Is our world more peaceful than ever before? The psychologist Stephen Pinker certainly thinks it is. With echoes of Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement of the “end of history” and the triumph of liberal democracy in 1989, Pinker wrote in 2011 that “today may be the most peaceful era in our species’ history.”
He sees a long decline in violence since 1945, with the growth of commerce and institutions of governance such as policing and law courts, and the spread of literacy and education, all having a civilizing and pacifying effect on human relations.
But some new trends show that more countries are involved in intrastate conflicts, and in 2014 180,000 people were killed in internal conflicts, a number 3.5 times higher than in 2010. The UN estimates more than 60 million people are now either refugees or internally displaced due to conflict and violence, the highest number since the end of World War II.
So while macro trends may still be leading to an overall reduction in the number of violent incidences, these spikes in conflict seem to be urging us towards a different philosophical approach to understand the roots of both violence and sustainable peace.
This is why the Global Peace Index (GPI) is so valuable in answering the question of whether the foundations of peace can be fully understood only through the study of violence. For a NGO such as Rotary, which takes on some of the world’s great development challenges — from reducing poverty, to providing clean water and educating and empowering millions of people — we need to know that our work is having a sustainable impact.
And where sustainability is concerned, creating the “optimal environment for human potential to flourish”, a core component of the GPI’s “Positive Peace” framework, is a strong measure of success.
So how does this framework relate specifically to Rotary’s work?
For Rotary’s peace programs, as well as its activities in the other five Areas of Focus, the GPI and the Positive Peace research help us reframe the question of cause and effect in relation to human development. It does this by identifying key characteristics of, and key interventions that lead to, more peaceful countries. Instead of focusing on “negative peace”, which measures an absence of violence, we look at a more holistic definition of peace. This provides evidence for factors such as equitable distribution of resources and high levels of human capital as the cause (in a complex, interdependent way) of peaceful societies rather than the effect of a decline in violence.
Rotary’s work supports directly many of the conditions which are the “pillars of positive peace”, as well as mitigating and preventing violence and conflict. Specifically, in the Peace and Conflict Prevention/Resolution Area of Focus, Rotary does this by:
1) Providing grassroots training opportunities for community leaders to prevent and mediate conflict where they live;
2) Supporting a variety of community-based peace building programs, from youth leadership workshops to socio-economic and civic education initiatives in communities and regions affected by conflict;
3) Providing fellowship and scholarship opportunities for aspiring global leaders in the field.
Rotary is working directly with the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) to help train the next generation of global peacemakers with the tools and framework provided by the GPI.
Through the Global Peace Index Ambassadors training, Rotary and IEP are working with peace fellow ambassadors to inform and educate Rotarians, not only on the GPI, but also on the concept of Positive Peace building and specific steps that local Rotary clubs can take to start peace-related projects.
So how does the GPI connect with Rotary’s other five Areas of Focus?
Rotary seeks to foster the conditions for Positive Peace by funding and implementing thousands of projects and programs around the world that support education, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, disease prevention and treatment, and community development.
Let’s look at two concrete examples of Rotary’s responses to today’s most pressing global challenges, such as the refugee crisis and access to clean water and sanitation.
Syria, once on the verge of meeting the Millennium Development Goal targets for education and health care, has now lost “six decades of development gains in five years of conflict” in the words of one observer.
If we don’t act now to build the conditions for sustainable peace, then the likelihood and impact of risk factors that undermine it, such as profound social instability, and failures of national governance will only increase.
In Europe, Rotary members and peace fellows are responding to the refugee crisis. In Berlin, Anne Kjaer Riechert, a Danish Rotary Peace Fellow alumna, started a computer coding school for refugees, aiding their integration into the local economy, and meeting the need of tech start-ups for qualified coders. Refugees on Rails provides refugees with recycled laptops and teaches them to code from scratch, or helps them expand on existing coding skills. Old laptops are donated to the school, which is run entirely by volunteers.
The project is particularly aimed at people whose asylum applications are pending and who are barred from paid work until official asylum is granted. Instead of being wasted, the waiting time is put to good use. Two hundred people have volunteered to help, and tech giants Microsoft, Deutsche Telekom (with the backing of CEO Tim Höttges, also a Rotary member) and collaborating venues in Berlin have donated office space.
And all of the above depends on partnerships: The GPI gives primacy to effective partnerships for human development because it interprets peace through the lens of sustainability. If the eight pillars of Positive Peace are to be built, then a society-wide approach is required. No government can single-handedly create the structural conditions for peaceful societies on its own, and this is where civil society plays a crucial role.
Rotary knew this when it took on another pressing global challenge – the fact that more than 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. For example, women’s education is jeopardized by the lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Women and children spend 125 million hours each day collecting water, which takes time away from school, work, or taking care of their families. So Rotary’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects aim to provide sustainable WASH solutions that can dramatically improve school attendance levels and basic education and literacy.
In collaboration with USAID, Rotary has rolled out pilot programs which use the WASH Sustainability Index Tool. It evaluates four critical factors: institutional arrangements, management practices, financial conditions, and technical operations and support.
Much like the GPI methodology, The Sustainability Index Tool uses a rigorous framework for focusing on strategic interventions e.g. training, maintenance of facilities, and not just tactical stopgaps for systemic problems, such as installing a new hand pump without any follow-up actions.
And detailed program monitoring is an area where Rotary could help the IEP further develop the GPI over the next decade. As it encourages a model for sustainable peace interventions involving actors across all levels of society, it will require solid data on new projects gathered by NGOs.
And of course, Rotary will continue to learn from the insights of the GPI, increasing its integration into programming, and spreading its adoption through our growing bilateral relationship with the IEP.
With the help of the GPI, we know it’s naïve to ever predict “peace in our time,” but we can at least try to create the conditions for it to thrive.
About the author: John Hewko is the general secretary of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation, leading a staff of 800 at Rotary’s World Headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, USA, and seven international offices. Before joining Rotary in 2011, he was vice president of operations and compact development at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency established in 2004 to deliver foreign assistance in a new and innovative manner.