Measuring peace in our lifetime: evaluating SDGs


Hur Hassnain


Evaluating peace, justice and strong institutions is complex, tricky and arguably the most difficult to measure out of all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Goal 16 urges us to ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’.

It has the highest number of targets compared to other goals that require us to go beyond traditional evaluation methods and approaches. Moreover, the indicators alone are not enough to measure, and support progress, on such a complex goal.

The challenge is that peace, justice and strong institutions are fundamentally political and therefore fundamentally contested; different political perspectives would choose different things to monitor and measure, and under those circumstances how could you reach agreement on indicators, tools and contextualised data?

In some ways, institutions are analogous to the rules of game in a competitive team sport. That is, they consist of formal written rules as well as typically unwritten codes of conduct that underlie and complement formal rules[1].

In many fragile states where Oxfam works, formal institutions either don’t exist or they are not functional, so in such situations oftentimes informal institutions take the lead in governance and peacekeeping.

When it comes to examining Goal 16, if we neglect the role of these informal institutions we risk missing many developmental objectives. So, an uphill task for evaluators is how to incorporate informal institutions into the indicators.

Contemporary discussions on culture, practice and values draws heavily from the work of Hofstede that describes the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behaviour.

The widely accepted understanding is that symbols, heroes, and rituals are the tangible or visual aspects of the practices of a culture.

To measure peace one needs to also collect a combination of perception-based and objective data ensuring that the ‘Do No Harm‘ principle always takes precedence over the desire for accountability and robustness of evidence.

Despite the fact that people’s actual experiences and perceptions are hard to generalise, such an effort if undertaken, could generate interesting thematic analysis and regional statistics about their fears, priorities and definitions of peace in their respective contexts. See Everyday Peace Indicators Initiative.

As realised by the SDG indicator ‘16.1.4’, to measure overall progress towards lasting peace, we could include within our M&E frameworks the measurement on ‘people’s perceived level of safety while walking alone around the area they live in’, within their respective contexts and how the planned intervention influenced this perception.

The programmes and evaluations in situations of conflict could also benefit from incorporating people’s psycho-social wellbeing in their strategic planning and data collection especially if the goal is to promote an environment for human development and human security (the ‘positive peace’) compared to eliminate deaths (the ‘negative peace’).

The final evaluation of ‘Opening the space for enhanced food security and livelihood recovery in Gaza Strip’, 2016, suggests that providing psychosocial support to people living in conflict results in improved livelihoods, especially for vulnerable women.

RAND’s study, ‘The invisible wounds of war‘ suggests that in developed countries the economic cost of untreated trauma is actually higher than the cost of providing treatment, due to lost work, loss of economic productivity, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and other issues.

This might imply that investing in improving the wellbeing of people and accounting for omitted cost components—such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness living in conflict would mean the savings to society would likely be even greater.

A huge challenge for evaluating ‘SDG-16’ is that it asks for highly sensitive information to be shared. Firstly, the information itself is hard to acquire as the information infrastructure in most fragile and conflict-affected states are almost non-functional, and secondly, there is a risk that authorities may underreport to prevent naming and shaming – as human beings we are all biased!

The private sector, think tanks, CSOs, Academia, UN agencies and National Statistical Offices are all collecting data on the ‘SDG-16’ but we have yet not been successful on establishing a platform for sharing this data.

Measuring peace, justice and strong institutions is difficult, fundamentally political and contested amongst multiple political perspectives and this makes it hard to reach agreement on indicators which then makes the measurement difficult.

Some nuggets from the active debates in measuring peace however are adopting flexible approaches, assessing both objective and perception-based indicators and above everything mobilising the state, civil society and private sector to share and use data for learning and adaptive programming.

My eyes are set on some robust discussions and solutions on measuring peace at the Joint Conference ‘Evaluating the SDGs‘ that is bringing the state actors, civil society and the private sector together in Mexico from December 4-8, 2017.

The conference is organised by the International Development Evaluation Association [IDEAS], Latin American Evaluation Associations, ReLAC, REDLACME and the state and university of Guanajuato, Mexico.

Hur Hassnain is a Global Advisor at an International NGO, Board Member at the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS) for Asia Pacific Region and the founder of Pakistan Evaluation Association (PEA).


  1. ^ North, 1990.

Comments (2)


Thanks Tom for your comment. It is indeed a serious challenge and require serious efforts from us all. You may be interested in seeing some interesting statistics and metrics here

Tom Fleet

Serious work on a serious challenge. You rightly stress the importance of comparatively apolitical NGOs and charities in these contexts, and glad to see there's room for academic research, too, in this urgent need for data that can help us not only track progress towards peace but also intelligently redefine how it can be measured. Important discussions to be had, too, on how best to move programs for peace onto a 'positive' front foot. Hope the Mexico talks are productive. Good stuff, Hur.

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