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Is it time to reassess national security spending?

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The world is facing a wide range of security risks, many of them non-military in nature. The idea that military-led security, ecological security and broader human security comprise a ‘single security space’ is reflected in ongoing debates within the research community. It is also partially echoed in two recent landmark United Nations documents outlining possible solutions to address security and development gaps and risks that have emerged over the past decade: Our Common Agenda and the Policy Brief for a New Agenda for Peace. Both documents urge states to take a more comprehensive approach to the pursuit of sustainable peace and security. A new report from the UN Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters also calls for states to develop a more holistic conception of security and to balance funding between hard and human security priorities.

Many national security strategies already reflect this more holistic understanding. Alongside military threats and related priorities they list issues such as climate change, food and energy security and economic security. This is a clear indication that governments recognize the salience of such issues to long-term security.

It is governments’ responsibility to ensure that resource allocations are appropriate to meet all the national security objectives identified in their security strategies. Therefore, processes and debates about the oversight and accountability of government spending to address security threats and risks need to look at spending across the spectrum of security priorities identified by governments, not just at military expenditure.

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) together with SIPRI is launching a new research initiative to explore ways to assess the extent to which the allocation of public resources matches the national prioritization of security threats.

A new approach to security spending oversight

To improve the oversight and accountability of security spending, understood as a combination of expenditures allocated to improving military and human security in ways that match national security priorities, UNIDIR and SIPRI propose an approach with the following three steps:

  • Identifying and analysing national security priorities,
  • determining what resources governments have allocated to each of these priorities, and
  • assessing the alignment between government spending and these priorities.

The main sources for national security priorities are national-level security strategies. Most states have at least one publicly available document that outlines what the government perceives as the top security risks, threats and priorities. For example, Nigeria’s 2019 National Security Strategy pinpoints 13 hard security and human security threats, and calls for a holistic and coordinated approach to tackling them.

It is not always straightforward to identify priorities that are specific enough to assess spending requirements. For example, the 18 ‘priorities for national security policy’ in the 2011 National Security Concept of Georgia include very broad areas such as ‘Economic security policy’ and ‘Development of state institutions and strengthening of democracy’. In cases like this it is necessary to review related policy documents to determine more precisely the security-related priorities within each area.

Another problem is that it is often unclear which security threats and priorities are perceived by states as the most important. This has a bearing on the allocation of resources.

Once a government’s stated security priorities have been identified, the next step is to explore how the government has allocated financial resources to address them. In the area of military spending, the availability of data is sometimes underestimated. The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database includes 2022 spending figures for 155 states, all drawn from open sources. While transparency remains a problem for analysing some states’ military expenditure, and the publicly available sources vary widely in terms of detail, by and large data is available to enable parliamentarians, non-governmental actors and the public to scrutinize military spending.

Similarly, data on spending on most non-military security priorities should generally be available in budget documents and national accounts. In these areas the main challenge for a whole-of-security assessment might be to identify which aspects of spending in these policy areas are relevant to the security priorities and which are not.

The final step is to examine the extent to which government spending aligns with the stated security priorities. This should begin with identifying the government agencies responsible for addressing security threats, and then mapping the responsible agencies to the appropriate budget lines and spending categories. Expenditures by activities and programmes would also need to be listed and assessed.

A toolkit for scrutinizing security spending

The goal of the joint UNIDIR–SIPRI initiative is to enhance oversight and accountability of security spending, not only for hard security but also for non-military threats. To support this, the initiative aims to develop a toolkit and policy recommendations for parliamentarians, journalists, civil society and other interested stakeholders, to help them to monitor and hold a government accountable for spending across its stated security priorities. These will be accompanied with consultations with country and subject matter experts, including civil society organizations, to ensure the use of best practices for enhancing budget transparency for the national security sector. While the toolkit would be universal in its use, when applied in local contexts it would help with specific policy recommendations on how to match spending with priorities.

Ultimately, both the definition of security priorities and the best ways to address them are political matters that necessarily change over time. The aim of the joint research initiative is not to provide simple answers about the appropriateness of government spending, but rather to provide new perspectives and to stimulate debate. In today’s rapidly changing security landscape, both governments and those who would hold them to account need to look at military spending alongside other threats and risks to societies’ security.


For more on the thinking behind the new comprehensive approach to assessing national security spending see the companion blog on the UNIDIR website.


Alexandra Kuimova Alexandra Kuimova is a Researcher with UNIDIR’s Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme. She was previously a Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Paul Holtom Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR. He was previously the Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Dr Nan Tian is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director with the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme at SIPRI.