United Nations Reflections on Early Warning

From Tapio Kanninen:

Dear Patrick and all,

Thank you for this question and I give now some answers, comments and suggestions from a UN perspective.

1. In preparing the UN Secretary-General’s 2001 report on the Prevention of Armed Conflict we asked the Divisions of the Department of Political Affairs to give us examples of successful conflict prevention cases. A number of them were received. However, it was later decided that we cannot really use them in the report as many Governments would not like any public mentioning about the UN involvement – they would like to show that they were the main agents for solving the conflict/tension/crisis. So the report did not really mention successful cases but in a very vague fashion if I recall correctly. Similarly, the article we wrote together with Chetan Kumar, UNDPs point man for prevention, was also mainly describing the processes and not successful cases.

2. As you and others are pointing out there are furthermore methodological difficulties in proving who was the father of any good outcome in a given country: early warning/early action or just independent external or internal developments bound to happen or a mixture of both.

3. What I propose is that you might approach the Policy Planning Unit of DPA and UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery and see whether the NGO community and the UN system could work together to prepare a good study on the matter which could be used for funding both NGO projects and appropriate project funding in the UN system. I am sending this e-mail – as a kind of “early warning” – to Chris Coleman who is returning from the SG’s Office to head the Policy and Planning and Mediation Support Unit in DPA; Chetan Kumar was already in your original list of addressees.

Finally, after 29 years at the UN I am moving both out and on in September and will be part of the NGO community. I will be involved in the early warning and prevention field but at the different level. One of the jobs I am doing is to be a project coordinator in the Club of Rome project on establishing a political early warning system to address global and regional threats (UNU and Ashgate article on the related subject is attached).

Maybe the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth -report of 1972 is a successful case of early warning. The details have not been correct (and were never meant to be exact projections) but the overall trends and their interactions are becoming more and more close to the reality in the world as we witness it at the moment. The future of early warning might indeed be in showing the interactions of various factors – and often we need computer models to show these complex relations (and the models are also becoming very sophisticated these days). I am copying this to Peter Brecke (Georgia Tech) who was our consultant in ORCI times in the UN Secretariat on information systems and who is a specialist on global models. The food crisis is a good example of this interrelationship between economy, environment, population, technology, markets, trade etc and conflict which might show up as food riots affecting the political stability of a country and region.

I have been quite impressed by the work of NGO community in early warning field (FAST, FEWER etc and their contribution e.g. to CEWARN) and I am using your work as one justification for this global monitoring project as described in the article. (I believe Patrick you already gave some comments on the article but can your resend them; I welcome comments from others as well).

Best regards Tapio

Tapio Kanninen
Department of Political Affairs
Room: S-3780A
United Nations,
New York, N.Y. 10017
(212) 963-5118 (voice)
(212) 963-5065 (fax)


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