Why the Global Peace Index needs be read with scepticism

South Africa has seen an upsurge in protests recently, but can it really be said to be less peaceful than dictatorships such as Equatorial Guinea and Gambia? Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

The Institute for Economics & Peace recently issued its Global Peace Index for 2015 – one of a growing number annual indexes from a variety of think-tanks and foundations.

The indexes elevate themselves above being more than opinion pieces by employing metrics whenever possible and seeking to quantify as much as they can. But what emerges is often not more than qualitative judgements.

Perhaps the widest-known of these is the Corruption Perceptions Index published annually by Transparency International. The Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance is another.

These indexes are of varying quality yet all are used by a wide variety of players to make decisions ranging from investments to providing aid and other support. But should they be given this level of credibility?

Africa’s successes and failures

The Global Peace Index unsurprisingly paints a mixed picture of African countries. As would be expected, the most peaceful countries in Africa are ranked as Mauritius, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi and Ghana. The common denominator in three of the top performers – Mauritius, Botswana, and Namibia – is that they have been multi-party democracies since they achieved independence.

Equally expected, the least peaceful African countries are listed as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Many of these are torn apart by civil war.

Libya currently has two rival governments, plus Islamic State terrorists, plus municipal militias. The highly militarised South Sudan has a civil war within a civil war, with more than half a million refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries.

Global Peace Index.

The Boko Haram insurgency has overflowed from Nigeria into border villages in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila’s government rules over the western half of the state, but only reigns over the eastern half, where there are up to 40 rival militias extorting the locals at any one time.

The report also confirms that deaths from external conflicts, and wars between states, are declining significantly. But killings in civil wars are rising. It emphasises the attitudes, institutions and structures to sustain peace. It singles out Rwanda and Côte d'Ivoire as post-conflict countries which have made significant improvements in peace-building.

What’s being measured

The institute’s criteria for peacefulness include the extent of access to, or lack of spread of, small arms, and also the frequency of violent protests. Violent crime, the impact of terrorism, intensity of internal conflict, and political instability, are others.

It also includes the rule of law and other aspects of democracy in its calculations. While the criteria chosen might not be in question, the weighting each is given could be.

South Africa’s ranking provides an interesting case study. The country is ranked the 136th most peaceful country in the world out of 162, scoring way below Equatorial Guinea at 81, The Gambia, 99; Uganda, 111; Zimbabwe, 125; and Mali, at 128. South Africa and Brazil are both listed as “flawed democracies”.

This does raise some questions. True, South Africa’s violent crime wave is as bad as the worst South American and Caribbean countries. Personal safety issues drag South Africa down several global indexes.

But the index ranks a dynastic dictatorship such as Equatorial Guinea – which suppresses protest – as more peaceful than a rumbustious democracy such as South Africa with daily local protests and riots. Similarly, it ranks authoritarian Djibouti 34 places higher than democratic South Africa. It ranks the Gambia dictatorship 37 places more peaceful than South Africa.

But should prolonged repression be classified as peacefulness? Dictatorships are intrinsically unstable since they have to be overthrown to be removed, usually in prolonged militarised conflict.

Need for scepticism

The usefulness of having indexes is not in question. Undoubtedly, indexes measuring the degree of corruption, or the extent of repression and persecution of journalists, are useful to researchers and diplomats alike. But even the most venerated of them need to be read critically.

The peace index seems to be measuring the right things, but giving poor weighting to each component. For example, the weighting for the rule of law is clearly too small. Another debate on peacefulness concerns violent demonstrations.

Icelanders and Norwegians are clearly more peaceful than, for example, French farmers, or South African trade unionists and shanty town residents. But how should that affect an a judgement call on the peacefulness of those countries as a whole? Surely the democratic system in all four sets them apart from a state such as Egypt which maintains “peace” by a crony judge sentencing five hundred demonstrators to death at one trial alone?

Perhaps the Institute for Economics & Peace needs to debate and revise its weightings and conceptualisation used in their methodology each year.