Authors: Dr Nan Tian and Pieter D. Wezeman

On 20 October the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the annual report by the UN Secretary-General containing military expenditure data submitted by UN member states. In keeping with the trend seen in recent years, the number of UN member states participating in the reporting process for 2017 is comparatively low.

However, analysis by SIPRI indicates that many non-participating member states, including countries in sub-Saharan Africa, now release much of the relevant data into the public domain. Thus, the challenge for the First Committee is to encourage member states to submit this data directly to the UN.

Low reporting levels

The UN Secretary-General’s annual report has been published since 1981. The reporting mechanism was created after an agreement between member states that sharing information on military spending would be a useful confidence-building measure, which would increase the predictability of military activities, reduce the risk of military conflict and raise public awareness of disarmament matters.

However, low participation levels have been a long-standing problem—a problem that has worsened in recent years. Participation in the reporting process has declined from annual levels of participation of an average of 40 per cent of UN member states in 2002–2008 to 25 per cent in 2012–16. A total of 49 of the 193 member states submitted reports in 2016. In 2017 the UN Secretariat received reports from 41 governments in time to be included in the 2017 report. As in previous years, it is expected that a few other states will report later in the year.

The functioning of the reporting mechanism has been the subject of discussions by a UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), which convened for a total of three weeks in 2016–17. The GGE noted that the causes of the low level of participation in the reporting mechanism should be established through an empirical study. Nonetheless, the GGE suggested a number of possible causes, including the following:

  • reporting fatigue among government officials involved in international confidence-building-related instruments;
  • lack of confidence in the information submitted to the report;
  • lack of perceived benefit, in particular when the government information is made available elsewhere in the public domain; and
  • lingering concerns about the sensitivity of the data.

The low level of participation is all the more remarkable considering that SIPRI based its military spending figures for 2016 on government documents for 148 countries, most of which are available in the public domain.

The case of sub-Saharan Africa

Published UN records show that, as of September 2017, no sub-Saharan African country had submitted an annual report on its military expenditure to the UN; it was a similar story in 2016. However, while they do not participate in reporting at the international level, many sub-Saharan African countries do make a substantial number of their budgetary reports available at the national level. SIPRI monitors these reports and has found considerable improvements in transparency in recent years, specifically in terms of availability, accuracy, reliability, ease of access and level of disaggregation.


Only five of the sub-Saharan African countries in the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database had no military spending information for the calendar year 2016 (47 of the 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are currently included in the database). This is a far cry from the complete absence of submissions to the UN military expenditure report for that year. Of the countries that reported military expenditure budgets, 6 also published ‘revised budgets and actual spending’ documents, while an additional 12 published ‘revised budgets’.

SIPRI’s research shows that for the period 2012–16, only two countries (Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea) did not provide official government budgetary documents. Most countries publish documents annually with some releasing them biannually and quarterly. Long delays in publication are rare. Only two countries now seem to delay the release of budget documents by a year (Gambia and Guinea-Bissau).

Ease of access

Ease of access to the relevant budgetary information is essential for true transparency in military expenditure. Of the 49 sub-Saharan African countries, 34 have official budget documents published on their Ministry of Finance (MOF) websites, while 8 countries have no information on their respective government (MOF or other) websites and 7 do not have an official MOF website.

The MOF websites of the 34 sub-Saharan African countries where budgetary information is published are generally easy to navigate, follow a logical order of access to information and do not place restrictions on downloading of budget documents. Problems, however, arise in the case of countries with no information on their MOF website. In most of these countries issues such as poor website design (ease of navigation) and low levels of internet technology capacity (e.g. broken links or poorly maintained websites) all hamper public accessibility. There are numerous examples where governments have announced the release of budget documents but due to website or internet capacity problems the documents are inaccessible (e.g. Botswana and Gambia).


Information disaggregation breaks down military expenditure into different and more detailed elements offering a more precise picture of the resource allocations within the military sector. Indications that spending is not in line with policy can be the first warning of possible resource mismanagement or corruption. By contrast, spending that is aligned with defence policy is a clear sign of confidence building at the national and regional levels.

At the time of writing, of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa for which military spending information is available for the period 2012–16, a total of 31 have provided disaggregated budgets. Whereas, 16 have provided no disaggregation of their military budget.

Insights from sub-Saharan Africa

The sub-Saharan African example shows that international transparency in military spending is possible. A substantial amount of relevant information exists in publicly available national reports. SIPRI has observed vast improvements in military sector transparency in the past five years. The number of public defence policy documents or white papers continues to grow and useful budgetary information is now also becoming more readily available. Countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, which previously provided almost no military spending data, now publish disaggregated military budgets and, in the case of CAR, even actual outlays. Others have in recent years constructed public websites where documents can be found.

It is to be hoped that the existence of extensive and relevant budgetary information in the public domain will be highlighted during the First Committee discussions. The challenge for the First Committee is to encourage member states to submit this data to the UN. What is clear from SIPRI’s analysis is that the lack of participation by member states in the reporting process is unrelated to the availability or sensitivity of the information. Since states already report such information nationally, in some cases in a detailed manner, incentives must be offered for these member states to also report to the UN.

The advantages of transparency in the military sector are well known; thus, the discussions on poor participation must focus on the issues of reporting fatigue, the perceived lack of relevance and the required resources (human and capital) in a way that demonstrates that the benefits of collective transparency outweigh the small effort needed to submit already available information. 

For more detail on the issues discussed in this Backgrounder see SIPRI’s forthcoming (early 2018) report ‘Transparency in Military Expenditure: the case of sub-Saharan Africa’. First published in

(*) Pieter D. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme (SIPRI).

Dr Nan Tian is a Researcher with the Arms and Military Expenditure Programme (SIPRI).