Conflict Early Warning: Any Successes?

Does any one know of any successful instances of conflict early warning and early response? Specifically, in which situations have formal conflict early warning systems provided an accurate forecast of conflict escalation which was communicated to policy/decision makers who subsequently took action?

The Dallaire cables clearly reveal that even in the most prominent case of accurate and timely conflict early warning (which was the result of human intelligence and not formal indicator-based warning systems), response was muted. Kofi Annan, at the time head of Peacekeeping, told Dallaire not to take any action but to inform the president of Rwanda about the stockpiling of weapons even though it was the president’s own inner circle that was planning the impending slaughter. Can graphing conflict trends over time elicit a more effective response?

In order for conventional early warning systems to operationalize response, they would first need to build a paper trail of analysis, which would then need to be used to lobby the UN Secretariat and other member states; these actors would then have to place political and economic pressure on offending governments and/or non-state armed groups, and the latter would have to acquiesce. Are there cases that show this has been effective in the past?

The case of Macedonia is often heralded as a successful demonstration of preventive deployment and conflict prevention. However, the operational response was not the result of indicator-based models. Furthermore, US geopolitical interests are said to have played an important role in galvanizing response.

Furthermore, as Susanna Campbell and I have argued here the decision-making process at the UN and other regional organizations is far more complex than we realize. By starting with an analysis of the existing decision-making structures and working “backwards” to formal conflict early warning systems, Campbell and I found could not find evidence that conflict early warning analysis serve as input in the decision-making process. Does this mean that the most we can expect from conflict early warning systems is analysis for the purposes of lobbying and advocacy? In other words, should conventional conflict early warning systems be thought of as tools for lobbying policy makers? Should this qualify as operational response?

That may just be part of the problem. The indicator of success for effective conflict early warning systems still seems to be timely high-quality analytical reports. Can we do better? Why not use operational response (even if the response is not successful in preventing violence) as a more appropriate indicator of success?

Any thoughts?

9 responses to “Conflict Early Warning: Any Successes?

  1. From Howard Adelman (April 12, 2008):

    We documented two successes several years ago for CEWARN (the Horn of Africa) and Michael Lund was hired to investigate two failures at the dame time. His report explained the failures in terms of the infancy of the project at the time so that it was not yet ready to respond. Mike can send you his report.

    If you write CEWARN, I am sure that they have had other successes since. The two successes more than paid for the relatively small costs of CEWARN.


  2. From Ben Hoffman (April 12, 2008):

    Good to hear from you!

    We should talk about the International Peace and Prosperity Project in Guinea-Bissau. 3.5 years after our first misison there, we believe we are contributing to the prevention of polticla violence there.

    Please see for starters.

    Best wishes,

  3. Everett M. Ressler

    1. On the basis of experience supporting global monitoring and stimulating early actions both within UNICEF and through collective inter-agency processes, we share the notion that a critical link between early warning and early action is the decision making processes.
    2. We have drawn up a brief paper summarizing “lessons learned” on the linkages between early warning and early action which is available through the IASC Secretariat in Geneva. These conclusions are drawn from the experience of humanitarian agencies working together as the IASC SWG (Sub-Working Group on Early Warning and Contingency Planning) continues to collaborate in putting in place systems and facilitating the practice of early warning, preparedness and contingency planning.
    3. As an observation, most processes related to sensitive socio-political/conflict issues, related both to preparedness and preventive action, remain internal processes within agencies.
    4. Our experience working at the global level suggests that both the processes of early warning and stimulation of action, particularly related to preparedness for humanitarian support, are rather robust. Unfortunately, preventive action is often more difficult and complex than response.
    5. Over the past seven years the SWG, as a collective inter-agency effort, has stimulated and supported early action in many threatening conflict situations, demonstrating repeatedly that early warning can stimulate early action.

    Everett M. Ressler
    Chief, Early Warning and Preparedness Unit UNICEF Emergency Services
    Co-Chair, IASC SWG on Early Warning and Contingency Planning

  4. From Emmanuel Bombande (April 15, 2008):

    As you are aware, in West Africa, WANEP and ECOWAS have finally launched ECOWARN, the mechanism for conflict prevention in which WANEP is a Civil Society lead agency in mobilization CSO for data collection and analysis. Rather than talk about success as open ended, I prefer to be more concrete with one example on the ground that suggest to us in West Africa that EW is contributing significantly in shifting the mind-set on conflict handling with emphasis on prevention. The Early Warning Mechanism is integral to this.

