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 They provide simple snap-shots that are quickly outdated and the quality of analysis suffers from data deficits that characterise many of the countries covered by such studies.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.]