Decentralizing Conflict Early Warning

Early warning signals appear most clearly to those immediately around the disputants. “One cannot solely rely on the statistics produced by leading international development agencies” to monitor potential for conflict escalation (1). In fact, “according to 1994 World Bank data, Rwanda was the most egalitarian country among all low-income and middle-income countries in the world” (2). To this end, more micro level analysis is needed to capture “The View from Below,” i.e.,  the underlying web of complex political, social and economic networks. In addition, “if we are to make a difference for the majority of the people who suffer the horrible effects of civil wars, we ought to also focus our research on how ordinary people adjust their lives to cope with the constraints and opportunities brought about by civil war” (3).

But most conventional conflict early warning systems generate “macro level analysis and policy prescriptions that are generally based on a snapshot rather than a dynamic view of the changing situations on the ground” (4). In fact, the majority of references to conflict early warning are to top-down, inter-governmental  early warning systems with limited (if any) links to local communities. The field of conflict early warning is therefore shifting towards a more bottom-up approach, stressing the need for something like an indigenous “local information network” to get a better glimpse of “the view from below”. For sure, “a democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warning and resolution” (5).

Enter Global Voices:

At a time when the international English-language media ignores many things that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, Global Voices aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media. We’re using a wide variety of technologies – weblogs, podcasts, photos, video, wikis, tags, aggregators and online chats – to call attention to conversations and points of view that we hope will help shed new light on the nature of our interconnected world.

This is precisely what the FAST early warning project at Swisspeace attempted to do. FAST drew on “Local Information Networks” (LINs) of field monitors to code event-data as reported by the local news media. These would then be aggregated and visualized as a time series to determine whether any patterns of conflict escalation could be identified. The process, however, was tedious and hierarchical. Field monitors were not included in the analysis (which was done only in Bern, Switzerland), nor were they included in galvanazing response or even formulating response options.

Long-distance expertise and “analytical capacity alone will never be sufficient for generating effective response,”  since “to have significance operationally, analysis cannot simply be factual but also has to address the issue of perception (e.g., perceived needs, values and symbols); Indeed, prevent[ing] violent conflict requires not merely identifying causes and testing policy instruments but building a political movement” since “the framework for response is inherently political, and the task of advocacy for such response cannot be separated from the analytical tasks of warning” (6).  These form part of the lessons recently learned in the field of conflict early warning.

Global Voices is a far more effective local information and response network than FAST ever was. FAST’s organizational structure was hierarchical, compared to the decentralized nature of the Global Voices network. Bloggers at Global Voices are directly and actively linked to local social and political networks. They have their ears to the ground. They are some of the first to know when “Something is not right,” as Kenyan blogger Daudi remarked on the morning December 30th, 2007 in Nairobi. As more of the irregularities of the voting surfaced, bloggers quickly found themselves as citizen reporters, using twitter, photoblogging and other tools to document and respond to the escalating violence. Ethan Zuckerman writes,

Daudi argues that Kenya was especially prepared to cover the situation due to the richness and maturity of the blogosphere. There are at least 800 Kenyan bloggers, who are both fiercely independent and tightly linked together. “If you build a new Kenyan blog, if you put it into the webring, you’ll have a thousand viewers the first day.” Many of these bloggers were anxious to cover the elections. Daudi tells us he was out on the streets at 6am, photographing lines and polling places; other bloggers were out at 3am. Some bloggers were actually standing for election, others were embedded with foreign diplomats, visiting polling sites as election monitors.

FAST’s field monitors were limited in the technologies there were provided with. Bloggers, on the contrary, make use of all social media and Web 2.0 tools available. They are the new citizen field monitors. Unlike the local information networks at FAST and other conventional conflict early warning systems, they are not paid informants. They volunteer their time because they are dedicated to a more  transparent and democratic society. They are engaged and have a direct stake in peace. Why have we in the conflict prevention community not paid more attention to the rich information these bloggers provide? Why are we not subscribing to Global Voices? Why are we not using our sophisticated natural language parsers to quantity subtle changes in bloggers’ opinions and perceptions in real time?

