Links between Poverty and War

IN FOCUS, 9 Apr 2012

John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

There are several relationships between intolerable economic inequality and war. Today 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day – 1.1 billion on less than $1 per day. 18 million of our fellow humans die each year from poverty-related causes. In 2006, 1.1 billion people lacked safe drinking water, and waterbourne diseases killed an estimated 1.8 million people. The developing countries are also the scene of a resurgence of other infectious diseases, such as malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, in 2011, world military budgets reached a total of $2,157,172,000,000 dollars (i.e. 2.157 million million dollars). This amount of money is almost too large to be imagined. The fact that it is being spent means that many people are making a living from the institution of war. Wealthy and powerful lobbies from the military-industrial complex are able to influence mass media and governments. Thus the institution of war persists, although we know very well that it is a threat to civilization and that it responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience.

Today’s military spending of more than two trillion US dollars per year would be more than enough to finance safe drinking water for the entire world, and to bring primary health care and family planning advice to all. If used constructively, the money now wasted (or worse than wasted) on the institution of war could also help the world to make the transition from fossil fuel use to renewable energy systems.

Military might is used by powerful industrialized nations to maintain economic hegemony over less developed countries. This is true today, even though the colonial era is supposed to be over (as has been amply documented by Professor Michael Klare in his books on “Resource Wars”).

The way in which the industrialized countries maintain their control over less developed nations can be illustrated by the “resource curse”, i.e. the fact that resource-rich developing countries are no better off economically than those that lack resources, but are cursed with corrupt and undemocratic governments. This is because foreign corporations extracting local resources under unfair agreements exist in a symbiotic relationship with corrupt local officials.

One might think that taxation of foreign resource-extracting firms would provide developing countries with large incomes. However, there is  at present no international law governing multinational tax arrangements. These are usually agreed to on a bilateral basis, and the industrialized countries have stronger bargaining powers in arranging the bilateral agreements.

Another important poverty-generating factor in the developing countries is war – often civil war. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are, ironically, the five largest exporters of small arms. Small arms have a long life. The weapons poured into Africa by both sides during the Cold War are still there, and they contribute to political chaos and civil wars that block development and cause enormous human suffering.

The United Nations website on Peace and Security through Disarmament states that “Small arms and light weapons destabilize regions; spark, fuel and prolong conflicts; obstruct relief programmes; undermine peace initiatives; exacerbate human rights abuses; hamper development; and foster a ‘culture of violence’.”

An estimated 639 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation worldwide, one for every ten people. Approximately 300,000 people are killed every year by these weapons, many of them women and children.

There is also another, less obveous, link between intolerable economic inequality war:  Abolition of the institution of war will require the replacement of “might makes right” by the rule international law. It will require development of effective global governance. But reform and strengthening of the United Nations is blocked by wealthy countries because they are afraid of loosing their privileged positions. If global economic inequality were less enormous, the problem of unifying the world would be simplified.

Let us work to break the links between poverty and war! To do that, we must work for laws that will restrict the international sale of small arms; we must work for a fair relationship between developing countries and multinational corporations; and above all, we must question the need for colossal military budgets. By following this path we can free the world from the intolerable suffering caused by poverty and from the equally intollerable suffering caused by war.

Suggestions for further reading:

1.  G. Kolko, “Another Century of War”, New Press, (2002).

2.  G. Kolko, “Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980”, Pantheon Books, (1988).

3.  John A. Hobson, “Imperialism; A Study”, (1902).

4.  M.T. Klare, “Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict”, Owl Books reprint edition, New York, (2002).


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Apr 2012.

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