An Analytical Approach to Peacebuilding

Everyday Peace Indicators working in a Colombian village that was displaced by massacres committed by paramilitary groups in the late 90s and 2000s. Photo: Pamina Firchow

How do we know a storm is coming? Clouds thicken and a gray tone takes over the normally blue sky. Simple, yet effective, looking out the window is often the most reliable way to judge the weather. A local and direct analytical approach is applicable to most things in life. How do you know something is coming? What gives you an indication?

The Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) project at George Mason University is taking this concept and applying it to peacebuilding. Led by Pamina Firchow, the EPI team focuses on how the quality of peacebuilding indicators might be improved in order to address the incongruity between the realities on the ground, and the analysis and interpretation of those studying a situation from afar. Beyond the simple analogy of weather indicators, the Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) project gauges “early warning” signs and indicators of local peace and security based on the perception of those living in the affected communities.

Despite a general consensus among those in the peacekeeping field about the positive effects of greater incorporation of local actors, systems, and knowledge, there is a difference of opinion over exactly how and when to involve the local actors and communities in conflict when it comes to peacebuilding.  Though it is broadly believed that inclusive conflict resolution and peacebuilding practices result in a higher probability of long-term peace, balancing the demands of international and donor communities with the realities of local communities remains problematic.

The Everyday Peace Indicators project is spearheading discussion and trying to bridge the gap between these two groups. As part of their initiative, EPI has developed a process based on survey data and participatory action top help measure success. EPI’s approach builds on international norms by placing local perspectives of everyday safety, social cohesion, security, and peace up front and center, often creating a more nuanced and holistic view of the situation. The project is based on the idea that locally-identified indicators tell a story of the issues that matter to a community. According to Firchow, “the Everyday Peace Indicators project is really unusual in that it’s not just a research project that’s establishing what the problems are and then creating a list of recommendations. It’s actually piloting a program and trying to create a real applied tool that addresses these problems.”

To date, EPI has worked with local populations in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Colombia to identify indicators representing the presence, or lack thereof, of peace in each respective community. Simple indicators like the prevalence of dogs barking, or the perception that it’s safe to walk the streets or go to shops can serve as key markers of a community’s confidence in their security. Often times, Firchow explains, these are indicators top-level officials would never pick up in traditional analyses.

“One of the indicators that kept popping up, which I thought was really interesting was ‘whether or not I feel safe to go to the toilet at night, or whether I have a urinal in my home.’ That’s something I never would have thought about, and something that a desk officer at the UN surely isn’t going to think about.  The nuance and the story of the indicators themselves were fascinating and incredibly useful,” says Firchow.

Despite an innovative approach, EPI still faces a number of challenges. Because the indicators used by the project are specific to local communities, it makes it hard to meet international academic and practitioner demand for a level of common measurement. Additionally, survey collection in remote and conflict sensitive areas is often difficult, and the entrenched focus on proving individual causality and impact oftentimes poses a problem.

Aware of these challenges, the project continues to refine its methodology. EPI has addressed calls for common measurement by developing a series of categories, where indicators can be classified and readily compared. In response to difficulties of collecting survey data, the project partners with, and relies on, local NGO partners to conduct in person, or a combination of in person and mobile phone surveys. Throughout the pilot project, EPI has developed a scientifically rigorous process that is user-friendly and replicable.

In order for the Everyday Peace Indicators project to continue to gain traction, though, there needs to be a shift from measurables like, “number of meetings convened,” or “project dissemination,” to an increased emphasis on community focused indicators. This change in vantage point would lessen the importance of establishing organizational causality, and expand an emphasis on the complex interplay between the various factors affecting situations of conflict and peace. This would provide complementary local data sets to the national level data sets compiled by the likes of Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

EPI will complete its pilot project at the end of 2016.  At a Carnegie Corporation of New York grantee meeting last year, Firchow findings were well received by practitioners in attendance, including members of the peacebuilding group at the United Nations. Going forward, the team plans to continue to consult with both local and national peacebuilders in order to work toward the greater incorporation of local perspectives into the peacebuilding process.

The final report on the Everyday Peace Indicators Project will be launched in South Africa at the end of 2016. In the meantime, you can keep up with Pamina Firchow and the rest of the team at