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Using official development assistance to strengthen small arms and light weapons controls: Opportunities and risks

Explosive Remnants of War in post revolution Libya
Explosive Remnants of War in post revolution Libya/Flickr UNDP

One of the many events that has been affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is the seventh Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) on the United Nations Programme of Action (UNPOA) on small arms and light weapons (SALW), which was due to take place this week in New York but has been postponed to 2021. The UNPOA was adopted by all UN member states in 2001 and sets agreed minimum standards for controls on the production, transfer and use of SALW as a means of combatting their illicit trade. 

When states do eventually meet in New York, one of the key agenda items—as at previous BMS meetings—will be international cooperation and assistance aimed at helping states to implement the UNPOA and strengthen SALW controls. In recent years, official development assistance (ODA) has become an important source of funding for SALW control assistance. Using ODA spending for this purpose increases the amount of funding available for the work and reflects its importance for economic development, as recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Disarmament Agenda. However, it also generates risks if ODA spending is diverted away from other key priorities.

An informed debate about the costs and benefits of using ODA spending to fund SALW control assistance requires an accurate picture of how much funding is being provided and what work is being supported. This blog elaborates the challenges of mapping ODA spending to support SALW control assistance, outlines a means of generating a more accurate picture, and summarizes the benefits this data could generate.

What counts as SALW controls? 

In the 1990s ‘SALW controls’ emerged as an organizing concept for government action, advocacy, capacity building and financial assistance. Today, however, it is viewed less as a standalone concept and increasingly as one that sits at the intersection of arms control, post-conflict management and development agendas. For example, the UNPOA highlights the importance of states having effective controls on international transfers of SALW. Yet, few states have transfer controls that apply exclusively to SALW. Indeed, the UN’s Modular Small-arms-control Implementation Compendium (MOSAIC) guidelines recommend that controls on SALW transfers are integrated into a broader system that encompasses conventional arms and dual-use items. Similar points have been made with regard to establishing effective systems for SALW stockpile management and surplus destruction. For example, the destruction module of the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG) argues that work in this area should encompass all conventional arms, ammunition and explosives and not be limited to SALW.

SALW controls have also been highlighted as a key component of disarmament demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes. The link between DDR and SALW controls was highlighted already in the UNPOA and, since its adoption in 2001, the importance of the relationship has been further refined. Today SALW controls are viewed as essential for an effective DDR strategy, together with controls on heavy weapons, ammunition and explosives. The UN’s development of the concept of weapons and ammunition management (WAM) in this context is emblematic of this connection. This link between SALW controls and DDR processes is also emphasized in the mandates and activities of UN peacekeeping operations, including MONUSCO and MINUSMA

Further, SALW controls have become a component of security sector reform (SSR) programmes. The SSR concept emerged in the early 2000s and has its roots in the security and development nexus. It called for a shift away from traditional approaches to security assistance focused on training and equipping security forces to a more sustainable approach aimed at establishing transparent and accountable governance structures. The role of SALW controls in an integrated SSR approach is emphasized in the 2005 OECD SSR Guidance and the 2007 OECD SSR Handbook. As a result, certain aspects of SALW controls, including collection programmes and stockpile management, have become key aspects of the SSR concept. However, the way SSR de-emphasized issues relating to the supply of military equipment means that other aspects of SALW controls, including effective procedures for managing acquisitions and imports have not been integrated in the concept.

What counts as SALW control assistance and how is it funded? 

There is a wide range of programmes and funding mechanisms in place aimed at helping states to improve SALW controls. Many of these activities specifically seek to support states in implementing the UNPOA. These include projects supported by the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) or the European Union. However, there is also a wide range of activities that aims at strengthening SALW controls without referencing the UNPOA, such as those implemented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moreover, new funding programmes that include a focus on SALW controls continue to be established. The UN recently launched the ‘Saving Lives Entity’ (SALIENT) fund, which seeks to promote a more integrated approach to SALW issues. As a result of this varied framework, providers and recipients can face difficulties coordinating their activities or be unaware of all the activities taking place. 

