The independent resource on global security

June 13: Measuring peace, security and conflict: the challenges ahead for the SIPRI Yearbook

As an economist looking at issues of conflict and security, I am constantly surprised to recall that my discipline only started to study the role of violence in the repertoire of human behaviour and interaction after the end of the cold war. This is despite the devastating economic (and human) consequences of the wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the foundations of modern economics were laid.

By the end of the cold war, SIPRI, where I am proud to have become director in January this year, had already been gathering important data on world military spending, the arms trade and nuclear forces, among other topics, for many years, much of it recorded in the SIPRI Yearbook. It has continued to do this, adding new data sets, improving the accuracy of its sources, refining its methods of calculation, and in the process garnering enormous, and richly deserved respect among academics, policymakers and the media.

The 44th edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, which was launched this month, continues this tradition. But it also acknowledges the rapidly evolving challenges in measuring peace, security and conflict. Coming from a discipline that prides itself on its ability to measure and—with less success, perhaps—to use those measures to inform successful policy, I hope to bring some useful insight to SIPRI’s work, and help it to meet these challenges.

Why measure?

Given the persistence and prominence of the intentional use of force, or violence, in human interaction, group behaviour and state action, it is surprising how limited the degree of understanding of this topic still is among economists. Because the topic is so poorly understood, many of the policies dealing with potential or actual group-based violence remain imperfect. For example, not one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have shaped the development aid discourse since 2000, refers directly to peace, security or conflict. At the same time, no conflict-affected country has yet achieved any MDG.

Furthermore, as the new SIPRI Yearbook shows, 2012 provided ample illustrations that no comprehensive understanding has yet been developed of the options for intervention in conflict settings, or for peacebuilding and reconstruction more generally. A major reason is that we have no single, credible means to measure the success of one method over another in a given setting. Instead, decisions tend to be based on ideology and very narrow and limited ideas of self-interest.  The failure of international intervention thus all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Poorly informed policy decisions rarely yield good outcomes. Well-informed policy debates do not always yield enlightened political outcomes, but it may be worth taking the chance to provide the evidence before decisions of life and death are made.

A few of the challenges

Climate change, technological innovation, water shortages, globalization, financial crisis, the coming end of unipolarity . . . these are just a few of the factors rapidly and profoundly altering the international security landscape. Each of them has major implications for how we measure peace, conflict and security. I can only offer here a few illustrative examples.

The release of SIPRI’s latest data on world military spending in April garnered unprecedented attention this year. Yet increasingly it tells only a part of the story. States’ military spending may still indicate their ability—and to some extent their willingness—to use force, but states are far from the only show in town. States are heavily outnumbered by non-state actors as conflict parties. Indeed, in 2011 the majority of active armed conflicts involved no state forces at all, and in each year between 2002 and 2010 non-state actors killed far more civilians in one-sided violence than did state forces (a trend only reversed in 2011).

Twenty-first century communications have also made controlling who produces, buys and sells arms a Herculean task. As SIPRI research has pointed out, the modes and the sheer volume of globalized trade have opened a world of new opportunities for traffickers. Electronic communications and the Internet have fundamentally changed access to military technology. SIPRI will seek measures of arms production and arms transfers that are adapted to these new realities.

Despite recent advances in understanding the micro-level effects of conflict on people and households, a significant remaining challenge is to measure the conflict experience of each individual and to understand how people objectively and subjectively experience destruction, dislocation and despair. Human experience is likely to vary widely even in the same locality or household, depending on gender, age and political, economic or social status. Most strikingly, no data has been collected on individual perceptions of peace across time and space, which would seem a fruitful avenue of research and policymaking. The role of the private sector in building peaceful societies is also woefully under-researched. Finally, merging data from diverse of sources can shed new light on interesting issues such as conflict dynamics and humanitarian crises—as well as providing evidence that could be used in international war crime trials—in places like Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). SIPRI will also turn to these challenges to help us better understand how people, private companies and violent actors behave and cope during violent conflict.

The way ahead

If so many other issues in an individual’s life or in society can be measured, it should be possible to develop improved metrics for peace, conflict and security, both at the individual and the aggregate, national levels. However, measuring perceptions of insecurity, counting the war dead, tallying incidents of weapon smuggling, developing proxies for peace and estimating security indicators is not sufficient. I therefore suggest the development of a ‘global system of security accounts’, which brings together in a consistent framework the many variables measuring flows of security and peace.

In economics, having a system of national accounts helps us to pose, and answer, the right research questions. It also supports policymaking, as there is an understanding of how the different parts of the economy may move in relation to each other. In the field of international peace and security the lack of a similar overarching global system of security accounts weakens both analysis and policymaking.

The SIPRI Yearbook has for almost five decades provided a narrative on global security developments, building on SIPRI’s unique ability to gather, collate and interpret relevant trends. The time may be ripe to ask how this narrative can be developed to further enhance knowledge on and policies for security and peace.



Paul Holtom Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR. He was previously the Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.