CSIS PCR: Review of Early Warning Systems

The Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) has just released a review of 30 conflict early warning systems. In this blog entry, I provide preliminary reactions to the report based on a first read. I will add subsequent thoughts and comments in the near future. Before articulating some of my responses, let me say that this type of review is exactly what is needed to begin a serious conversation about what conflict early warning systems can, and cannot, do.

  1. The case selection for the review is problematic in that no distinction appears to be made between conflict early warning systems and conflict risk assessments.
  2. The assertion by proponents of conflict early models that their models have a success rate of between 75%-90% needs to be critically reviewed and independently assessed. Equally importantly, the triggers identified by these models should be evaluated to determine whether they can be factors practically influenced by policymakers.
  3. It should not come as a surprise that few decision makers rely on (early warning) watch lists to take politically risky decisions or to take preventive action in advance of a crisis. We should be upfront and honest about this.
  4. The reason that knowledge of conflicts is still rudimentary is because social systems are complex and the tools we apply are far too linear and discrete to capture the complex dynamics of conflicts. Academics should move away from econometrics and towards systems analysis as well as agent-based modeling. I would also highly recommend reading Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan.”
  5. Baseline data is more appropriate for structural prevention than operational conflict prevention.
  6. Weighing indicators implies attaching a static number to each indicator. Not only do these weights change depending on the combination of other indicators at play, but they also change over time, at different levels of analysis and in different political, cultural, social and economic contexts. Appropriate weights cannot be determined a priori.

For me, the two most important points identified by the authors of the study are:

Small pools of experts dominate interpretations – It is nearly impossible to predict outcomes from chaotic and complex situations, and even the experts tend not to get it right any more than lay people do. In fact, experts often overlook information that goes against years of viewing a place in a certain way, while minority voices are typically ignored.

Models do not account for political will – The real challenge is almost always how to get political actors to take risks. Generally, government officials have a naturally optimistic and can-do nature or they are reluctant to give higher-ups bad news, which prevents thinking of worst-case scenarios.

My main concerns and questions:

  1. Most, if not all, of the systems under review have not undergone any strictly independent evaluations vis-a-vis their accuracy. A follow up review would be valuable if it included success stories associated with these systems.
  2. If the models do not account for political will, then how are we any different from Cassandra even if our models were to be accurate?
  3. The report repeats the issue of not being able to measure success if nothing happens, ie, if prevention is successful. This mistakenly assumes that early warning alerts actually lead to response in the first place, regardless of whether the response is subsequently successful or unsuccessful. We can trace warnings to response far more easily. The problem is that hardly any warnings lead to any kind of response. So why exactly are we concerned about proving a negative?
  4. The report recommends that information be collected at the ground level. This is necessary but not sufficient. If this information is collected at the local level and then wired up to bureaucratic headquarters thousands of miles away, it will do little good to the local at-risk communities.

The report rightly argues for measures to improve accountability of those taking or not taking action. I would suggest the authors review the UN IASC’s work on Minimum Preparedness Actions (MPAs) and perhaps this piece on Decision-Making and Conflict Early Warning at the UN, in which my colleague Susanna Campbell and I consider the possibility of Minimum Preventive Actions for the purposes of applying greater accountability within the UN bureaucracy.

Indeed, we make a distinction between early warning systems for lobbying and those for operational response. The vast majority of systems reviewed in the CSIS study are more geared towards lobbying and advocacy rather than operational response. This is not a criticism but simply an observation. We should not confuse lobbying for operational response.

To conclude, this is an important report that I hope will generate some fruitful reflection.

Patrick Philippe Meier


8 responses to “CSIS PCR: Review of Early Warning Systems

  1. I am of the opinion that the concept of conflict early warning is an emerging one and as such there is need for more advocacy and awareness both at the lower and bureaucratic levels. More importantly, at the grassroot level, the conflict early warning systems provides the bank for deposit of information on impending crisis. The efficacy of the system thus depends on the methodology adopted for processing the information into a marketable format for response by policy makers.

    It is a system that we must not give up on. Despite the shortfalls and ‘no response’ experienced, i think the noise about the conflict early warning must be sustained. Gradually it will catch on and perhaps we can save communities, nations and indeed the world from war and crisis.