    In May 2007, rioting spread out in Guinea. Unlike like previous disturbances, the Early Warning mechanism was able to synthesize where exactly was the source of grievances. The President of Guinea had insisted that he could manage internal political revolt because the opposition fomented those disturbances. The analysis on the ground from data accumulated over a period pointed rather to growing social discontent around salaries, price increases etc. A cultural underpinning showed how workers particularly felt humiliated that their salaries could no longer pay for a bag of rice, the main stable food. It was not just about prices but also that within the social setting, the head of family who could not purchase a bag of rice at the end of the month lost social status. Guinean workers on to this count were more prepared to riot and ground the country into total paralysis. These analysis informed the operationalisation of the mechanism at the level of ECOWAS. Rather than convene a summit to discuss the Guinean crisis, ECOWAS sent the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security more at an informal level without any media focus. The Government of Guinea was engaged with the accumulated information over a period and the social dimension was understood from a new perspective. The Government of Guinea immediately understood why it was important for them to talk with the labour unions.

    The Chair of ECOWAS or the President of the Commission engaging directly was interpreted by the Government of Guinea to mean that they were on the spotlight within the framework of the ECOWAS protocols. By giving them an option to choose who could help facilitate dialogue with the Unions, the Govt. of Guinea preferred General Babangida-Former Head of State of Nigeria. The process of dialogue went well. The Government was changed and a new Prime Minister appointed. The situation in Guinea in 2007 was well managed. However, I do not suggest that Guinea is entirely out of the woods. What is happening is that there is trust to work with the Government of Guinea and the engagement is continuous leading to elections later this year. The entry point was social even if the action for change somewhat was political and yet you could not discuss the politics including the resignation of the entire government as the way forward initially. The point is, the Early Warning Mechanism suggested what form of appropriate response based on where the real problem was. In the past, the response could have further exacerbated the problem. Should I describe this as an early warning success? I prefer to describe EW as providing opportunity for more systematic engagement that defines best practice for response.

    Today throughout West Africa, every issue in each of the 15 countries finds space in the ECOWARN database. Summary highlights and bulletins are sent out from the ECOWAS Commission every day. It might be too early yet but it appears this is the best way to go. I dare say that the rot in Zimbabwe; so embarrassing cannot happen in West Africa today because of the new political will to engage in advance to prevent. Thanks to the Early Warning System, issues that could have escalated into full blown crisis such as in Guinea Bissau Bissau are now responded to differently.

    I am sure the opportunity will come to be more elaborate on West African experiences. Let me say however that EW is very relevant today in West Africa to the prevention of violent conflicts. Benin and Togo are on the radar screen this week. Benin in the context of local elections where the Parliament has expressed strong disagreements with the President on his role. In Togo, it is around a clandestine group claiming they will stage a coup d’état by 27th April if their demands are not met. In each of these cases, there is ongoing mobilizing including at the level of Civil Society to respond. Next week in Togo, WANEP has convened a meeting of Parliamentarians, Government representatives and Civil Society.

  5. From Kristel Maasen (April 17, 2008):

    In the attachment (see blog entry on Kyrgyzstan) some cases of succesful encouragement of operational response at local and national level by the Early Warning for Violence Prevention project in Kyrgyzstan, which was initiated after the 2005 “revolution” and implemented in the turbulent years after it.

    Different kinds of impact of monitoring and early warning bulletins were identified:

    * conflicting parties changing their strategies from violent to non-violent
    * new mechanisms established for dealing with potential future tensions
    * cross-sector and multi-actor cooperation to deal with particular conflicts
    * state institutions drawing systematically upon early warning information

    It has to be said that it was an ongoing challenge to collect information and evidence on how bulletin receivers have used the analysis and recommendations. And while project staff and partners considered achievements significant, donors may find many of the cases low-scale and little convincing. These challenges of attribution and conveying what “could have happened had there not been a response action” seem general obstacles for support of EWER mechanisms.

  6. From Lars Bromley (April 17, 2008):

    I know less than I should in this area but am thinking a conversation with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network might be in order. In particular, did their crop models, or those of their colleagues, identify areas of unrest recently, such is Haiti, related to to food pricing and availability? The absence of food is likely a core driver of conflict, and FEWS has been working on such issues for quite some time. Apologies if this is already covered in the blog or somewhere linked to it.

    In my geospatial work we’ve toyed with using high-res satellite imagery to document troop build ups in Burma especially, and to a lesser extent in Darfur, and a couple other areas as well. This relies on local reporting that allows us to verify and quantify troop presence / increases. However, its obviously problematic, expensive, and very hit-or-miss, and in general we’ve only tried it where conflict is already ongoing and we want to know whether specific towns might be under threat. The main problem is we need imagery very quickly to provide any useful info, which requires us to schedule multiple satellites, thus costing almost $10K, and we might not get info in time. Even when we received the info in time, all we can say is ‘more troops and tanks are indeed present’ or something like that.

    The only other thing I know in this area is related to the Political Instability Task Force and the Brookings Civil Violence, both of which are rather old at this point. I flirted with them in my graduate days but nothing beyond that.



    Lars Bromley
    Project Director
    American Association for
    the Advancement of Science

  7. From Andrea Bartoli (April 17, 2008):

    Make sure that you convey these responses to the group at large in a way that will recognize you as the source. I think that it is a good idea to start offering some form of shared learning platform to the group.

    With appreciation,

  8. Pingback: iRevolution One Year On… « iRevolution

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