's biggest weapons exporter, and provided 54 billion US dollars worth of exports between 1996 and 2000 - 45% of the world's total weapons exports. Russia follows at 21 billion dollars worth (17% of the world total). Next is France with 11 billion dollars (9%), the United Kingdom with 8 billion (7%), and Germany with 6 billion dollars (5%) of weapons exports.4 These five countries - all members of the elitist G8 and among the richest in the world - dominate 83% of the world's weapons exports. There is no doubt that governments, corporations, and investors in these countries are making a lot of money off the business of death.5 Perhaps this is the reason the United States refuses to sign the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Mines.

Girls in Lebanon The UN Development Program reports that, "Worldwide, the uncontrolled proliferation of an estimated 550 million small arms - including 100 million assault rifles - contributes to some 500,000 firearm-related deaths each year."6 Between 2003 and 2005 another 7,000 children and adults were killed by land mines each year.7 Deaths as a result of weapons of mass destruction bring still higher numbers. Within the first few months of the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima, 240,000 people had died as a result. And according to the UN, there was a 700% increase in cancer rates in Iraq between 1991 and 1994. Since the end of the Second World War, 86 million people have died in wars.

Women and war
The costs of the business of death are not equally shared across the globe and among all peoples of the world. While most of the profit from global weapons trade stays in rich, industrialized countries, the majority of the devastation is born by people living in the poorest regions of the world. According the 2002 UN Development Report, sub-Saharan Africa lost over 1.5 million people between 1990 and 1999 as a result of armed conflict. And the numbers are not going down. Since 1998 the African Great War in the Democratic Republic of Congo and involving seven neighbouring nations has cost 2.5 million lives.8 Within these regions, it is often women - the most vulnerable of already vulnerable peoples - who pay the biggest price.

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) notes some of the reasons why women and girls are most at risk in times of armed conflict:

  • Around the world, some 40 million people are displaced by conflict or human rights violations. More than 75 percent of them are women and their dependant children.
  • Rape and sexual assault of women and girls are common weapons of war. Nearly every girl over the age of 12 who survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda had been raped. Mass rapes were reported during conflicts in Bosnia in the early 1990s and in East Timor in 1999. In some places, girls are recruited into rebel forces to serve as sex slaves for male fighters. Rape is also used as a tool for ethnic cleansing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence continues to be used by armed actors in the civil war to destabilize communities. For example, in a span of just one week during the summer of 2010, it was reported that almost 200 women were gang raped in the eastern part of the country by two militia groups. 9
  • Women's health is severely compromised during times of war. Because of needs related to child-bearing, women are much more likely to suffer when health services break down. Their caregiving responsibilities (for children, the elderly, the disabled) during wartime puts them at great risk of illness, in a context where help may not be available.
  • Women and girls are more likely to be killed or injured than male civilians in conflicts where small arms or landmines are used. They are the ones usually responsible for gathering fuel or water, and are thus at high risk of injury or death.
  • War breaks up family units. For people living in poverty, the death or disability of an income-earning family member can have devastating consequences leading to long-term poverty. On a personal level, families that are headed by women or girls become increasingly economically vulnerable to exploitation through labour or sex. On a societal level, countries with vulnerable economic and social histories suffer tremendously through the loss of a workforce.
  • Because of women's family and community responsibilities, it is women who must work even harder to keep families and communities together during times of social upheaval created by war. Women also bear much of the responsibility of rebuilding communities when conflict ends. Despite this peacebuilding work, women are rarely involved in official peace processes.10

Boys in AngolaThe politics of conflict
It is clear that rich countries have economic interests in the perpetuation of war and the trade in weapons that fuel war. But the relative lack of progress in ending the arms trade is about more than profit. The part of the story that we don't often hear about is the fact that the arms industry is massively subsidized. In the United States, only agricultural production receives more subsidies than the arms industry and arms are often given away in the form of 'aid.'11 Between 1989 and 1998 the United States supplied $227 million worth of weapons and training to African military forces of which $111 million went to governments involved in war.12 Brian Wood of Amnesty International reports that the United States recently increased its small arms exports by 1.3 billion dollars - all to countries with records of human rights abuses.13 Greg Puley of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress says, "It's not a state secret that the G8 countries armed dictators including Hussein, Suharto, Mobutu, Bin Laden, and others."14

The reasons why rich countries perpetuate war in volatile areas of the world are complex and many. However, at least one contributing factor is natural resources. While their economies may be small, many of the countries with the highest numbers of deaths from weapons are resource rich. In timber-rich Liberia, whose citizens are struggling with a civil war that has gone on for over a decade, arms are brought in on logging trucks owned by foreign corporations.15 In Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, money from illegally sold diamonds is used to purchase guns.16 Ian Smillie of Partnership Africa Canada reports: "Diamonds don't kill people. Yet, the record indicates that diamonds have helped sustain armed conflicts that, in Africa, have killed almost one million people in just over a decade."17

Resources and weapons work together to create a deadly combination. Weapons cause death, death creates instability, and instability provides an opportunity for corporations to enter resource rich zones and reap tremendous spoils with little to stop them. From diamonds in Angola and Sierra Leone to timber in Liberia to oil in the Sudan and Iraq, corporations (many of them owned by the world's richest countries, including Canada) are raking in millions of dollars of profits from resources to which they have no rights. In their wake lies social and environmental devastation. What little financial compensation is provided often goes directly to dictatorial leaders rather than poverty-stricken citizens.

