Sept. 21 is the U.N. International Day of Peace, but how does the world measure peace, exactly? In the dictionary, you’ll find the word “peace” nestled between “pea” and “peach.” The formal definition will refer to peace as the absence of violence. In other words, it’s a negative definition — explaining what peace is not, rather than what it is.
Our research on peace takes on a renewed urgency given the war in Ukraine and the uptick in the number of violent conflicts over the past decade. A number of countries — Lebanon, Colombia, Sudan and Myanmar, to name a few — appear extremely fragile and at increased risk of major violence. In times of war, or facing the threat of war, it seems sensible to think seriously about peace and how we might identify and measure it.
Wars between nations can be incredibly costly mass casualty events. While countless academic and legal studies have attempted to define peace, they often focus on the peace treaties that follow wars between nations. A peace in the conflict in Ukraine, for instance, will require political leaders in Moscow and Kyiv to reach agreement. A successful “peace” in this case would be if a cease-fire or peace accord was sustained for a long period, or if Moscow and Kyiv somehow normalized relations. Most ways of measuring peace concentrate on this type of expert-led indicator that looks at the whole country as the unit of measurement — and tends to view peace as the absence of violence.
Peace matters even more at the local level
Of course, these top-down ways of measuring peace don’t capture the full picture. Away from the diplomatic discussions, families and communities in cities and villages have to get on with their lives and make the best of the peace their national leaders have made. It is here in the everyday where peace becomes sustainable.
Whether in Colombia, South Sudan or Northern Ireland, peace is forged and lived locally. Peace, at this very granular level, might take the form of a former combatant being able to take a job in the civilian world, or a family being able to shop in stores that were formerly in “enemy” territory.
Tracking this everyday peace, or the ways that people navigate their lives in societies coming out of violent conflict, provides evidence of how people actually engage with and forge peace. This data provides valuable information on what happens in a country after the ink dries on the signed peace agreements approved by leaders. In this view, peace is not just an elite-level peace accord — it’s also the daily reality of being able to go about your business. At the most fundamental level, peace is about getting the kids to school, food on the table and being able to pursue work, educational and cultural opportunities. All of these activities, or their absence, provide evidence of the extent to which peace has taken root at the local level, but the extent to which they are important depends on a place’s location, history of violence, culture and stage of conflict.
We look for the signs of “everyday peace”
A number of initiatives have sought to capture signs of this everyday peace as a way of complementing the top-down evidence that we might get from monitoring a cease-fire or the extent to which governments have implemented peace accord provisions.
We created and now co-lead one such initiative — Everyday Peace Indicators. This project takes the novel approach of asking people in conflict-affected localities what peace means to them. So rather than rely on outside “experts” who arrive with premade definitions of peace, and ideas about how to implement it, the Everyday Peace Indicators team asks people what peace means to them in their own lives and how they identify it. In doing so, we have developed a systematic method to produce a database of quantitative and qualitative measures of everyday peace in villages and neighborhoods around the world.
We found, for instance, that many people see peace not in terms of the deals made by political leaders, but in terms of their family and immediate locality. In countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka, our project hears from people who define peace in many different ways — including how safe they feel walking alone at night, whether a specific road in the neighborhood has been repaired or how sincere their leaders are in resolving their grievances.
In Afghanistan in 2016, for instance, some people saw peace in terms of the number of TV and radio antennas on rooftops or the presence of female vaccinators — both of which signaled that the Taliban was not present to object. In Colombia, certain people noted routine and regular trash collection as a sign of peace, as this meant the municipal authorities were functional. And our most recent work in Sri Lanka has shown how many people connect peace closely with the type of public services they can access easily and efficiently, such as being able to take something as simple as a blood test at a local hospital.
Can local priorities inform peace processes?
Most importantly for international organizations interested in building peace, our research shows us that peace can mean many things — and that these things are often different from what international policies and programs actually target. Although there is a tendency to try to find key themes at a national or international level, communities within the same region or even the same district can have vastly different perspectives and priorities about peace. This matters because a policy or program that is helpful in one community may be counterproductive in another, especially in a complex war-torn context.
The Everyday Peace Indicators project has shown us the value in taking a step back from universal, template approaches to peace. Our conclusions may be useful to organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development and other groups that have shown interest in localization.
Ultimately, building peace is messy and often looks very different across different contexts, but our research shows that everyday people can offer ideas and ways of thinking about and building sustainable peace.
Pamina Firchow (@pfirchow) is associate professor of Conflict Resolution and Coexistence at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University. She is the author of the award-winning book Reclaiming Everyday Peace (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and is executive director and co-founder of the Everyday Peace Indicators NGO.
Roger Mac Ginty (@rogermacginty) is professor at the School of Government and International Affairs, and director of the Durham Global Security Institute, both at Durham University. His latest book is Everyday Peace: How so called ordinary people can disrupt violent conflict (Oxford University Press, 2021). He is co-founder of Everyday Peace Indicators.