The answer? Because the conflict early warning field is still in the middle ages when it comes to the use of emerging information communication technologies. A comprehensive OECD report (PDF) on existing operational early warning systems concluded in May 2008 that “most inter-governmental and non-governmental systems […] have not gone beyond the use of email and websites for dissemination, and communication technology for data collection.”

In addition, as the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) recently reported in a “Review of Conflict Prediction Models and Systems,” one the most significant findings from the study is that a “small pool of [academic] experts dominate the field.” Both these factors are antithetical to the observation made by Rupesinghe exactly 20 years ago (!) vis-a-vis conflict early warning and response systems: “a democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warning and resolution.” Stress on democratic and flow. It is high time we in the humanitarian community pay more attention to Global Voices.


7 responses to “Decentralizing Conflict Early Warning

  1. Albrecht Schnabel

    Hi Patrick,
    I would agree with some of what is said above. But as an ex-FAST person I can’t help but commenting on a couple of your points that aren’t quite right. The following statement is incorrect: “The process, however, was tedious and hierarchical. Field monitors were not included in the analysis (which was done only in Bern, Switzerland), nor were they included in galvanazing response or even formulating response options.” During the first years, the FAST staff in Bern had virtually nothing to do with the analysis. The analysis was provided by a group of international experts and the readers of the colelcted data. I.e., information was collected by local information networks, information was broken down into great detail and feed into the database (all of that by the local coordinator). Whoever read the information contained in the database would draw their own conclusions. During all of 2007, when we made substantial changes to the way much more frequent reports were put together and the topics they covered, they were written in collaboration with the local country coordinator, the Bern-based desk officer and an international expert.
    It should not be forgotten that FAST never was or never claimed to be a “one-stop-early warning-shop” – it proclaimed to be nothing more than a decision support tool, among many other sources – and those include personal contacts, alternative information sources, blogs, etc.
    Also, don’t forget that the mandate of FAST was not to be a “response” system – it was supposed to generated info – not a bit more and not a bit less. As you know, “FAST” is the abbreviation of the German “early analysis of tensions and fact finding” – not the generation of responses. So it’s not totally fair to be blamed for things one was not meant to do…It would of course have been great if FAST could have been part of a systematic and organized early warning and response mechanisms – which we need if we want to be able to talk about a EW&R “System” of sorts.
    On a minor note: You comment on “paid informants” – I see little wrong with paying people for an honest day’s work – talented people who are barely able to secure thier and their family’s survival. I don’t think free info is better and more committed info.

    Best wishes, Albrecht

  2. Many thanks for the corrections regarding my blog, Albrecht. I stand fully corrected and thank you for taking the time to reply. Beyond my mistaken characterization of FAST, I would be interested in any thoughts you might have on my characterization of blogs as the “new” local information network of value for early warning. In my opinion, the latter provide a more valuable source for early warning information than paid informants such as used previously by FAST and currently by CEWARN.

    On third party paid informants, unlike stakeholders or victims of a conflict, they
    do not always find themselves at the “right” place at the “right” time to collect relevant
    information. Thus at least two types of field monitors are potentially available to help gather
    information on emerging conflict at a sub-national level: paid informants and participant observers. While financial incentives may serve well to engage both constituencies, Doug Bond and I have suggested that the sense of responsibility and commitment by third party informants is unlikely to match the sense of urgency faced by the stakeholders who are most
    immediately affected by escalating violence.

    Thanks again, Albrecht. Hope all is well.

