Thursday, 20 August 2009

That SIPRI report and the BBC

Following my posting about the discrepancy between the BBC's figures quoting SIPRI and SIPRI's figures from their database reporting tool, I emailed SIPRI to see if I could get to the bottom of the matter.

Here is my email:
"Appendix 7B of your latest report states that: "According to national data, the USA was the largest arms exporter in 2007, with exports worth $12.8 billion; Russia was in second place, with $7.4 billion; France was in third place, with $6.2 billion; Israel was in fourth place, with $4.4 billion; and the UK was in fifth place, with $4.1 billion."

However 2007 figures from your database tool (a rather nice one in fact) shows 1. USA 7914
2. Russia 4559
3. Germany 3260
4. France 2639
5. Netherlands 1241
6. UK 1098
7. Ukraine 774
8. Italy 649
9. Spain 554
10. Israel 414

Why the discrepancy? Why are the figures so different for USA, Russia, France, Israel & UK and why do countries such as Germany, Netherlands etc. disappear. Is the former a measure derived from national figures and the latter from another source? Which is the more reliable to base articles upon?

Many thanks in advance for your help in this matter"

I have just received a reply and here it is:
"Thank you for your email enquiry regarding the differences between official financial values for arms exports differ from SIPRI Trend Indicator Values (TIV). There are a number of reasons for the differences relating to the coverage of the items being included in the accounting, with one of them being that SIPRI only measures international transfers of major conventional weapons, while it is not always clear what states include in their official financial values for arms exports, they will include items which we will not. We think that this is one of the main reasons that Israel's official financial values are higher than SIPRI's - they include items in their arms exports which we do not - e.g. SALW, electronics, services etc.

Another reason for the discrepancy is that the SIPRI ranking is based on SIPRI's own pricing for weapons systems, not on the actual sale prices. This is probably one of the main reasons for Germany and the Netherlands appearing higher in our rankings than in their official reports. I have included an explanation of the rationale for SIPRI Trend-indicator values below.

As regards which is the 'most reliable', both datasets have their uses but users are often not aware of the limitations of these datasets. The advantage of the SIPRI approach is that it is consistent over time and has a defined set of types of weapons - it is therefore very useful for measuring trends in international arms transfers but it really should not be used in conjunction with economic data. The official financial values are problematic in that you do not know if the same types of weapons and military equipment etc. are included in the reports of different states, but it is based on export licences granted and used and their financial values.

I hope that this helps.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Holtom

SIPRI Trend-indicator values
SIPRI 'prices' each weapon or subsystem covered by our definitions of arms - giving it a trend-indicator value, which is currently expressed in constant 1990 USD. These prices are based upon the known unit costs for a core set of weapons. Weapons for which a cost is not known are compared with core weapons based upon: comparison with core weapons using size and performance characteristics (weight, speed, range and payload); type of electronics, loading or unloading arrangements, engine, tracks or wheels, armament and materials; and finally the era in which the weapon was produced. SIPRI then calculates the volume of transfers to, from and between all end-users using the TIV/price and the number of weapon systems or subsystems delivered in a given year. This quantitative data is intended to provide a common unit to be able to measure trends in the flow of arms to particular countries and regions over time - in effect it is a price index. Therefore, the main priority is to ensure that the pricing system remains consistent over time, and that any changes introduced are backdated. We believe that (SIPRI TIV) are best used as the raw data for calculating trends in international arms transfers over periods of time, global percentages for suppliers and recipients, and percentages for the volume of transfers to or from particular states'.

There is a lot of confusion about the SIPRI pricing system for weapons - probably because they are priced in 1990 USD and in many cases only the USD is seen and the the TIV is interpreted as a financial value rather than as a price in the SIPRI arms transfers index. It cannot be stressed enough that SIPRI quantitative data - TIV figures - do not represent sales prices for arms transfers; SIPRI TIV/prices do not reflect the actual price paid for weapons. SIPRI data do not represent current dollar values for arms transfers. Therefore, they should not be compared with GNP/GDP, military expenditure, sales values given on export licenses etc. for measuring the economic burden of arms imports or economic benefits of exports.

Dr Paul Holtom
Arms Transfers Programme Leader
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)"

Most interesting an answer I think you will agree. There are several facts that jump out at me:
1. the BBC used the figures that individual countries supply as being the value of their arms sales rather than the figures that SIPRI base the main part of their report upon and do not make that clear. As Dr Holton himself says
"We believe that (SIPRI TIV) are best used as the raw data for calculating trends in international arms transfers over periods of time, global percentages for suppliers and recipients, and percentages for the volume of transfers to or from particular states'."

2. Israel's official financial values for arms sales are higher than SIPRI's because they include items in their arms exports which SIPRI do not. Is Appendix 7B actually comparing apples and pears rather than apples and apples?

I was wondering if I had been a trifle unfair to the BBC as they may just have been looking for an easy set of figures to quote and Appendix 7B was easier to understand than the database reports and the associated SIPRI TIV concept. However the fact that choosing the figures that they did makes Israel look like a major force and therefore the bully in the Middle East, rather than the victim, may be too much of a side benefit for the BBC to be entirely coincidental.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Well Not a Sheep, this is turning out to be a fascinating, murky one, isn't it? You're doing some fabulous sleuthing. Keep it up!

So (if I'm keeping up!), the BBC's figures are entirely based on what national governments tell the rest of the world they've received in payments for their arms exports. The BBC quote SIPRI as the source for these figures, but they aren't SIPRI's own figures at all, are they? As you say, the BBC "do not make that clear", so giving complex, cloudy official government statistics the stamp of SIPRI's authority. That's a questionable thing to do, isn't it?

Furthermore, they only feature in the now-famous Appendix 7B. I’d love to know how the BBC managed to by-pass the simple-to-use, highly accessible database on the SIPRI website (which they link to on their own web-page), which gives the official SIPRI list for 2007 (with Israel down in 10th place), and how they instead managed to head straight to a short, out-of-the-way appendix that only mentions 5 countries. Very, very strange.

If you are going to quote a respected organisation as the source of your figures, why not use their actual figures? Especially when, as Mr Holtom argues, those actual figures are so much better than messy, only partly-compatible figures from the world's governments. Apples should only be compared with apples.

There's an interesting symmetry too between an Israeli government pride in its arms industry (and the consequent message that sends its many hostile neighbours ie. that it's not a nation to be messed with) and the BBC's wish to present Israel as a major arms exporter (boo!) and a regional 'bully' (double boo!). The Israeli government may see such news as essentially defensive in intent, whereas the Beeb will pounce on it and paint it as showing Israel as an 'aggressor'.