A UN conference begins this week that will try to take a step toward beating ``swords into plowshares'' - the biblical prophecy resolved in that body's own charter. The conference, on disarmament and development, will focus on three broad areas:
The relationship between what a country spends on armaments and what it spends on development, and whether reducing one benefits the other.
The harmful effect that heavy military spending has on international economic and social conditions, and recommendations for remedial action.
Ways of channeling resources - made available because of disarmament - into development, particularly in the developing world.
Some of the most difficult questions the delegates will debate are: Which gives a nation greater security, spending on the military or on social programs? And, do nations have the political will to rechannel funds from armament to development?
Compared to other UN special conferences, a record number of participants will attend - 125 of 159 UN members.
There is, however, one notable absence at this ``guns-and-butter'' session. The United States will not attend because the Reagan administration contends that disarmament and development should be dealt with as separate issues.
Delegates are expected to look at the example of Costa Rica, regarded as a prime example of what a society can do when it limits defense expenditures in favor of social spending. In 1948, in traditionally volatile Central America, Costa Rica unilaterally disarmed and dedicated the savings this move produced to health, education, and welfare. Its 2.3 million people now enjoy a considerably higher standard of living than its more militant neighbors.
Costa Rica has been able to build enough schools to provide education for all its people. One of its chief accomplishments is a very high literacy rate. ``Books are cheaper than guns,'' says Emilia Castro de Barish, for 30 years Costa Rica's UN representative. At a $1,370 per capita annual income, Costa Rica is not rich, but its 96.4 percent literacy rate is among the world's highest.
Diverting military funds to social spending has also reaped benefits in China. According to a conference paper, China's arms spending as a percentage of total national output also fell by one-third from 1979 to 1983.
In 1985, that country began reducing its actual military expenditures. Agriculture, industry, and science and technology have been given precedence over upgrading military hardware, and rapid growth has been reported in China's economy and living standard.
In general, however, governments have increased arms spending. Between 1960 and 1980, worldwide expenditures doubled, and since then, military budgets have risen an average of 5 percent annually.
About 80 percent of the annual global arms bill - currently about $1 trillion - is accounted for by the industrialized nations, both East and West. This $1 trillion figure is roughly the equivalent of the developing world's debt, notes Jan Martenson, former head of the UN department of disarmament affairs and secretary-general for the conference.
But conference experts say there are deep-seated reasons for such high military expenditures worldwide.
``One can't realistically expect governments to give up arms as long as they perceive them as their source of security. ... But since the 1950s there has been a growing realization that hunger, illiteracy, and lack of development - which contribute to social unrest, and thus create instability - are dangerous both nationally and internationally,'' says Mr. Martenson.
Conference planners concede that man's ancient yearning for sufficient nourishment, shelter, and education - and the peace and security to enjoy them - isn't expected to be met by the dismantling of global arsenals in the foreseeable future.
Still, this conference represents, ``the first step ... on a long road,'' says Martenson.
The cost of arming the world
The world spends $1.7 million a minute on military forces and equipment.
Military expenditures by underdeveloped nations have gone up 800 percent since 1960 (after adjusting for inflation).
Between 1974 and 1985 third-world debt increased $580 billion; $250 billion of this represented arms imports from the developed world.
Each year the world spends an estimated $800 billion on arms. This sum is roughly equal to the debt of developing nations.
By some estimates, less than 0.5 percent of the money the world spends on arms in one year would pay to develop agriculture so that developing nations could feed themselves by 1990.
In 1986, the nations of the world spent about $30,000 per soldier. They spent an average of about $455 per child for education.
For one half the cost of one hour's world military spending ($102 million), the UN largely stopped a locust plague in Africa in 1986, saving enough grain to feed 1.2 million people.
Sources: UN Environment Program; report by Ruth Sivard, former economist at Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.