The Omdusman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) launched an ambitious document earlier this month on calculating the costs of social conflict. Under the title ‘Los costos del conflicto social. Una aproximación metodológica a las dimensiones económicas, sociales e institucionales del conflicto social en el Perú’, it attempts to generate discussion and commitment around its proposal to broaden the way in which the costs of socio-environmental conflict are evaluated, above all in extractives.

It argues that the ‘norm’ so far in policy considerations has been a narrow assessment of direct economic cost, and even that has not been well measured. In 82 pages, the report gives a detailed exposition of the direct and indirect costs borne by the different actors and encompassing social and institutional costs.

In an ideal world, the Defensoría would want to see the funds and the institutional collaboration put in place to develop a full version of a ‘multidimensional index of the costs of conflict’ (IMCC), to be updated every three months.

The costs to be considered would include “those in relation to human rights (life, personal safety, tranquillity, property, liberty), the institutions of democracy (ministerial crises, damage to the legitimacy of public authorities and to confidence), development (paralysing of investment projects, impact on all sizes of economic activity) and the culture of dialogue and quest for peace ( use of violence, breakdown of confidence in dialogue)” (p75). The conceptual discussion incorporates the indirect cost and is focused on socio-environmental conflict.

The document is aimed at generating the consensus and initial investment for gathering the information that such an ambitious proposal would require. The immediate proposal for beginning work seems to be a somewhat simpler index though also referred to as an IMCC. This would be calculated regionally and would identify, as a guide to policy, not the costs to all actors but the cost falling on the public sector.

Only direct costs are to be considered, and only some of the long list of costs (29 in total) identified in Chapter Four of which slightly over half are indirect. Measuring indirect costs is considered to be too difficult because of the chain of sectoral repercussions and the difficulty of establishing causality.

The report is clear that the data requirements go far beyond the information the Defensoría manages, requiring cooperation from a range of government institutions. This is part of the reason for needing to create consensus around the importance and practicality of the index. The necessary information, says the report, lies in the hands of the national and regional governments and such bodies such as the police and the army, SUNAT (the tax administration authority), the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the National Statistics Institute (INEI) as well public health authorities and the Defensoría itself. No small challenge for institutional commitment and coordination.

An important aspect of the immediate proposal is that it would be developed regionally. In the conclusions, the focus of the value of the index seems to shift to providing a method for comparing the cost of conflict in different regions. While this is a valid exercise, it seems to run the risk of losing the fundamental ‘whole society’ perspective on the multidisciplinary costs of conflicts, which is present in the full proposal.

Finally, as always, to be at all accurate, the proposal would require data far beyond what readily exists. Many important aspects cannot be quantified. Indexes based on weak data are always hazardous, giving a false sense of precision. This is an adventurous and challenging proposal, worthy of further discussion and evaluation, but the insightful analysis of the costs of conflict would be better used to inspire a more qualitative assessment.