Measuring Peace: A Critical Appraisal of the Global Peace Index 2010

There’s a new quantitative way of comparing countries’ levels of peaceableness.

By Paul Schwartzentruber | 2010-10-01 01:00:00

The fourth annual Global Peace Index was released in June in London, Washington and at the United Nations. On the website “Vision for Humanity,” you can read its interactive map of 149 countries, which it ranks according to their peacefulness. Endorsed by many notable persons (including the Dalai Lama, Muhammed Yunus, Jeffrey Sachs, and Jimmy Carter), the GPI is the product of the Institute for Economics and Peace set up by Australian enterpreneur, Steve Killelea. It employs data collected by the Economist Intelligence Unit (yes, that is connected with The Economist) and vetted by an international panel of experts. Thus it is regarded as highly credible in significant circles.

Indeed, the GPI is intended to influence precisely those circles, as Killelea explains on his website and in the accompanying discussion paper. It charts the trends of national peacefulness and makes the crucial link between increased peacefulness and economic growth. By one estimate, a 25 percent increase in world peacefulness would add $7.07 trillion worth of income (new and redirected) to the global economy. If this dispels the lingering myth about the economic importance of the military-industrial complex, it also raises questions about what the real point of peace is, after all.

It’s Not the GDP

The emerging new systems of econometric measurement have been developed in reaction to the measurement of the Gross Domestic Product. The GDP became the most frequent measure the 1990s at the urging of the World Bank, the IMF and the EU. It became the preferred international index for ranking countries according to their economic vitality. It combined measures of consumption, investment, government spending and imports/exports.

The GDP was criticized from the start for isolating economic data from other aspects of life and society. In response, a broader approach based on the notion of “human well-being” was pioneered by Robert Chambers of the Development Institute. This was formalized through the work of the Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and led to the UN’s main current instrument, the Human Development Index. The HDI added life expectancy and adult literacy to GDP in order to yield a more “people-centred” measure of development. It was expected to influence the policies of developed countries toward developing ones.

Unfortunately, however, we are still measuring only data about material conditions to gauge well-being when it is obvious that emotional, social, and mental factors are also key. Thus there have been efforts to use a Gross National Happiness Index, which was developed first in the kingdom of Bhutan. The GNH (or other variants such as the Genuine Progress Index) aim to factor in “environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political well-being.” So far, however, all of these factors are harder to quantify, which explains why the new Global Peace Index is to be welcomed.

“How well do we understand peace?” For the GPI 2010, this is a call for research and analysis. As an index, it treats peace not just as the absence of conflict but also in the “positive” sense defined by Johan Galtung as a condition “created and maintained by structures and institutions.” Yet, it is argued, because peace research and study programs are so few, so poorly funded, and not integrated into other major academic disciplines, the key questions about peace remain unanswered.

The GPI provides indicators of peacefulness, “to determine what cultural attributes and institutions are associated with states of peace.” (GPI Results Report, 4) It classifies “23 indicators of the existence or absence of peace” in three categories: 1) ongoing domestic and international conflict, 2) safety and security in society, and 3) militarization.

The measurement of domestic and international conflict is clear but the selection of 10 indicators of “safety and security in society” is more complex. Among these are respect for human rights; political stability; level of criminality; violent crime; numbers of refugees; potential for terrorism; per capita level of incarceration; numbers of security or police forces; and homicides. Finally, there are eight indicators of militarization in a country, including levels of spending on weapons; number of troops under arms; import and export of weapons; support for UN peacekeeping; general military capability; and ease of access to weapons.

There is a complex weighting of these 23 factors in relation, which adds a subjective aspect to the study. Finally, “internal peace” is weighted slightly higher in the index than “external peace” (60% to 40%) on the assumption that country marked by domestic harmony is less likely to engage in external conflicts.

Thus the 149 countries are ranked—from New Zealand (1st at 1.188) to Iraq (149th at 3.406)—in comparison to each other. By providing four years of such rankings, the study allows for an assessment of the increase or decrease of peacefulness for each country. There follows a series of “narrative” analyses, based on the rankings. There are regional analyses—Western Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Middle East/ North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa (though no North America)—plus an analysis of the top ten and bottom ten countries, and finally one analyzing countries with the greatest increases and decreases in peacefulness over the year.

