Economy & Budget

Prevention is cheaper than cure

More than ten years ago, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict found that, on average, early, preventive action to avert war and mass atrocities cost 60 times less than late response and military intervention. But a quick look at our current investment in the tools of peace-building and deadly conflict prevention — particularly as compared to that in the reactive tools of war — reveals that we’ve yet to take the report’s recommendations to heart.

As of now, the world spends about $1 on conflict prevention for every $1,885 it spends on military budgets. And while a whopping 39 percent of our federal income taxes pay for current, future, and past wars, the portion allotted to preventive modes of foreign policy (including all diplomacy, development assistance, and international cooperation) is only about two percent.

Given how expensive tools of war are compared to those of peace, this is a hardly a surprise. For just the first 10 days of U.S. military operations in Libya, the United States spent $550 million. The same amount could have funded two years’ worth of the Obama administration’s budget request for three conflict prevention and peace-building accounts: the Complex Crises Fund, the Civilian Response Corps, and the United States Institute of Peace. And with the $27 billion the Department of Defense provided in contracts to Lockheed Martin in 2010 alone, we could have covered the entire Department of State diplomatic and consular budget from 2006 to 2010.

The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report noted that one quarter of the world’s population now lives in a conflict-affected or violence-ridden country. With the price of global violence reaching $8 trillion annually — having a negative impact equal to 13 percent of global GDP — the failure to invest in effective conflict prevention and peace-building is costing us dearly.

While many in the U.S. hesitate to cut military spending in the midst of global violence, this concern begs a revealing question: wouldn’t we all be more safe and better off  if we invested in preventing wars, rather than fighting them? Had we continued two more decades of the U.S. humanitarian assistance package that had helped to maintain stability in Somalia from 1985 to 1988 – rather than decreasing and eventually eliminating that aid in 1989 – the assistance would have cost half of what our military operations and subsequent support for regional forces have since 1990. And it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Since 2001, the U.S. treasury has lost as much as $60 billion in waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine what ending that waste and fraud could fund, particularly if it were to be invested in programs more likely to create jobs than overhead-intensive military hardware. According to the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, spending on education creates two and a half times more jobs for every $1 billion than spending on military purposes and clean energy creates one and a half times more jobs.

Moreover, imagine what we’d be able to invest in had we not entered into war in the first place:  turns out that the $1.2 trillion amount by which the supercommittee must work to reduce our deficit over the next ten years is also the approximate amount spent by the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. The wars’ human toll – of those now suffering the loss of children, partners, siblings, and friends – is impossible to quantify.

This budget season, the consequences of continuing excessive investment in tools of war will only be more severe. As the Senate considers the state-foreign operations bill, it has an opportunity to retain funding for the civilian accounts that seek to prevent war before it starts – funding that will cut costs, foster global security, and protect our world’s communities in the long-term. 

Cassidy Regan is the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow. at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.


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