  3. Albrecht Schnabel

    Hi Patric. Blogs are not very systematic – they could be intersting sources for the type of field monitors we had, along with media reports and the like. by the way, the monitors could go beyond media. The system allowed for infromation other than that drawn from papers, radio etc.
    I wouldn’t compare FAST monitors and LINs with those of CEWARN or ECOWAS’s system … they are hand-picked, some are gvt staff, others are CSO staff known to the other in the system. We didn’t even know most of the monitors – we only knew the local country coordinators, who were not allowed to be in any way connected to the government (which was also a requirements for the country coordinators). The donors didn’t know the monitors. The monitors had fairly free hand in picking the events they deemed important from their local point of view. What went into the database was fully and exclusively based on the choice of local analysts – absolutely uncensored by us. It was their view. In addition we had our desk officer’s view and athe international expert’s view – those were added in the written reports.
    I would think (I know) that our monitors were the kind of stakeholders you are talking about. Giving them 50 or 100 $ a month for their work seems fine to me and doesn’t compromise their sincerity. Of course they were participant observers.. But i think i know what you mean – a more felxible system that allows for just about anyone to have their voice heard, to contribute information to a EW system even if they have not previously been identified as or trained to be a monitor. of course you can’t train whom you don’t know will be working with you…. so we are talking about a different kind of system, once that combines more systematic event gathering by trained people with more random, ad hoc inputs by people who happen to be near a situation or an event that need to be reported. The risk is that a system like this could easily be corrupted … if you want your message to be heard, you make sure it sounds dramatic, without any idea as to the overall situation. That could be corrected for as well – as soon as there is a constant flow of dramatic messages, efforts neefd to be undertaken to verify them before responses are drawn up and kick in.
    Just some late night/morning thoughts….nothing really deep I am afraid.
    Cheers, Albrecht

  4. Thanks for the follow up, Albrecht. We’re on the same page. There are opportunities but challenges as well.

    T’is true, I am suggesting a different approach altogether, a decentralized–or more federalized–approach to conflict early warning. With this, I am suggesting a less structured and formal information collection process. My hunch is that decentralized, distributed and mobile technologies can allow for a more participatory, horizontal approach to conflict early warning and response.

    In terms of this approach being easily corrupted, the bloggers with Global Voices are some of the most well respected political activists in the world. Having just spent 3 days with them in Budapest:

    I can tell you that they very much embody the values of integrity and responsibility. I am thus suggesting that specific networks of bloggers to be considered as potential sources of trusted local information based on their well-known reputations.

    In terms of paid informants versus participatory observers, you make a good point. Whether paying a network of local informants is ultimately a sustainable approach is perhaps worth exploring further. I know that in the case of CEWARN, we had a couple field monitors “walk off the job” without telling anyone, which created was problematic for the time series analysis.

    In advocating for the consideration of trusted networks of local bloggers, I am also shifting away from a quantitative approach to conflict early warning towards a more tactical and real-time situational awareness approach. That said, I have just joined a pilot project that uses a particularly novel natural parsing technology to quantify subtle changes in opinions expressed in blogs. This may perhaps yield some interesting results.

    Thanks again for your input on this, Albrecht, I really appreciate it.

    Good night!


  5. Patrick – no single methodology has a lock on early warning; each has its strengths and weaknesses and each must be tailored to the needs of the end user. You need to differentiate betwen risk analysis and early warning and between decision support tool and early warning.

    Personally I ‘d want to know a lot more about who my client is before I begin to develop a methodology that suits their needs. This includes knowing something about their capabilities and capacity, their time frames and their partners.

    If you want see a discussion about different methodologies have a look at our governance and democracy handbook.

    I too like the idea of a bottom up approach and so do the donors but I am not convinced it is the best approach under all circumstances. Sometimes strategic overviews are all that are necessary.

  6. These comments about early warning systems are constructive. But more urgent needs are 1) to redeploy existing resources to effective, direct early response mechanisms on a prioritized basis, and 2) to pursue more systematically and aggressively investigation of what types of response tend to be most cost-effective.

  7. Albrecht Schnabel

    Milt’s comment on cost-effectiveness might seem strange, but it is right on. Often a lot can be achieved at relatively little cost, while investments are made into well-intentioned but ineffective responses. Pragmatism needs to receive more attention.
    On the previous comments: The blooger input seems to focus on last-minute prevention (there is a crisis and those in the middle of it start reporting it) – but early warning and reponse should kick in much earlier. I just got back from Monrovia where UNMIL political staff insisted that root cause alleviation receives way too little attention and could have sizable impacts.
    Greetings to all, Albrecht

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