Mapping development assistance to small arms control: why does it matter?

By Giovanna Maletta and Lucile Robin, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Small arms, large impacts

Widely available and easy to conceal, small arms and light weapons (generally referred to as SALW) are easily trafficked and acquired both in times of war and peace. This can negatively impact the development of a country in many ways. Among the most directly identifiable effects are the deaths and injuries they can cause, which can increase financial pressure on households, communities, and health systems. In Zambia, treating a patient for gunshot wounds costs more than $100, which represents approximately ten times the cost of treating a patient with malaria. Small arms proliferation can also indirectly fuel conflicts and armed violence, force displacement, reduce economic opportunities, and limit access to healthcare and education.

As an example, in 2019 armed conflict in Burkina Faso caused 1,515 deaths. The country is plagued by terrorist attacks, insurgent jihadist violence, and farmer-herder conflicts, which are exacerbated by the trafficking of small arms. This is a difficult challenge for Burkina Faso to tackle alone, and one requiring international assistance. For instance, in 2018 the country received technical support to develop a national system to record surrendered or seized weapons and to identify sources of illicit arms. Burkinabe authorities are also involved in training activities to help states keep their arms and ammunitions safely stored, as well as awareness raising seminars on the importance of participating in mechanisms to regulate conventional arms control.   

Burkina Faso is not an isolated case: most Sub-Saharan African countries remain significantly affected by small arms trafficking, and around 30 million of these weapons are estimated to be circulating in the region. These countries also perform poorly in terms of development indicators, with 18 out of the 20 lowest ranking countries in the 2019 Human Development Index located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of these 18, ten were also countries with active armed conflicts in 2019.

The international community widely acknowledges – for example through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Agenda for Disarmament – the negative impact of small arms proliferation on security and development,  as well as the importance of providing support to states to control or reduce their spread. Official development assistance (ODA) has progressively become an important source of funding in this field. Yet, mapping the actual use of development spending in Sub-Saharan Africa to inform actors’ work in the field, and ultimately support the populations most vulnerable to the risks of small arms trafficking, remains challenging. A more accurate picture is needed.

Supporting small arms and light weapons controls through official development assistance: a fragmented picture

Given that security-related official development assistance remains a sensitive area subject to stringent requirements, the related level of development spending is relatively low. Spending in this area can be reported to the OECD under ‘Conflict, Peace and Security’. In 2014-18, of the 308 billion USD of total official development assistance commitments towards Sub-Saharan African countries, only about 4 billion was for ‘Conflict, Peace and Security’, of which 3,2% were earmarked as ‘Reintegration and SALW controls’ assistance. However, a closer look at the activities reported by donors under the other categories in the ‘Conflict, Peace and Security’ sector shows that assistance in the area of security sector reform, mine action programmes and conflict prevention also cover dimensions of small arms controls.    

For example, the US reported assistance described as ‘physical security and stockpile management’ or ‘weapons and ammunition management’ in Angola, Burkina Faso and DRC under the ‘Removal of land mines and explosive remnants of war’ category, while Germany and the European Union earmarked similar activities as SALW-related assistance. The picture appears particularly varied as in some cases donors define their contributions to funds that support the implementation of arms transfer regulation instruments (such as the Voluntary Trust Fund of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the UN Trust Facility Supporting Co-operation on Arms Regulation or outreach programmes in support of the ATT), as assistance to civilian peacebuilding and security sector reform. Interestingly, some of the donors to these funds do not appear to have earmarked their contribution as official development assistance in any of the ‘Conflict, Peace and Security’ categories at all.

Total ODA Commitments for ‘Reintegration and SALW controls’ (2014-18) towards Sub-Saharan countries per donor   
Source: Authors’ own elaboration based on data extracted from the OECD CRS System. Values are expressed in USD million constant prices.

The diversity in the way donors categorise official development assistance support to small arms controls might be due to the lack of an internationally agreed definition of an area that sits at the intersection of arms control, post-conflict management and development agendas. Nonetheless, the level of fragmentation and variety in reporting development funding in this sector is problematic as it makes it difficult to draw a truly comprehensive picture of the available assistance and its impact on development.

Why does this matter?

At a time when competition among different priorities and scarcity of resources is exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, the challenges that small arms proliferation poses to development in Sub-Saharan Africa remain. Therefore, identifying the most compelling needs and gaps, and avoiding duplicating efforts, is even more pressing. As the OECD develops  new statistical tools like the TOSSD, more clarity on the existing level of support to tackle illicit arms flows––as mandated by SDG 16.4––is also beneficial to this process. SIPRI’s Arms Trade Treaty assistance database has been recognised as a useful mapping tool to achieve this.   Most importantly, what may look like a technical exercise could be instrumental to connecting the work of arms control experts on assistance strategies and goals, to that of development and humanitarian organisations. A better understanding of how donors allocate their development spending to support small arms controls will provide an overview of what activities can be sustained, what expertise there is across different sectors and, ultimately, more comprehensively address the complexities of SALW controls and repercussions on security, development, civilian protection and stabilisation. As states are currently discussing disarmament and international security at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, there is a window of opportunity to examine more integrated and effective approaches to international assistance in the field of small arms and light weapons controls.