Pamina Firchow, Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation After War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 193pp.

Reviewed by: Alex J. Bellamy (The University of Queensland, Australia)

How should we measure peace? That is an important question, not least because the significant number of lives lost (by some estimates, the African Union has lost some 4,000 soldiers to its campaign in Somalia) and sums of money expended (close to $7billion US each year on UN peacekeeping alone) in the pursuit of peace demands that careful attention be paid to whether investments of time, people, and money are being effectively used. Overall, the track-record is undoubtedly an uneven one, but one of the most striking things about the assessment of peace today is the radically different findings yielded by different methods.

At the macro level, a series of quantitative studies focused on different aspects of peace, such as peacekeeping, civilian protection, and war resumption, and utilizing different datasets have provided remarkably consistent findings that, albeit to different degrees, international interventions tend to produce positive effects. The deployment of peacekeepers, for example, is associated with reduced violence against civilians and a diminished recurrence of war. Meanwhile, studies of peacebuilding in specific contexts reveal patterns of failure, stories of partial and incomplete peace, and recurrent violence. These studies cast doubt on whether international actions have any positive effects. As Pamina Firchow points out in this compelling new book, the first to systematically examine an ‘everyday’ approach to measuring peace, “local and international perceptions often differ greatly on whether or not intervention has been successful” (p. 3). Although general benchmarks are needed to allow comparison between cases and analysis of overall trends, the way we understand and measure peace has hitherto paid too little attention to the experience and perceptions of affected communities themselves.

United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)
Photo Credit: UN Photo/J Bleibtreu

Reclaiming Everyday Peace sets out to correct that imbalance by creating and evaluating an approach to measuring peace that allows communities themselves to decide what peace means to them and how it should be measured. Using detailed studies from sites in Colombia and Uganda, Firchow explores the viability of creating community-driven everyday indicators of peace and examines what this approach tells us about the impact of foreign-led peacebuilding interventions. She finds not only that everyday indicators provide a richer way of measuring peace in specific times and places but also that through careful methodological innovations, it is possible to measure everyday peace in ways that can be meaningfully compared. Drawing comparisons across cases, she finds that communities with higher levels of foreign intervention did experience stronger gains in the field of economic development than those with lower levels of foreign engagement, but that the opposite was true when it came to perceptions of security: those communities with higher levels of foreign engagement felt less secure than those with lower levels.

Firchow finds a number of reasons for this paradox, but three stood out for this reviewer. First, development focused programs tend not to be accompanied by programs aiming to foster social cohesion, so that whilst economies improve, communities may fragment, leading to increased perceptions of insecurity. Indeed, Firchow finds that projects focused on peace and reconciliation receive less attention than those focused on economic and agricultural development. Moreover, the psychosocial aspects of rebuilding are neglected almost completely. Second, community perceptions of security change according to their proximity to armed conflict. That is, communities living in proximity to conflict tend to define security in terms of physical protection from immediate harm, whereas communities further away from conflict adopt broader definitions. Third, communities that experience lower levels of foreign engagement are forced to build their own resilience. That is not an argument for reduced investment in peacebuilding, but rather for doing more to understand how communities themselves understand and pursue peace and designing programmes to better support and empower the good work that is already being done by communities themselves.

There are other advantages to this approach too. It is nowadays well understood that international peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts have an accountability deficit, in that international agencies are more accountable to their donors than to the people and communities that they serve. Accountability and transparency can be improved through monitoring and evaluation frameworks that are framed by local communities, that take seriously their ways of understanding and measuring peace. This approach also tends to improve the long-term sustainability of projects since they are more embedded within and responsive to the needs and perceptions of the communities they inhabit.

Dance School in Cambodia
Photo Credit: UN Photo/John Isaac

There is so much to commend in this book. It is innovative, methodologically rigorous, and intellectually honest as it walks the reader through the research process. Everyday indicators of peace yield important new insights into the things community’s believe matter. The tables of everyday indicators of peace—which range from the ability to routinely hold traditional festivals to the availability of primary healthcare, from people being able to dig their own gardens to children attending school—are incredibly rich (e.g. pp. 111–114). The frameworks Firchow develops lay the groundwork for radically new ways of measuring—and practicing—peacebuilding. Moreover, the study’s analysis of interventions (Annex I) provides a comprehensive way of thinking about and evaluating peacebuilding.

The book’s conclusions are therefore ones that need to be taken seriously by scholars and practitioners alike. First, more needs to be done to support communities to heal and rebuild social ties after war (p. 148) so that perceived security grows alongside economic development. Second, that there is no direct link between the amount of resources poured in to peacebuilding and the effects. More attention needs to be paid to how programs are developed, managed, and measured. Community ownership and accountability has to be practiced, not just preached. Third, the further communities move from war the more they come to define peace in positive terms. The opposite, though, is also true. The closer to war a community is, the more peace is defined negatively in terms of physical security. It will be important to make concepts and practices responsive to these changes in how communities understand peace.

Peace always involves living with a degree of moral plurality. At its root it is about the non-violent management of the coexistence of disputes—sometimes in the face of fundamental differences of interests and values. Even when we identify some goods as being necessary contributors to peace—for example, disarming and demobilizing militias, establishing the rule of law, or promoting gender equality—our accounts must recognize the plurality of ways in which these things might be achieved and sustained in different times and places. Likewise, however, assessments of peace must also take account of the fact that not only do people understand peace differently, they measure it differently too.

Imvepi Refugee Camp in Arua District, Northern Uganda
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

We should therefore think of peace not as a singular grand project but rather as the cumulative effect of multiple projects that coalesce in particular times and places. The historian Jay Winter describes something like this as ‘minor utopias’, which we might think of as imaginings and practices of peace and wellbeing rooted in specific times and places and shorn of what Winter describes as the ‘grandiose pretensions’ and ‘unimaginable hubris’ of major top-down political projects. Minor utopian projects include community based efforts to resolve disputes and prevent violations by armed groups; efforts to build and implement laws fairly; creating or strengthening national institutions to manage order and distribute services fairly; practices to mediate between disputants to help them resolve their differences without violence, work to promote and protect human rights and dignity, reduce inequalities between genders, and to lift the poorest out of poverty;  activities to monitor and police ceasefires; the provision of humanitarian aid and places of asylum to civilians imperilled by violence; and much more besides. Each of these is a limited, rooted vision of how peace might be built.

Of course, there remain some significant challenges to measurement. For example, perceptions of peace and war can be manipulated by political leaders, the media, and others. A commonly observed phenomenon in the West, for example, is that populations tend to believe that violent crime is increasing irrespective of whether or not it actually is. All the media need do to persuade people that immigrants are responsible for increased crime is to cover stories of crimes committed by immigrants and obscure the broader contexts and facts. But that is why we need multiple frameworks for evaluating peace and multiple paths for pursuing it. By illuminating that point so astutely, Firchow has done the whole field a great service.