Iraqi soldiers fight against Islamic State militants, October 2014. Iraq was the second most violent country in the world in 2014, topped only by Syria.

Will rapid urbanization in developing nations make their cities more violent?

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East and mass killings here in the United States have made the world seem an increasingly violent place. That’s not necessarily true: Harvard’s Steven Pinker has shown that the arc of human progress has bent—in fits and starts—toward non-violence over time. But what of violence—and peace—over the past few years? A new report from the Institute for Economics and Peace finds that global levels of violence have ticked up modestly since 2008. According to the latest, 2015 edition of its Global Peace Index (or GPI), the average country has seen a 2.4 percent decline in peacefulness over the past eight years, though the level of violence around the world has remained relatively stable over the past two.  

But the relative peacefulness or violence of nations varies widely across the world, as the map below from the report shows. It depicts the GPI scores for 162 nations, based on 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators of violence or fear of violence, including: deaths from external and internal conflicts; violent crime rates; levels of imprisonment; expenditures on police and security forces; military spending; arms sales; and statistics on refugees and displaced people, among others. The countries in red and orange are those in which levels of violence are high; countries in teal, by contrast, are relatively peaceful.

While places like the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, Austria, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan remain extremely peaceful societies, nations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe have seen dramatic increases in their rates of violence. Of the advanced nations, the United States does relatively poorly, ranking 94th out of all 162 countries, about the same as Peru (92nd) and Saudi Arabia (95th), and not far ahead of Haiti (98th) and the Dominican Republic (100th). Since 2008, 86 countries have become more violent, while 76 have become more peaceful. “[T]his decrease in peacefulness,” the report notes, “has not been evenly spread”: the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, have become significantly more violent since the end of the last decade.

The decline in global peace has been driven more by internal conflict within countries than violence between them, according to the report. Deaths from terrorist activities within countries jumped a disturbing 61 percent in 2013; terrorists killed almost 18,000 people that year. Eighty-two percent of those deaths—14,800 of them—occurred in just five troubled countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. But relatively peaceful European nations—France and Denmark—and Asia-Pacific ones—Australia—were subject to terrorist attacks recently, too. The United Nations estimates that more than 50 million people are now either refugees or internally displaced because of conflict and violence—one out of every 133 people on Earth. When that number exceeded the 50 million mark in 2014, it was the first time that many people had been displaced since World War II.

The economic impact of global violence is substantial. The report estimates that violence cost the world $14.3 trillion in 2014, 13.4 percent of global GDP. “This is equivalent,” the report notes, “to the combined economies of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom.” Since 2008, the total economic impact of violence on global GDP has increased by 15.3 percent.

The qualities of a peaceful nation

Exactly what qualities make a country more or less likely to be peaceful? And, what is the connection between peace and a nation’s level of economic development, its shift to a post-industrial economy, and its urbanity?

To get at this, my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander ran a correlation analysis between each country’s rank on the Global Peace Index and a number of key social and economic factors for the approximately 80 countries for which comparable data is available. Though we found significant associations between features of nations’ economies and the level of violence, we can't say for certain whether peace promotes prosperity or prosperity promotes peace—or whether other factors that we haven't considered play an equal or greater role. But the patterns that come up are intriguing enough to report here.

Generally speaking, peace follows the level of economic development. The most advanced nations—Norway, Canada, Denmark, Japan, and New Zealand—are among the most peaceful in the world. By contrast, the countries with the most elevated levels of violence are among the least developed. There's a significant association between peaceful countries and strong economic development as measured by output per capita, with a correlation of .53. Of course, the U.S. is a big outlier here, largely because of its high violent crime rate and its high levels of imprisonment and military spending.

An electric car motorcade in Denmark, the second most peaceful country in the world in 2014. The IEP study finds that Iceland is number one. (Reuters/Jens Astrup/Scanpix Denmark)

Peace is a product of the type of development, not just its level. In particular, countries that have made the transition from agriculture and industry to more innovative, knowledge driven economies are substantially more peaceful. Peacefulness is associated with higher levels of education (.48) and with a larger share of professional knowledge and creative workers (.46). Peacefulness also goes hand in hand with nations that invest more in technological research (with a correlation of .62 to researchers per capita) and those that are more technologically advanced (with correlations of .56 to the share of the nation on the Internet and .57 to the share with fixed broadband)—all markers of more advanced, knowledge-based economies. By contrast, nations where greater shares of the population remain in agriculture are more violent (with a correlation of -.30). There is no correlation to the share of the workforce that are members of the blue-collar working class, or those engaged in low-paid service work.  

Countries where women have greater rights and are treated equally are more peaceful, as well (with a correlation of .59 to the UN’s gender inequality index.)

While greater inequality is associated with more violent societies, this association is more modest and less pronounced than one might suspect, with a correlation of -.18 to global peace. And there is no correlation to the rate of unemployment. This suggests that peace and violence are more closely associated with the level of economic development and postindustrial transformation than to inequality or unemployment per se.

The increasingly violent city

What is the connection between urbanization and violence? Here, our findings as well as those in the report are mixed—and, frankly, create cause for concern.

On one hand, peace tends to follow from the level of urbanization, with a correlation of .36 to the share of the population that lives in urban areas. As the report points out, this is because the countries with high levels of urbanization are often those with high levels of development and more well-established systems of law and order.

But—and this is a big “but”—the opposite holds for nations that are urbanizing rapidly. The average growth rate of the urban population is in fact associated with greater violence (with a modest correlation of -.29 to the Global Peace Index). It’s unclear whether this is because rapid urbanization itself is somehow linked to violence, or if the association simply reflects the fact that the poorest nations are among the most rapidly urbanizing.

Still, the association is alarming, and the graph below shows why. The countries where violence is most prevalent—in orange and red—are also those that are expected to urbanize dramatically in the coming decades. These are the nations in which rule of law is less stable, and where the urban environment “can accentuate and combine commonly-cited drivers of interpersonal violence, such as poverty, unemployment and inequalities,” as the report notes.  

This reflects the troubling phenomenon of  “urbanization without growth,” something I discussed on this site earlier this month. While we have long assumed that urbanization would bring rising living standards and more peaceful conditions, this connection appears to be broken in many of the most rapidly urbanizing places in the world. Urbanization without growth not only leads to areas of persistent poverty and economic disadvantage, but to higher levels of crime and violence as well.  

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