The integration of SALW controls in multiple frameworks and agendas means that they have become part of a wider set of assistance programmes. However, this has made it even harder to have a comprehensive oversight of the work being done in the field of SALW controls and, as a result, harder to identify gaps and possible synergies in the assistance provided. In order to address these problems, SIPRI expanded its database for mapping Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)-relevant cooperation and assistance to include activities focused on building capacity in one or more core aspects of the UNPOA. As a result, the database includes information on activities aimed at building state capacity in arms transfers and SALW controls.

ODA is defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) as ‘government aid that promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries’. Any military aid or funds that promote the donor’s security cannot be counted as ‘ODA eligible’. Since the early 2000s there has been a shift in thinking about what counts as ODA eligible, partly driven by efforts to include support for SSR assistance in ODA spending. In 2005 the OECD DAC extended the range of activities related to conflict prevention and peacebuilding that could be considered ODA eligible to include ‘controlling, preventing and reducing the proliferation’ of SALW, as long as it meets the ODA eligibility requirements

Under the heading ‘Conflict, peace and security’, the DAC classification system includes categories for ‘Reintegration and SALW control’ and ‘Removal of land mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW)’. Funding for several activities that include a focus on SALW controls, and which have been added to SIPRI’s database, have been included in donors’ reports on spending under these categories. Examples include training sessions on explosive remnants of war (ERW) disposal carried out in Kenya and Chad in 2013 funded by the USA, and activities supporting arms management and destruction in countries from the Sahel in 2014–15 co-funded by Germany

The variety of activities reported under these categories, which range from policy research to weapon destruction, makes it difficult to identify those that include a focus on SALW controls. In addition, many activities that encompass some aspect of SALW controls appear to be listed under other DAC categories. In particular, ‘Sector system management and security reform’ includes activities with a focus on SALW controls and that feature in the SIPRI database, including the Somalia Security and Justice Programme funded by the British Government. This situation makes it difficult to gain a comprehensive picture of what aspects of SALW control assistance are being funded by ODA spending.

SIPRI’s current research agenda on SALW assistance 

In spite of the potential provided by ODA to fund work on strengthening SALW controls, there are limits on the use of these funds in this area. However, creating a common understanding among donors about where those limits lie could help to increase the amount of ODA spending being directed to this work. As it stands, there appear to be differences in the way states are classifying and reporting work in this area and the data itself is difficult to navigate and isolate. As a result, there is still limited clarity on the actual and potential use of ODA to support SALW control assistance.

With funds provided by Sweden, SIPRI is currently examining the use of ODA spending to support SALW control assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. In doing so, SIPRI will draw on information in its database for mapping arms transfers and SALW assistance activities and identify when funding has or has not been counted as ODA eligible. It will also map the policies of the main donors and international organizations that provide funding for assistance work in the field.

Through this project, SIPRI will seek to highlight areas of difference and commonality in the policies of key funders in terms of how they categorize spending on SALW control assistance as ODA eligible and report this spending to the OECD. It will also aim to identify mechanisms through which clearer and more consistent data can be generated. In this way, SIPRI will seek to provide greater clarity for donors, partner states and other relevant stakeholders on the use of ODA spending to support SALW control assistance, in order to create the basis for a more informed discussion about the potential costs and benefits of pursuing and expanding this approach.

SIPRI’s Mapping Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)-relevant Cooperation and Assistance Activities database

SIPRI’s Mapping ATT-relevant Cooperation and Assistance Activities database contains information on more than 600 assistance activities in the field of arms transfers and SALW controls conducted in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The database aims to help funders, activity implementers and partner states to plan joint work and avoid gaps in coverage and duplication of efforts. Stakeholders are invited to submit information about their activities for inclusion in the database through an online activity submission form.




Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.
Giovanna Maletta is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director for the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.