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Measuring peace: is it so hard?

October 2, 2020

Measuring peace: it’s a challenge, for so many well-rehearsed reasons. Peace takes a long time to build. It’s a non-linear and unpredictable process, following variable, inconsistent and highly context-specific pathways. To make things even more complicated, these are not always peaceful: violent events and actions often make an important contribution to peace, while peaceful actions may have the opposite impact. In any case, one never really ‘arrives’ at peace, it’s more a question of heading in the right direction. But how to measure this?…

Measuring peace also depends on who is doing the measuring, and why: a philosopher may be content with soft signals that peace is improving somewhat, while a project donor or a politician seeks hard and fast short-term measures to justify their support.

Meantime, not everyone has the same definition of peace, anyway. Political concepts of peace may assume that ‘my’ side has the upper hand over ‘theirs’ or ‘yours’. Some people emphasise short-term stability above all – what’s sometimes known as Negative Peace (the absence of violence). Others argue that Negative Peace is unsustainable, and aim for Positive Peace – when societies have the capacity to anticipate and resolve their conflicts non-violently – and may be willing to forgo short-term stability in the struggle to achieve this.

Negative and Positive Peace are both important, and Negative Peace is probably best seen as a step on the road towards Positive Peace. With this in mind, and while accepting that peace is context specific, non-linear, and all the other caveats referred to above, I’d suggest that there are three relatively simple measures for estimating progress in peacebuilding. All three have the advantage that they can be used on any scale, and by more or less anyone or any institution, albeit at varying degrees of statistical sophistication. They lend themselves to a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurement approaches. All three are easily applied in participatory monitoring and measurement approaches; all three can be used in adaptive peacebuilding; all three can be used in impact assessment; and all three are useful at any scope and scale. And even where they can’t easily be measured objectively on the ground, they nevertheless stand as helpful generic goals to be used in developing strategy and programmes.

The three measures – which draw on peacebuilding frameworks such as International Alert’s Programming Framework and the United Nations/World Bank’s sprawling Pathways for Peace, are as follows:

  1. Prevalence of violence. Has violence increased or decreased; has it changed in nature; who is doing it to whom; how is it experienced differently by women, men, and other social categories? Taken alone, this is probably the closest measure of negative peace. Given the importance attached to their safety and that of their families and communities by people across the world, this is a critical measure of progress, and it has the advantage that it can be captured relatively easily by asking people their perceptions, when more objective measures of the incidence of violence are unavailable.
  2. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations. This takes us into the realms of Positive Peace: it looks at the degree to which active relationships between those with power, and those with less, are seen as helpful to both, and are imbued with mutual trust. These are what are known as ‘vertical relations’. The more trustful they are, and the more that ‘governors’ and ‘the governed’ engage in practical problem solving together within them, the more they will be able to understand each other, and identify and resolve problems and conflicts so they don’t get out of hand. Similarly, the more (horizontal) relationships between and among people (and peoples) are imbued with by trust and the practice of collaboration, the less likely it is that they will come to blows over issues such as access to resources. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations also help reduce the level and incidence of grievances, making it harder for politicians or ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ to enlist people in unrest and violence. At any scale – from the domestic to the global – vertical and horizontal relations are helpfully mediated by a formal and informal institutions that reflect the values of fairness, trust and pragmatism: from family and community systems (at their best) right up to the level of the United Nations (at its best).
  3. Fair access to opportunities to gain a decent livelihood, and to the means of security, justice, education, health and other dimensions of welfare. Delving further into the realms of Positive Peace, progress can also be measured by the degree to which people feel that access to these goods is improving, in ways that are fair to different societal groups – including their own, redressing any perceptions of unfairness that may have existed in the past. Income, assets, health, security and knowledge, along with the means to address and redress wrongdoing, help equip us all to co-exist peacefully. And they also reduce the presence of grievances, hence most people’s willingness and interest to engage in political violence.

Peace must always be defined in its context, and progress towards a more peaceful context will always need to be understood in nuanced terms, reflecting the contours of each particular social, political, economic and physical landscape. Nevertheless, I believe this simple collection of generic measures is a good a place to start in working out how to conceptualise and measure progress in what are inevitably messy and uncertain circumstances.

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