Washington — Violence is expensive. Countries not only pay a lot of money to build, supply and maintain military and police forces, but also to investigate and punish criminal activity. Worldwide, at least $9 trillion is spent each year in response to violence and the threat of violence. What would happen if countries could reduce violence and use the savings to improve things like education, the rule of law and coexistence?
For six years, the Australian-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) not only has been asking that question, but also collecting hard data proving the economic and social benefits of peace, and steps that every country can take to end the vicious cycle of having to divert resources from beneficial programs to counter chronic violence and instability.
IEP's annual Global Peace Index measures peace in 158 countries using 23 indicators, including political terror, internal conflicts, crime, incarceration rates, relations with neighbors, military expenditures and weapons exports. The index is able to show what the most peaceful countries, Iceland and Denmark, have in common, and the same for war-torn Somalia and Afghanistan, which were ranked the least peaceful in the 2012 report.
It is an innovative way to quantify how a reduction in violence or the threat of violence can make a country more resilient to crises, attract entrepreneurs and investors, and achieve greater prosperity for its people, said Michelle Breslauer, the U.S. program manager at IEP.
"For the first time we are measuring peace and we're putting together statistical analysis that is evidence for what issues people should focus on, and to try to really quantify the impact of violence on a society," Breslauer said.
IEP's reports have generated significant interest around the world. Breslauer said some governments have contacted the nonprofit research agency to indicate they want to increase their country's ranking on the index, and asking what steps they can take.
Breslauer said her organization has calculated eight components -- or "pillars" -- that mark a society's peacefulness, and they are all interdependent.
The eight pillars are a well-functioning government; a sound business environment; an equitable distribution of resources; an acceptance of the rights of others; good relations with neighbors; the free flow of information; high levels of education; and low levels of corruption.
Breslauer says money spent on violence is not productive, arguing, for example, that education creates more jobs than military spending does.
Take spending away from military or imprisonment and put it into education and "not only could that create more jobs so it has an economic benefit, but it also then helps to strengthen the peacefulness of a society because you're investing in one of these pillars of peace -- education -- and what they will hopefully lead to is, in turn, a reduction in levels of violence and so you start to create a virtuous cycle," she said.
There is room for improvement in every country, so Breslauer encourages those who want to find out what steps their country can take to look at all of the data IEP compiled to determine its rank on the Global Peace Index. The data shows that peace is multidimensional and depends on many interrelated factors. But it also shows which of the eight pillars are in most need of strengthening.
By understanding how the level of violence in your own community is related to education, incarceration, entrepreneurship, cooperation between ethnic and religious groups and other factors, you realize "not only is violence something you can address and try to work against, but it also makes a huge impact on society," she said.
Breslauer said IEP is also planning to release a report in early 2013 with interesting data on how corruption affects peace levels. The organization has found that at a definable "tipping point," lower corruption leads to a disproportionate increase in peace levels. But the corruption tipping point also works the other way, she said.
When corruption causes less confidence in public institutions, including less trust in the police and the rule of law, existing group grievances can combine with that loss of trust and more easily lead to violence.
The upcoming report plans to demonstrate at what point corruption and peace have a higher impact on each other and offer examples, she said.
More information, including the full Global Peace Index report, can be found at IEP's website.