All of this allows the GPI to identify the “drivers” for peace by correlating certain economic or social characteristics with the levels of peace or violence. To do this, the GPI lists 33 additional economic and societal measurements (from perceptions of criminality to infant mortality) and analyzes their correlation with the levels of peace/violence already identified. This analysis ultimately yields the following conclusion: “peaceful societies can be described as those exhibiting very low levels of internal conflict with efficient, accountable governments, strong economies, cohesive/integrated populations, and good relations within the international community.”(GPI 2010, 49) This is “how well we understand peace” when informed by the GPI.

Finally, there are the rankings themselves. The bottom ten countries will perhaps hold little surprise (though Israel certainly stands out in this company): North Korea (139) Congo (140), Chad (141), Georgia (142), Russia (143), Israel (144), Pakistan (145), Sudan (146), Afghanistan (147), Somalia (148) and Iraq (149), The top ten are equally unsurprising: New Zealand (1), Iceland (2), Japan (3), Austria (4), Norway (5), Ireland (6), Denmark (7), Luxembourg (8), Finland (9), and Sweden (10).

There is much more to comment on when we turn to the relative rankings of some notable countries. Germany (16) is considerably more peaceful than the UK (31) and France (32), based on the higher military adventures, arms trade, and high homicide rates of the latter two. India (128) has a level of violence not far behind that of Kenya (121) South Africa (122) Ethiopa (127) and ranks just ahead of its war-torn neighbor, Sri Lanka (133). China (80), whose rates of execution are higher than the US or Pakistan—(though not Iran, on a per capita basis) still finishes ahead of tiny Nepal (82) and the United States (85). At that ranking the US, if this is any consolation, is still well ahead of Iran (104), Mexico (107) and Saudi Arabia (108). Bhutan, the kingdom concerned with happiness, comes in at the relatively high spot of 36th.

Yet it Correlates with GDP

It is gratifying, indeed, to have peace in the mix of “measurables” on the world stage, where it is correlated with the GDP, no less. Still if the GPI has crossed over bravely into the territory of real life with the tools of the econometrist, it must also be judged by the complexity of real life factors at work there. In this light, it must be said that there are some obvious and troubling omissions among the basic indicators.

Violence against women and children does not appear, for example. This is an inexplicable and distorting absence, as Riane Eisler noted in 2007, and it has not been yet addressed in any subsequent GPI. Levels of poverty are also never alluded to, though they are clearly a systemic violence on the underside of economic growth. It would also seem that the daily struggle with hunger waged by over a billion people does not register as an indicator of violence; yet with a globalized food supply system, this can no longer simply be dismissed as a “misfortune

The presence of extensive, socially accepted and highly profitable media violence also passes unnoticed here; yet it is consumed every day millions, shaping their attitudes, approaches, and actions. The “culture of violence” in our entertainment is a symptom, but also almost certainly a cause. Would such factors change the rankings? Perhaps not, but they would raise some crucial issues of peace in our search for a vision of the planet’s future.

Can Peace Always be Measured?

Ranking is a modern, western temptation, satisfying to our sense of progress and development. Yet there are risks in filtering the experience of peace/violence through a ranking system. For one thing, it oversimplifies both the problems and the potential solutions. The Global Peace Index has achieved much by bringing the issue of peace to this level of prominence. However, it should be open to an ongoing revision that identifies peacefulness in the grassroots and the boardroom alike. Peace may be sustained in structures but it is most often created through conflict transformation going against structures of injustice. That kind of peace is a creative act of cultural expression, often made against all odds.

This is an enriching document. I have only two caveats: Peace isn’t always about growth economics and it can’t always be captured by indicators.

How is Canada? 14th, down from 8th in 2007.

Paul Schwartzentruber is an activist working with the Indian nonviolent movement Ekta Parishad.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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