New OECD Report on EW by David Nyheim

David Nyheim has just produced an excellent report (PDF) on early warning entitled: “Can Violence, War and State Collapse be Prevented? The Future of Operational Conflict Early Warning and Response Systems.”

I highly recommend reading the report as I have found it to be a particularly honest and frank review of our field. In what follows, I list the main findings articulated by David, especially those I find the most critical. In a future blog entry, I will add some of my own thoughts in light of a conversation I had with David earlier today.

In my opinion, some of David’s most important findings includes the following points, which I fully agree with since I have made the same arguments in several of my own papers.

  • The field has evolved significantly since its initial conceptualisation and early warning has been integrated into the policies of many organisations. But we cannot say today that we are in a position to prevent another Rwandan genocide. Conflict early warning faces similar challenges to those it did 15 years ago. And there are new challenges on the horizon. [Note: I have somewhat provocatively used the analogy of the Emperor’s Clothes to describe our field, David is far more diplomatic, but I’m learning.]
  • In spite of increased resources going into early warning, key shortcomings of governmental and multilateral interventions in violent conflict remain, including faulty analysis, late, uncoordinated and contradictory engagement and poor decision making. [Note: Susanna Campbell and I have written a study specifically on decision-making and early warning.]
  • Analytical tools fundamentally over-simplify complex and fluid violent conflicts and situations of state fragility.  They provide simple snap-shots that are quickly outdated and the quality of analysis suffers from data deficits that characterise many of the countries covered by such studies. [Note: see my paper on Conflict Early Warning/Response: Insights from Complexity Science.]
  • Early warning and response will be faced with an evolution of threats over the next decade. These threats will come from the combined impacts on conflict and instability of climate change, fall-outs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fall-outs of the war on terror, and the increasing criminalization of conflict, among other factors. However, the future relevance of the field depends largely on work undertaken now to be able to understand and provide useful analysis on these new emerging threats. [Note: see my paper on “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems for Climate Change.”]

  • Technological advancements have played an important role in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of early warning systems. Most inter-governmental and non-governmental systems, however, have not gone beyond the use of email and websites for dissemination, and communication technology for data collection. Governmental and some inter-governmental systems do benefit from access and resources to use satellite and GIS in their analysis and reporting. However, access to technology remains very unequal between systems. [Note: the current use and change role of information communication technology in conflict early warning, crisis mapping and disaster response is the main topic of my dissertation research at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).]
  • A state-centric focus in conflict management does not reflect an understanding of the role played by civil society organisations in situations where the state has failed. An external, interventionist, and state-centric approach in early warning fuels disjointed and top down responses in situations that require integrated and multilevel action. [Note: this is precisely why I have argued for a bottom-up, people-centered approach to early warning. See also the excellent paper by Casey Barrs.]
  • Micro-level responses to violent conflict by “third generation early warning systems” are an exciting development in the field that should be encouraged further. These kinds of responses save lives. [Note: I have just delievered a 20-page document to our donor at HHI on third generation early warning systems.]

5 responses to “New OECD Report on EW by David Nyheim

  1. Patrick’s comments gave rise to the following musings:

    Early warnings involve a cost: the value to humanity if the resources- talent, money, etc. – were used in another way. Of course, if instead of writing this, I were to engage in a destructive activity, such as arson, the cost would be negative. But assuming that the cost is positive, it can be justified eceonomically only if it gives rise to activity that has more value than its cost (not counting the possible value of these discussions as entertainment) In today’s world, with little effective response, the value of the warnings may be close to zero.

    Two kinds of responses come to mind. One is effective prevention. A second, espoused by Casey Barrs, is to reduce the damage done by violence by finding ways to survive it, by fleeing, hiding, or otherwise. One must consider the possibility that if people tended to save themselves rather than to resist, evil-doers, intent on taking power for their own ends, might be more likely to act and cause violence.

    One can think of phrasing warnings of conflict in terms similar to a weather forecast: probability of violence in country “X” in the nex 12 months is 60%. But, unlike the weather forecast, the early warning is intended to have an effect on the likelihood of violence. But that brings us to a paradox. If the warning would stimulate responses that would be 100% effective, the likelihood of violence would be zero. Perhaps it would be more useful to think of “analysis and possible responses” rather than EWER.

    I quite agree that the possible responses should include much more than what governmental organizations could do, especially because it appears that their responses, if any, are often ineffective or counter-productive. There clearly is a role that can be played by NGOs, civil society organizations, and other private initiatives.

    It would surely be useful not to exclude structural violence, as in Zimbabwe, as potential subjects for such analyses.

    The topic of prevention is ascendant. Various organizations are beginning to address it. None, however, seems to have a clear plan for effectiveness. Moreover, these activities are fragmented and apparently groping for a vision of how to be effective. A much more integrated approach would seem to have more value, but that appears to be a long way off.

    One could visualize an organization which would analyze hazardous situations, including possible responses, set priorities for action, and then implement effective preventive measures. Such an organization could also develop knowledge about how violence can best be avoided. But today, that is very far from reality. The possibility of the UN doing that, with its political constraints associated with its structure, and with its entrnched bureaucracy, seem to be remote.

    I would like to see our fledgling Global Conflict Prevention Mechanism become part of such a system. It could reduce human suffering that results from violence enormously. But, currently, that is but a dream.

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