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.