Entrepreneur Steve Killelea talks about his Global Peace Index, a comparison of nations including factors such as prison populations and ease of access to small arms. By Hamish McDonald.

Steve Killelea on the Global Peace Index

Institute for Economics and Peace founder Steve Killelea.
Institute for Economics and Peace founder Steve Killelea.
Credit: Institute for Economics and Peace

Sydney IT entrepreneur Steve Killelea, 65, made his fortune creating software for stock exchanges and credit cards, then turned to the puzzles of enduring conflict and poverty. In 2000 he set up The Charitable Foundation, now one of Australia’s largest private aid donors, active in Africa and Asia. More recently he set out to measure peace and its benefits. His Institute for Economics and Peace has just published its ninth Global Peace Index, using 23 indicators to rank 162 countries covering 99.6 per cent of the world’s population. Australia moved up four places, to No. 9. With its output used by the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and the Commonwealth Secretariat, the institute has become among the most valued think tanks in the world.

Hamish McDonald How did you come up with the idea of measuring peace?

Steve Killelea Accidentally. I’d been engaged in development aid for about 27 years, through a family foundation, among the poorest of the poor, in war zones near postwar zones. Walking one day in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I started to think: What is the opposite of these stressed-out countries? Which are the most peaceful countries in the world and what can we learn from them?

HM Not everyone would assume peace is measurable.

SK The two companies I’ve set up developed systems management software, analysing the performance of extremely large, complex computer networks such as the New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges, and major switches for Visa, American Express and MasterCard. All this was about measurement to try to track down problems before they actually impacted services. When I realised there was nothing like it – the Global Peace Index – I worked out the philosophical approach, brought together a group of experts to guide the selection of the indicators, and hired the Economist Intelligence Unit to actually compile the index. Now we have multiple indices.

HM You are now estimating the economic cost of not having peace and security. For Mexico, it’s a staggering 17 per cent of gross domestic product. Is that the heaviest for a country not actually at war?

SK That’s getting towards the maximum out of a war zone. The cost of violence to the global economy is 13.4 per cent, costing us $US14 trillion, which may be conservative. There are many things we can’t count.

HM You must get people saying their country is unfairly ranked. For example, the United States (No. 94 out of 162), close to Papua New Guinea (No. 96)?

SK You have to know what you are looking at. Papua New Guinea has no external conflicts, America has a lot. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a very high availability of guns, and because it has Guantanamo Bay still open, that pushes it down on measures of human rights.

HM What about so-called “freeloading” countries or those in strategic backwaters that don’t spend heavily on defence, because they can rely on other countries that do?

SK Our definition of peace is the absence of violence or fear of violence. We don’t make moral judgements about the appropriate size of the military or whether having a military is good or bad. It varies where they are and how they are used. But you have a military for one of two purposes: you’ve got a fear of violence and you need to protect yourself, or you want to use it. Some countries are in more geopolitically stable areas than others. The European Union is benefiting from the work done over the last 60 years to improve peace. New Zealand is in a lucky part of the world.

HM What impact have you had on countries such as Russia, which has slipped down the index (No. 152)?

SK We get a lot of coverage in Russia, most fairly neutral but some strong negative and nationalistic criticism. I’ve checked for many years whether Russia should be as low as it is in the index. But each time I go through all the measures I can see the accuracy of them: it just does poorly on a whole range of different scales. I recently saw a TV program on Tolstoy: in his time, Russia’s main conflicts were in Chechnya and the Crimea. What’s changed?

HM What are the findings that surprised you the most?

SK Just how little we know about. Most of “peace studies” is about stopping violence or the study of conflict or violence. Peace is something different again. What it takes to stop violence is very different to what it takes to sustain peace. It’s like studying someone on their deathbed to learn how to be fit, vibrant and well. That led us to the concept of positive peace: the attitude and institutional structures that can sustain peaceful societies. Countries that are strong in positive peace perform better on a whole lot of other things: strong business environments, measures of wellbeing, [less] gender inequality, environment and many more. We are describing an environment that is optimal for human potential to flourish. Nations high on positive peace have fewer civil resistance movements. [These movements] exist for less time, they’re less violent, their aims are more moderate, and they’re more likely to achieve their aims. That shows the adaptive qualities of positive peace, and societal resilience. Iceland was a country that suffered the most from the global financial crisis but it’s No. 1 on the Global Peace Index. Its positive peace factors are very high. Compare that to Greece (No. 61). Look at the tsunami in Japan, and compare that to the hurricane in Haiti. Japan is high in positive peace, Haiti is not.

HM India has democracy, rule of law and many positive discrimination policies yet ranks low at No. 143. How come?

SK India would be classified as a flawed democracy. If it improved its positive peace, [I’m] sure its level of peace would improve with it. What we have found is that the least peaceful countries are the largest. Most peaceful countries tend to be the smallest. Why? In small countries people have got more say in what goes on, and also you’re not holding together often disparate ethnic groups.

HM You now have peace indices for regions within some countries, and for different types of violence. What do they show?

SK We’ve started to work on finer detail with some national indices, for the United States [showing Louisiana the least peaceful state], Mexico, the UK and soon for Europe. In Mexico the work we’ve done has shaped the debate around crime. In different environments the causes of violence can be different. What drives terrorism can be very different from what drives crime in the UK or fuels the drug wars in Mexico.

HM What does the terrorism index show us?

SK There appears to be a lot of association with being alienated from the societies that people are in, when we’re looking at the jihadists in the West. In France, Muslims make up 8 to 9 per cent of the population but 60 to 70 per cent of the people in jail. A bit like the Aborigines in Australia. We need more inclusive societies. The big thing associated with terrorism is what’s called “gross group grievances”, where you’ve got one group that feels really alienated to such a point they turn violent. But for states to lapse into really full-blown terrorism, there needs to be a lot of state-sponsored terror, extrajudicial killings, torture, illegal imprisonment, a lack of political legitimacy by the government – generally a country that is fairly lawless as well. The Middle East has ideal breeding grounds for terrorism: group grievances, which are usually the Sunni–Shia divide, really repressive authoritarian governments, a lot of human rights abuses. These countries are very low in positive peace so once they get enough of a shock, they break.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Peace dividend".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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