    Onyinye Onwuka
    Institute for Peace and conflict Resolution
    Abuja, Nigeria

  2. Thanks for your comments, Onyinye.

    You are certainly more optimistic than I am. The way I see it, the concept of conflict early warning is not an emerging one, we’ve been talking about conflict early warning since WWII but especially since the 1980s.

    I’m all for awareness and advocacy but not if this excludes actual operational and tactical response. In terms of early warning systems providing a data bank of information, in my own experience, I have found this to be of little to no use for operational conflict early response. Data does not equal prevention; indicators do not protect people in conflict zones.

    I think talk of methodology runs the risk of becoming overly academic too quickly. I’m an advocate for good enough analysis since even information presented in a marketable format is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that policy makers will act.

  3. Yes Patrick i agree that the idea of early warning has been on the scene for sometime but its emergence as a distinct concept in peace studies is recent. I also understand your legitimate concerns about operational and tactical response. I am of the view that early warning is not only for the policy/decision makers. It is for everyone. If the system is to work then the conceptualisation of the operational and tactical response strategies must be flexible, comprehensive and collaborative. My honest view is that the people at the the grassroot should be sensitized to report and encouraged to respond to watch lists or signs within their jurisdiction. A bottom -top approach is key to eliminating the non-partisan syndrome experienced with the implementation. If we make the operational response too technical, we could run the risk of exluding the involvement of all stakeholders. I also worry about why few decision makers rely on watch list to take decisions or preventive actions. Could it be that they feel excluded from the process from the start or that they doubt the reports or the presentation format? My worry is about how to generate enough confidence in earlywarning reports, how to evolve a cross-sectorial cooperation, how these reports are presented to elicit appropriate response and whether it is possisble to hold goverment accountable for no/late response. The approach to early warning should be more practical than it is at the moment. Perhaps that’s something we are missing out on.

    This is interesting. I look forward to your insight on the issues raised.

  4. You’re right, Onyinye, the topic of conflict early warning within peace studies emerged in 1990s.

    As for the role of local communities, the grassroots, I’m weary of too much focus on reporting at the expense of allocating time and resources towards conflict preparedness, contingency planning and early response. If you peruse the literature on nonviolent movements around the world, particularly studies that focus on tactics, the traditional role of information collection does not figure prominently.

    This is because at the grassroots level, local communities often already know by way of informal, intangible indicators or signs that tensions are increasing. (It is rather us, who are a few steps removed, who “need” the reports, which makes the field of conflict early warning rather egocentric). Local communities do not need to fill out incident and situation report forms on a weekly basis in order to quantify conflict and graph it over time in order to know whether tensions are increasing.

    Conflict can escalate rather quickly at the community level, and the act of filling out reports is highly unlikely to do anything for early response. In fact, the vast majority of conflict “early warning” systems out there rarely inform decision-making anyway. In a recent study I carried out with a colleague, we found little evidence that decision-makers actually drew on formal conflict early warning systems to make their decisions.

    In term of your concern regarding how to generate enough confidence in early warning reports, the question I would pose is whether our early warning reports warrant any confidence? The follow up question why inform decision-makers when they rarely respond anyway?

    As for whether it is possible to hold government accountable for no/late response, even citizens in “democratic” countries aren’t able to keep their elected officials accountable. Even though the US called the atrocities in the Sudan a genocide, which obligates the international community to respond, we haven’t seen any significant response. As for the Responsibility to Protect, while a noble principle, is completely unenforceable.

    May I recommend two papers which may be of interest to you and perhaps useful in your work? If so, have a look at the decision-making paper and early response paper available here:


    Please don’t hesitate to follow up with any other questions/concerns you may have. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but am always looking to learn from fellow colleagues.

  5. Dear Patrick i found your recommended papers most revealing and useful for my work. Your view about the grassroot in conflict earlywarning is also understood, particularly in terms of data anlysis. However my idea of a grassroot process is to intergrate/enlist the participation and support of all stakeholders at different levels within the conflict earlywarning framework. I am also doubtful if we can enforce accountability on leaders. May time will tell….

  6. Pingback: iRevolution One Year On… « iRevolution

  7. Pingback: Conflict Early Warning Blog: One Year On « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

  8. I am particularly impressed about the scholarly arguments of the two gentle men – Phillipe and Onwuka. I have learnt a lot from their talks and wish them more grease to their elbows.

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