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The World Is Getting Less Peaceful Every Year

• July 10, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: aheram/Flickr)

And it’s costing the global economy about $1,350 per person.

The latest report from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) came out at the end of last month. In short, IEP has a Global Peace Index (GPI) that uses 22 indicators to score and rank peacefulness in 162 countries. The report contains both good news and bad news. The good news: The number of wars is declining. The bad news: The world has become less peaceful. In fact, such peacelessness cost the global economy about $1,350 per person last year.

So, how exactly do wars and peace decline at the same time? Here’s a quick review of the IEP’s latest report.

Fewer Wars, but Less Peace

Most of the world’s countries have medium, high, or very high levels of peacefulness. The Cold War period saw a spike in internal conflicts and civil wars, but overall conflicts between state militaries are becoming less frequent. However, global peacefulness has been falling for the past seven years, and over 500 million people currently live in countries at risk for further declines in peacefulness in the short-term. That’s because, today, peacefulness is as much about what happens between people and inside our borders as it is about armies and wars.

Breakdowns in peacefulness are becoming more decentralized, and peacefulness relies more heavily on social structures and non-state actors as opposed to exclusively governments and formal militaries. Peace is becoming more democratic.

Four key components of peace got worse in the 2014 Index, which gives us a picture of world peacefulness in the year prior. Domestic terrorism has increased significantly in many parts of the world since the start of the Iraq War. In the past year, the number of people killed by conflict inside their own country, including civilians, has also risen. More people were displaced within their countries or fled as refugees this past year than the year before. And in the 2014 Index, the score for ongoing wars has gotten worse—but that includes internal and external conflicts and so the data behind this indicator is likely to be consistent with the shift away from international conflicts.

Looking at more than just the last year, the same trend holds true. The GPI report includes a section on trends in peacefulness from 2008 to 2014, which demonstrates that what the IEP calls “internal peacefulness” is getting worse. The largest changes have been observed in weapons imports and weapons exports—both measures of “external peace.” But factors like each country’s number of heavy and nuclear weapons and of armed service personnel have improved, showing that external peace as a whole is getting better. Levels of internal conflict have varied, but it is really safety and security, more so than war, that’s driving the decline in world peace. Terrorist activity has gotten worse. Homicide rates improved in 2014, but because of data collection challenges the IEP reports that the long-term trend of increasing homicides and violent crime is more reliable than any single year figure. And perceptions of criminality, the likelihood of violent demonstrations, incarceration, and access to small arms have worsened as well.

Armies and Governments Are No Longer Our Biggest Threats to Peace

In short, the nature of peace is changing. Breakdowns in peacefulness are becoming more decentralized, and peacefulness relies more heavily on social structures and non-state actors as opposed to exclusively governments and formal militaries. Peace is becoming more democratic, if you will. Given the severity of organized, inter-state conflict in the 20th century, the trend of declining militarization and international war implies that we have made progress in solving 20th-century problems.

The rise of internal conflict, in all its forms, demonstrates that people are unsatisfied with their governments, economies, and social structures. We don’t need complicated econometrics to tell us that—the Arab Spring movements, the anti-austerity protestors, and even ISIS have made their dissatisfaction abundantly clear. Meanwhile, violent markets—like the drug trade—are growing as opportunities in formal, non-violent markets disappear.

Non-Violent Methods Are More Effective (and More Peaceful) Than Violent Ones

The 2014 GPI report, and peace economics work in general, represents a major shift away from a narrow focus on war and toward a holistic approach to peace. This change helps us understand the value and efficacy of different political strategies. Protests are a good example.

Statistically, the rising likelihood of violent demonstrations means less peace because the GPI measures whether “violent demonstrations or violent civil/labor unrest [are] likely to pose a threat to property or the conduct of business over the next two years.” But that definition doesn’t specify who might use violence or whose business or property might be threatened. Here’s where we have to unpack IEP’s statistics a bit.

Researchers Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth show that non-violent movements are twice as effective in achieving their political goals as violent movements. For example, in Timor-Leste, where violent revolution failed, non-violent tactics secured independence and the country now earns a peace score of “high” in the GPI. (Timor-Leste scores 1.95; a score of one is perfectly peaceful.) When people choose non-violent movements they may be improving the structures that support peace in the long run even when governments respond violently in the short run. The rising likelihood of demonstrations disrupting businesses (many of which may be foreign multinationals) doesn’t necessarily mean that democratic institutions and long-term structures of peacefulness such as accountability, equitable distribution of resources, and access to information, are at risk. It might mean that strategic non-violence is critical to democratic peace.

Peace May Be Declining—but We Now Know Much More About It

While global peacefulness may be declining, our understanding of its dynamics and our incentives to address it are becoming increasingly clear. We know how peace is changing, we know what social structures are associated with improving it, and we know how much it is worth. IEP found in 2012 that world peace was worth $9.46 trillion. A year later, that number had grown to $9.8 trillion—or 11.3 percent of global GDP and $1,350 per person. Since the launch of the first GPI in 2008, IEP has assembled a body of work that measures peacefulness, identifies its associated structures and drivers, and can now predict which countries are at risk for further falls.

In a challenging economic moment, it’s encouraging to know that peace is profitable—and possible.

Talia Hagerty
Talia Hagerty is a peace economics consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs about peace economics, among other things, at Theory of Change. Follow her on Twitter @taliahagerty.

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