Young men in Sierra LeoneIn comparison
Many global citizens have made comparisons between what the world spends on death and what we spend on life. Although the $18.6 billion dollars Canada spent on Defense in 2008/0918 pales in comparison to our American neighbours, it is more than the amount necessary to provide safe and clean drinking water to the entire world population.19 It's also nearly five times the $5.4 billion Canada spent on international assistance in that year.20 Researchers at the World Game Institute estimate that just 30% of the world's military budget could solve 18 of the world's biggest problems including eliminating starvation and malnutrition, as well as provide clean safe and renewable energy, build democracy, and provide health care and AIDS control. (See O.S.earth for more)

Each of us can imagine a world where life is worth more than death and where violence, conflict, and preparing for war is worth absolutely nothing. What will it take for that to happen?

What can I do?

  • Educate yourself.
    Find out more about the extent of the relationship between violence and economics both in Canada and around the world. Consider issues such as the global arms trade, domestic violence and gun control in Canada, the relationship between natural resources and conflict, and others. Spend time learning about war and violence as well as the thousands of peace-making activities going on around the world. Here are a few websites to start you off:

  • Question the media.
    By and large the mainstream media have done a very poor job of reporting on situations of armed conflict around the globe. Because of this it becomes our own responsibility to find out what's happening around the world including how the governments of our own countries are involved in perpetuating conflict. We also need to challenge the media for not providing the whole story, letting them know that we are interested and that they have a responsibility to cover all aspects of news from all parts of the world.

  • Talk about it.
    As you learn more, talk to your friends, teachers, co-workers, neighbours about what you're learning. Then talk to your elected representatives and urge them to use their power to end rather than perpetuate violence.

  • Shrine in Lebanon Get involved.
    Join others who feel passionately about ending war and violence to make your voice louder. Many organizations are already working hard on specific campaigns and they need your help. Join a local peace organization or one of the organizations listed above. Volunteer your time, subscribe to their monthly newsletter, and find other ways to get involved.

Despite the tremendous levels of violence in our world, there are many stories of peace. In the African country of Mozambique, the war may be officially over but there are still 10 million illicit arms circulating around the country. The Arms into Ploughshares project has discovered a creative use for these arms, most of which originated in Europe: create art. Nyararai Magudu of the project says, "The UN failed to disarm ex-combatants despite their opulent resources. With our broken-down trucks we have already collected over 200,000 weapons." The arms are destroyed or used to produce art which is displayed internationally. It's up to all of us to find our own ways to turn the creation of death into the possibility of life.

1 Waring, Marilyn. Excerpts from Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth. 2nd edition. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1999.
World Military Spending, Anup Shah summarizing findings from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 20010 Yearbook. Global Issues. Downloaded November 28, 2010
3 Project Ploughshares. The Monitor. 2002.
4 UN Development Report 2002. Available at http://www.undp.org
5 It is interesting to note that military industries are excluded in all World Trade Organization free trade negotiations. For more information see "A Convergence of Globalization and Militarization." by Theresa Wolfwood in Press for Conversion! July 2001. Available at http://www.ncf.ca/coat/.
6 UN Human Development Report 2002. Available here.

7 Reference Landmine Casualties, Map #290 World Mapper.org downloaded December 3, 2010
8 New Internationalist. October 2002.
9 Mass Rape in DRC Topic of Emergency Security Council Session. August 26, 2010 By Mark Leon Goldberg UN Dispatch downloaded November 28, 2010.
10 United Nations Fund for Women. Progress of the World's Women, 2002: Women, War and Peace - The Independent Experts' Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peace-building. Available here. Compiled by Mennonite Central Committee Canada's Women's Fast for Peace with some additions by Jennifer deGroot.
11 Greg Puley of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress and Project Ploughshares at a panel discussion entitled "They give aid with one hand and arms with the other." G6B Counter Summit. Calgary, Canada. June 2002.
12 New Internationalist. October 2002.

13 Brian Wood of Amnesty International at a panel discussion entitled "They give aid with one hand and arms with the other." G6B Counter Summit. Calgary, Canada. June 2002.
14 Greg Puley of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress and Project Ploughshares at a panel discussion entitled "They give aid with one hand and arms with the other." G6B Counter Summit. Calgary, Canada. June 2002.
15 Alice Blondel of Global Witness. Panel discussion on "Conflict Resources." G6B Counter Summit. Calgary, Canada. June 2002.
16 Ian Smillie of Partnership Africa Canada at a panel discussion entitled "They give aid with one hand and arms with the other." G6B Counter Summit. Calgary, Canada. June 2002.
17 Ian Smillie. "Dirty Diamonds: Armed Conflict and the Trade in Rough Diamonds."
18 Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada 2001/02.
19 World Game Institute
20 Statistical Report on International Assistance - Fiscal Year 2007-2008, CIDA website. Downloaded December 22, 2010.


  • Economics Glossary

    "Every minute, thirty children die from want of food and inexpensive vaccines. And every minute the world's military budget absorbs $1.3 million of the public treasury. This is war.

    The cost of a single new nuclear submarine equals the annual education budget of twenty-three developing countries with 160 million school-aged children. This is war.

    For every 100,000 people in the world, there are 556 soldiers but only 85 doctors. This is war.

    For every soldier, the average world military expenditure is $22,000. For every school-aged child, the average public education expenditure is $380. This is war.

    War is marketable. War pays, literally. War contributes to growth and development. The economic system says so."

    Marilyn Waring [
    1981 figures]

    "There is no profit from war, only destruction and loss of life."

    Nyararai Magudu

    "On that day, when the woman takes her place beside the man in the governance and arrangement of external affairs of her race will also be that day that heralds the death of war as a means of arranging human differences."

    Olive Schreiner, 1914

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