Conflict Prevention: Theory, Policy and Practice

My colleague Michael Lund has a new chapter coming out early next year entitled “Conflict Prevention: Theory in Pursuit of Policy and Practice,” in William Zartman et. al, Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Sage Publications, forthcoming in 2009). He kindly shared it with us yesterday on the basis that “despite the Internet, blogs, etc., information circulation in the fieldĀ  of conflict analysis and peacebuilding is very segmented and experiences huge lags [so] this might speed things up.”

I couldn’t agree more with Michael on the thick viscosity or inertia of information flow in our field. Take this blog for example, it still remains the only blog in the world dedicated to discussing current challenges and opportunities in the field of conflict early warning and response. This shows how far behind we are in adopting new technologies and modes of communication. We don’t even have a proper Wikipedia entry on conflict early warning. So I very much appreciate Michael’s decision to share a copy of his chapter with us. I’ll respect copyright issues (albeit begrudgingly) and won’t actually upload the chapter on this blog; however, do email him if you want a copy.

In his email, Michael invited comments and feedback on his chapter This reminds me of how Ethan Zuckerman often posts drafts of his papers, conference presentations, etc., on his blog to solicit feedback prior to publication; call it a crowdsourcing approach to peer-review. I would encourage us to do the same in our field.

In any case, what follows are short excerpts of Michael’s chapter along with some comments and criticisms. Michael’s primary goal in the chapter is to explain why the gap between the promise of conflict prevention and it’s more deliberate pursuit still persists. The chapter is 37 pages long, so I will limit myself to just three brief observations.

However imperative later interventions are for minimizing loss of life, they are less humane and likely more difficult because the antagonists are organized, armed, and deeply invested in destroying each other.

  • I find this argument somewhat problematic. If I understand correctly, we should focus on early prevention because late prevention presents important obstacles. Yes, of course, but given the fact that the vast majority of our responses to conflict are late, should we not take more responsibility in identifying ways to address the more difficult issues that come up with later intervention? We rarely address the more vexing issues in our field, always gravitating towards problems that are distinctly easier to solve. But when early prevention fails (which is the rule, not the exception) shouldn’t we have a plan B to mimimize loss of life?

In sum, conflict prevention is now more common. In addition to these explicit efforts, much of it is hidden in plain sight under other rubrics such as nuclear arms control, democratization, non-violent regime change, people power, power-sharing, conditional aid, and counter-terrorism. Though such activities can contribute to preventing conflict, they are taken for granted and not registered in the conflict prevention column.

  • At last, many thanks for making this point, Michael. As you know, I have spent the past few years (and ISA papers) emphasizing the fact that strategic nonviolent action (NVA) and people power belong squarely within the practice of conflict prevention and conflict early warning/response. This point brings us back to the first issue related to late prevention and having a plan B. Just as I have argued that NVA is an important part of conflict prevention, you will recall that I have also emphasized that preparedness and contingency planning (for conflict early response) is also critical for conflict prevention. Preparedness needs to be registered in the conflict prevention column. The question is how many times do we have to fail, and how many lives need to be lost, before we finally come to the realization that preparedness is critical to conflict prevention? See this blog entry for more on conflict preparedness and this one on nonviolent action.

The main problem [vis-a-vis] conflict prevention is not epistemological but organizational. We need not wait until scientists have found the universally highest correlations among the limited set of variables already most plausibly known as relevant before we continue as in the previous section to gather, synthesize, and disseminate the existing findings among policymakers and
field practitioners. Enough is known to produce heuristic guidance, for even the most verified conclusions are cannot be implemented mechanically in any particular conflict setting, but used as action-hypotheses to be combined with astute political judgments. A structured framework could pull together the preventive instruments available with guidelines about which are likely to be most feasible and productive in what conditions.

  • Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. As my colleague, Bradley Perry, has shown, “Fast and Frugal Conflict Early Warning” is a perfectly viable strategy. See this blog entry for more information on Bradley’s approach. In addition, I recommend following my PhD colleague Susanna Campbell’s dissertation research on “Organizational Barriers to Peace.” Michael’s comments also reminds me of a similar issue that our colleagues in the climate change community face. There will always be sceptics who claim that there is insufficient data to prove that climate change is indeed happening. Hence the “Precautionary Principle” which implies that “there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes.” The risk need only be plausible, not definite. Applied to conflict prevention, the precautionary principle reverses the onus of proof; it is the responsibility of those who claim insufficient evidence on early signs of conflict to establish that the lack of an early/late response will not result in significant harm.

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3 responses to “Conflict Prevention: Theory, Policy and Practice

  1. Pingback: A Conversation on Early Warning with Howard Adelman « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

  2. Pingback: iRevolution One Year On… « iRevolution

  3. Pingback: Conflict Early Warning Blog: One Year On « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

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