Global Peace Index: Can numbers define world peace? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 21, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:48 PM, June 21, 2019

Global Peace Index: Can numbers define world peace?

Percep-tions of peacefulness can vary from person to person, nation to nation, depending on various factors such as the interplay of religious convictions, ethics, with real-life experiences. So logically, everyone’s views will not be reflected in, and can even be contradicted by the “Global Peace Index”—a measurement of “relative” position of peacefulness in 163 nations around the world, performed every year by non-profit think tank, The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), headquartered in Sydney, Australia. But if world peace itself reflects a broad, intangible concept, how can it be defined and described with numbers and statistics?

On June 12, 2019, The Daily Star reported on the Global Peace Index 2019, with the headline, “Bangladesh among least peaceful countries.” Reading just as much, I immediately recalled recent national news detailing widespread violence, from domestic abuse to rape, and the inevitable premonition I would feel when walking on the street alone, especially at night, as a young woman. Perplexed with this jolt of reality, I concluded the ranking was befitting.

Then I read that Bangladesh was in the 101st position, while the United States—the so-called “land of the free, home of the brave,” where many young people from all over the world, myself included, migrate for higher education—ranked lower, in the 128th position. Despite the prevalence of gun violence, I must admit that I always felt “safer” walking on the streets in the US, even just a week after my university town was terrorised by an active shooter. Contrastingly, young girls in Bangladesh are warned to avoid trespassing public spaces at night-time, even during “politically restful” weeks.

The main dilemma here is that violence against women and children is not separately accommodated in the Global Peace Index. Self-evident in the term “global peace” though is the understanding that violence within the nation will be situated and compared with other nations on the world map. So, a nation’s domestic safety should not be conflated with its index ranking, as a whole; violent crimes, homicide rates, incarceration rates, are merely components of one of three “thematic” domains, ongoing conflict and social security, used to define “peace” in the GPI.

The other two include: the extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation (the number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people and military expenditure as a percentage of GDP). With this combination, the GPI generates “results,” essentially judgments that profess to encapsulate “world peace,” with ostentatious “average country scores” to compare nations, regionally and globally.

The irony, however, is that the report distils complex information related to gender-based violence from Gallup World Poll, to erect a simple bar chart titled, “Percentage of men and women who feel safe walking alone in 2018,” that ambiguously declares, “the greatest disparity can be found in high peace countries.” At a surface level, this section implies that sexism is most noticeable in nations like Switzerland and Iceland, where other forms of violence are rare, and that in nations like Afghanistan (which ranks lowest of all nations in the GPI), other issues such as intensity of terrorism burden both genders to feel insecure. But is this oversimplified formula always the case? 

Take for instance, Chile, where 71 percent of children have been victimised by violence, and 8.7 percent of children have been subjected to domestic sexual abuse in 2017, according to the IV UNICEF Survey on Violence and Abuse. Similarly, from 2017-18, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index by Georgetown University’s Institute for Peace and Security and The Peace Research Institute Oslo, which measured peace and security relating to women’s inclusion and justice, ranked Chile at 62nd position out of 153 nations surveyed.

Yet, this same nation is classified as the 37th, “highly peaceful” nation in GPI. On the other hand, the United Kingdom, which ranked 45th in the GPI (18 ranks lower than Chile), earned a high 12th place in WPS Index, 50 places above Chile. At the very least, such discrepancies show every reason not to blindly trust all indexes.

In a way, global indices like the GPI are inherently far-fetched because they average diverse, qualitative information to derive black and white conclusions—a generalist lens that negates the scale and impact of intimate violence. Such untrustworthy elements of the GPI’s rankings are best exemplified in its characterisation of North America, which faced the highest deterioration but somehow still achieved the second “most peaceful region” prize, behind only Europe.

The summation renders this difference—Canada’s starkly higher rank overall, as the 6th most peaceful nation in the world, added to the low country score of the US, balances itself. This is not crude data, however; North America’s downturn is contextualised to have occurred since 2016 US presidential elections, after the departure of former President Obama, so you can easily pick up what the GPI herein implies. The problem then, is not how the GPI presents its findings, but rather in its methodology: what is the use of averaging the US and Canada geographically, when only one nation is actually accountable for the downtrend of the whole region?

On the other hand, GPI ranks South Asia as the second “least peaceful” subcontinent, where confusion emerges from the study’s vague innuendo that, “South Asia usually has lower levels of violent crime than the rest of the world, as the region’s challenges are more likely to be political than criminal.” Are we really to believe that violent crimes, from domestic violence to child abuse, are lower in this region than the rest of the world?

A report by the World Economic Forum published on October 12, 2018, contradicts the statement, by labelling India as the 20th most dangerous country and Pakistan as 11th, in terms of organised crime, terrorism, homicide and reliability of police forces. The index also glosses over a bias in data collection that violent crimes rooted in misogyny and classism in South Asia are a normalised problem that remains underreported. So, if the GPI is so far from reality, is it even fruitful for domestic, regional and international foreign policymakers?

The praiseworthy maxim in the GPI that I believe could use international attention is the straightforward suggestion that militarisation disrupts tranquillity in the world—demonstrated in the report’s placement of politically powerful, economically affluent and even domestically peaceful nations that perpetuate international conflict, as lower than nations affected by their transgressions. For example, Palestine ranks 142nd, Israel is 146th; Ukraine 150th and Russia 154th. Israel, the US and Russia are deemed “least peaceful” in terms of mobilising troops, respectively.

Yet, I reckon that weighing the militarisation of the aforementioned countries as the most influential cause of international conflict can be only my opinion. But global indices elevate themselves above being mere speculation, by employing metrics to describe the state of world peace. And in the process, they reveal a multitude of blind spots, thereby painting a flawed dimension of peacefulness.

Alas, officials around the world, including but not limited to the UN Secretary General, have endorsed this index; after the 2017 report, former Chief of Staff, Dr Jonathan PJ Sandy, of Sierra Leone (which ranked 1st in the region of West Africa that year), praised the GPI as an “impetus for the country.” So now, I can’t help but notice that the bigger problem here is the standardised but troublesome universal attraction to statistics and numbers, that seems to be, yet should not be the way to go about everything in today’s era.

Ramisa Rob is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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