Meet Steve Killelea

In June, I wrote about attending the Rotary Peace Symposium in Brazil, where I was fortunate enough to gather stories from interesting people from all over the world. One story that I found particularly resonant belonged to Steve Killelea, an Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist who, in a formal session, spoke about how his travels sparked his desire to contribute to the greater good.

In 2007, Steve founded Vision of Humanity and launched the Global Peace Index (GPI), a fascinating statistical study that ranks the world’s nations according to peacefulness. Endorsed by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the idea behind the GPI is simple, but revolutionary: by qualifying and quantifying what, exactly, peace is, we better understand how we can promote it. Vision of Humanity’s goal—to build a better world—looks a lot like ISC’s, but where we explore cultural connections through story, they take more of a bird’s eye view, leveraging hard numbers and facts.

Steve kindly agreed to tell us a little more about this vital work, and how his organization uses numbers to tell stories about the world around us.

ISC: Tell us about the moment that inspired your work for peace.

Steve Killelea: About 25 years ago I got involved in developmental aid through my family’s foundation. Its goals are to work with the poorest of the poor, with the aim of touching as many people as possible. This meant that I had to spend a lot of time in war zones or near post war zones.

In 2005, I was in North-east Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reviewing a project dealing with fistula tears. This is one of the most dangerous areas in the world, and the whole time I felt constantly aware of the danger. At one point I wondered, “What is the opposite of all the stressed countries that I have been spending time in? Who are the most peaceful countries in the world and what could I learn from them?”

Back in Sydney I did some searches on the Internet. I couldn’t find a list of the most peaceful countries, and this was how the Global Peace Index was borne.

ISC: How do you use stories in your philanthropy work or in other ways within your organization?

The Global Peace Index is based purely on statistics. Statistics can be very dry, so narratives are exceptionally important. The combination of the two works both sides of the brain, left and right, making a holistic picture and leaving a deeper impression and stronger memory retention. Any time I do a presentation I combine it with some personal anecdotes. This gives a personal perspective, but also creates a more empathetic connection with the audience. People connect to the subject emotionally.

ISC: Your work is focused on using data points to gauge peacefulness around the world. How does the data tell a different story than the ones we’re used to hearing about peace?

One of the more profound thoughts that I have had lately is related to the way we view reality as systemic or causal. A narrative needs a beginning, a logical flow of events, and a conclusion. We can only describe one thing at a time; however, reality is complex. There are many more things happening than can ever be comprehended. Narration, because of its single-threaded nature and sequencing, leads to a causal view of the world. Our work with statistics helps create a single snapshot in time, and after many snapshots a holistic picture starts to build. This then leads to a more systemic view of reality.

Both approaches—data-based and narrative—are needed so we can best understand what’s happening in the world around us.

ISC would like to thank Steve for sharing his story, and looks forward to welcoming him and his wife, Debbie, to the National Storytelling Festival in October.