• Global peacefulness has fallen by 2.5% since 2008.
  • The economic impact of declining peace is $14.5 trillion.
  • The pandemic could trigger a wave of future unrest.

Around the world, the gap between the most and least peaceful countries is widening. That’s according to the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2020, which has been measuring violence and unrest since 2008.

The index, compiled by the Institute for Economics & Peace, breaks its measurements into three broad categories: societal safety and security; ongoing domestic and international conflict; and militarization. It measures the presence or absence of violence, fear of violence, and unrest.

This year it has also examined the likely impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on levels of global peace.

Headline findings

Since the first GPI was published, global peacefulness has fallen by 2.5%. Of the 23 indicators used to create the index, 15 show poorer performance in 2020 than in 2008. And while there is an almost even split between countries getting more or less peaceful over time, the declines are more pronounced than the improvements.

Most and least powerful countries
The most and least powerful countries between 2008 - 2020.
Image: Global Peace Index 2020

The past 10 years have witnessed an increase in civil unrest, the index found. There was at least one violent demonstration in more than 96 countries during 2019. Similarly, rioting was up by 282% and general strikes by 821%.

The index detected the first rise in military spending for five years, but still found overall improvements in its militarization measurement category. More than half of all countries have reduced the size of their military forces (as a proportion of population), and arsenals of nuclear weapons have been reduced.

Thirteen of the world’s 20 most peaceful countries are in Europe, which has consistently been named the most peaceful part of the world by the index.

All five Nordic nations (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) feature in the top 20 - and Iceland hangs on to the top spot, where it has been since the very first GPI.

Most peaceful countries
The rank of the 20 most peaceful countries.
Image: Global Peace Index 2020

But while the overall picture for Europe looks positive, the continent still faces challenges. It has seen more protests, riots and strikes than anywhere else – almost 1,600 between 2011 and 2018 – although around two-thirds of these were non-violent.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, is the least peaceful country in the world. And the least peaceful region for the past six years has been the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Less peaceful than the global average for 19 of the GPI’s 23 indicators, the region still shows signs of improvement in some areas.

Deaths from internal conflict in the region continue to fall, as has the import and export of weapons. Most of the declines in the measurement of peace were due to a small number of countries – Syria, Yemen and Libya remain blighted by conflict.

Financial fallout from declining peace

In addition to the injuries, injustices and loss of life incurred through a lack of peacefulness in the world, there is also a financial cost.

The GPI has assessed the economic impact of declining peace to have been $14.5 trillion in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms in 2019. That’s around 10.6% of global gross domestic product (GDP). Syria, which has been riven with conflict and torn apart by civil war, lost the equivalent of 60% of its GDP to violence last year.

Overall, the global economic impact of violence improved slightly between 2018 and 2019. The economic impacts of terrorism and armed conflict dropped by 48% and 29% respectively. Armed conflicts were judged to have cost $521 billion in 2019, according to the GPI. That’s lower than the economic impact of suicide, at $757 billion, the report says.

COVID-19: is a wave of unrest coming?

The coronavirus pandemic has affected some of the GPI measurements, most notably by curtailing many displays of civil unrest. During March and April, when billions of people were living under lockdown, the number of recorded demonstrations fell by 90%.

But that could turn out to have been a temporary blip. One of the index’s other key focus areas is what it refers to as “positive peace” research – looking at the attitudes and structures that are central to peaceful societies and contribute to income growth, improved well-being and better economic outcomes.

The pandemic has placed tremendous strain on many of the institutions that underpin those positive peace indicators. These include healthcare systems, education and employment.

Positive and negative peace
What is positive and negative peace.
Image: Global Peace Index 2020

Such developments could increase the likelihood of violence and conflict, the GPI warns.

“Europe is likely to see an increase in civil unrest as the looming recession bites,” the report says. “While many countries in Africa will face famine conditions, creating further stress on many fragile countries.”