In the first week of May, the US State Department started to add data on US arms exports in 2015 to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA). Though still in the process of being completed the report reveals that 36 M-ATV armoured vehicles were delivered to Saudi Arabia. That is useful to know considering that these vehicles are used in the forceful Saudi intervention in Yemen. However, closer examination of other sources suggests that many more M-ATVs must have been delivered to Saudi Arabia in 2015 or 2014. Why are they not reported? We don’t know, but this is a recent example of how incomplete government reporting continues to hinder well informed discussions on arms trade and military expenditure and highlights the continuing efforts made by NGOs and research institutes to collect and disseminate relevant information and analysis.
Over the past few years, a worrisome trend of problems in reporting for military spending and the global arms trade and, consequently, reduced transparency has been observed by the team of researchers at SIPRI in charge of maintaining the databases and present global trends. SIPRI relies on open sources for its databases on military spending and arms transfers. Each year, the team collects, processes and then publishes new figures on national and regional military spending and arms transfers, with accompanying analysis of regional and global trends.
Intermittent and reduced reporting by states and international organisations is an issue for the team. However, it is far from being the only one that we face when harvesting data. Indeed, in several instances, there is reporting, but the quality of the data is highly questionable, resulting in lack of clarity about what the figures cover and what definitions are used to achieve them. For instance, the team has noted discrepancies between figures from different government reports originating from the same countries – ´such as with discrepancies between reporting by the Pentagon and the U.S. report to UNROCA in 2014 - as well as important delays in publishing yearly reports.
Military spending may fare better than the arms trade in terms of transparency, as countries such as Nigeria and Kazakhstan have started providing detailed figures online. However, there is a counter trend of countries that have stopped publishing their figures altogether. For its 2015 new military expenditure data, the team decided against presenting an estimate of regional military spending for the Middle East. This decision can partly be explained by the fact that Syria and Yemen are waging wars on their territory, which disrupt regular activities of state institutions such as reporting on budgets. However, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which we can assume to be two large regional spenders, do not publish their military budgets at all. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the third largest global military spender in 2015, a single budget figure is published every year, but there are no details about what it covers, making it very opaque.
Problems of reporting and timeliness are also observed in the global north, especially for arms transfers. Indeed, the publication of the European Union Report on arms exports of member states, which was initially designed to increase transparency on this matter within the European Union, has been severely delayed two years in a row -- the one covering 2014 having been published in early May 2016. The quality of the figures presented in the EU report is also highly questionable. Several states, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, report export licences values without providing any figures for the actual deliveries of the weapons for which the licences were issued. The use of global licences also injects greater opacity into the arms trade.
Some of these problems are not new, and SIPRI has designed alternative ways to circumvent them - to a certain degree. For instance, a network of national experts supports the data collection process by providing details of coverage and definition in the case of military spending. Extra research is led in-house to assess official figures by comparing them to other sources and/or to fill gaps by using trustworthy secondary sources. When no figure is available or is deemed too unreliable, the team uses estimates that are then clearly identified as such, and revised when new information is available.
Despite these difficulties, SIPRI updates its databases and analysis yearly, doing its part to inform civil society, and to support positive actions. However, weaker reporting, discrepancies in figures presented, lack of definitions and delays in publishing the reports reduce decision-makers' accountability as well as oversight of independent auditing agencies and parliamentarians.
Aude Fleurant is Director of SIPRI's Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. The programme team contributed to this blog post.