Breslauer: “Much Harder to Build Peace Than to Destroy It”

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To meet the challenging task of putting the sustaining peace agenda into operation, there is still limited understanding of how to measure the impact of preventative activities and sustain peace. However, as the United Nations works to advance the Secretary-General’s peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda, there is a need to identify and analyze innovations in prevention and sustaining peace. This requires moving beyond the political discourse in New York to understand what works to build peace on the ground and how to measure this. One such tool to assist in this is the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index.

The Institute marked the release of the 12th edition of its Global Peace Index at an IPI policy forum on June 19th, and the organization’s director of strategic partnerships and programs, Michelle Breslauer, said a key message of this year’s report was that “it’s much harder to build peace than to destroy it.” Breakdowns in peace tend to be “quick and severe,” she said, while building peace is “slow and incremental.”

“The leading indicators of breakdowns in peace tend to be political in nature, while leading indicators of improvements in peacefulness tend to be structural, institutional, or material and economic,” she asserted, noting that they “make a strong case for prevention.”

Panelists addressed the growing focus on prevention for sustaining peace, in keeping with the 2017 UN-World Bank “Pathways to Peace” study that laid out a framework to advance approaches to development that prevent conflict. Hoping to shift the political discourse beyond New York, the Global Peace Index (GPI), a comprehensive data-driven analysis on trends in peace annually, provides a measure to identify what builds peace on the ground and how to examine sustained peace through an analysis of what empirical evidence tells us about successful prevention efforts.

Measuring the peacefulness of 163 countries and territories, the Index is comprised of 23 indicators that assess the absence of violence across three domains: militarization, ongoing conflict, and societal safety and security. Overall conclusions included: the impact of the cost of violence to the global economy came out to nearly $2000 USD per person last year; militarization is on the rise and safety and security declining; and that the world is less peaceful now than at any time in the past decade. Syria was found to be the world’s least peaceful nation, Iceland the most.

The Index notably includes a statistical analysis of “positive peace,” which is defined as the attitudes, institutions, and structures that sustain peaceful societies, in contrast to “negative peace,” characterized as the absence of violence or fear of violence. “So,” Ms. Breslauer said, “we found that in order to improve levels of negative peace, to advance in the Global Peace Index, there must be improvements across a broad range of the pillars of positive peace: effective institutions, fair structures, and material well-being [that] provide the resilience to resolve any arising group grievances or political conflicts nonviolently.”

However, she warned, “a deterioration in peacefulness can be triggered by just a handful of indicators,” and she listed some of them as a heightening of group grievances, uncontrolled corruption, and a lack of freedom of the press. The index, she added, “implies that prevention requires fewer investments than does recovery, meaning that it will also be more cost effective than post- conflict or post- violence peacebuilding.”

Robert Piper, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of External Relations and Advocacy of the UN Development Programme, connected the GPI with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which he called “a huge organizing idea for the world.” He argued that the SDGs have a preventative lens and can, “…provide an incredibly powerful platform on which to do prevention and stop talking about it. The whole notion for me of leaving no one behind is an incredibly powerful organizing idea.”

Prevention is a key to sustaining peace, Mr. Piper said. “The big idea behind sustaining peace is this very powerful idea that peace isn’t a given, that you actually have to maintain it. If you’re not deliberate about it, then you should not be surprised one day to find yourself in a very difficult position.”

Echoing Mr. Piper’s discussion points, Susanna Campbell, Assistant Professor of the School of International Service at American University, said that “peace is about inclusion, and about adaptation. Conflict and violence is about exclusion.” She emphasized that “this is an active process—this is not something that is done once for all, this is about establishing institutions that can take in new voices, incorporate new opinions, take in new individuals, give new agency to actors in this complex world where borders are increasingly fluid.”

Counseling that people have to take risks and buck accepted wisdom, she said that conflict prevention was particularly hard because “it requires acting before there is the actual necessity, before things have gotten so bad that the politicians can’t ignore them anymore, prioritizing something which may not seem to be a priority.” She stressed innovation and risk-taking as key in prevention efforts, but this requires a “challenge [to] the status quo.”

Vanessa Wyeth, Senior Political and Public Affairs Officer in Peacebuilding at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, stressed the importance of trusting in local capability to prevent conflict. “We don’t talk enough about how countries, themselves, are addressing these risks,” she said, “and that we, as the UN system, have a variety of tools to help, supplement, or support, those national capacities.” She argued that peace is the work of citizens and communities, and peace is not built by the UN.

Noting that the “investments that yield peace as an outcome are very much baked into the SDGs,” she pointed out that the risks to peace are much more varied than “an arms group taking up weapons somewhere in your country.” Equally menacing to peace, she said, were such things as inadequate education, joblessness, inequality, rampant rights abuses, and economic and environmental shocks. “We need to recognize that countries face a variety of risks across the spectrum of security, economic rights, environmental, concerns, and that they have a variety of capacities to manage these risks on their own.”

IPI Senior Policy Analyst Lesley Connolly moderated the discussion.