Towards a Human Security Based Early Warning System

My colleague Albrecht Schnabel and his co-author Heinz Krummenacher recently published (June 2009, PDF) an excellent chapter on a human security approach to conflict early warning and response in an edited book entitled “Facing Global Environmental Change.” (Thanks to MP for flagging this chapter so I could blog about it).

Using human security as a conceptual lens for conflict early warning is not new (see this MA thesis from 2003, for example), but it is a logical extension to the discourse given the shifting definition of security.

The authors argue that the “contextualized, sometimes multi-layered nature of human security must […] be matched with an equally multifaceted monitoring, warning and response system.” This explains the motivation behind my paper on “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems (2007).” Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many parallels between the authors’ chapter and the approach I have promoted since 2005. It’s great to see the discourse finally changing.

Authors (2009): Contemporary political early warning systems “focus exclusively on trends leading towards or away from violent conflict. Environmental, economic, and other threats do not feature on the radar screen unless they trigger social unrest or political upheaval.”

Me: No surprises there, to be honest. This really ought to be common sense. I published a co-authored paper in the Journal of Political Geography in 2007 that empirically demonstrates the added value of taking a more multi-sectoral approach in conflict early warning and response.

Authors (2009): “[…] ‘Open source intelligence’ provided more or less exclusively for the donor community is not appropriate anymore–indeed has never been. Early warning information needs to be shared with all stakeholders and the response to human security threats has to be found in a participatory process with the response itself mainly being the responsibility of the local/national governments and non-state actors. […] Moreover, the up to now ‘extractive’ approach to early warning practiced by Western governments has to give way to one that is based on true partnership.”

Me (2005-present): The above comes as quite a surprise (understatement). I honestly never thought that my former boss Heinz Krummenacher would ever question his hierarchical approach to conflict early warning. To be sure, the FAST early warning system he had co-designed was an excellent example of an extractive approach to conflict early warning.

The above also resonates with a chapter I co-authored in 2006 on open source intelligence and local stakeholders. In addition, that last sentence on the extractive approach to early warning is also verbatim what I wrote in a 2005 co-authored paper.

In 2006, at a time when I wasn’t particularly diplomatic, I wrote the following in another conflict early warning paper:

“The ‘Center-Periphery’ model outlines how Colonial powers preyed on the resources of developing countries to fuel the West’s insatiable thirst for progress through technological innovation. First and second-generation early warning systems [like FAST] replicate a similar pattern. While not preoccupied with diamonds or coltan, these organizations hire locals to mine information (a resource no less precious) in conflict zones. This (previously free) merchandise is then shipped to Bern along secure electronic channels.”

“The data and analysis is then sold to the ‘highest bidders’, not the populations at risk from whence the information originated but to the headquarters of organizations located at a comfortable distance from possible mayhem and bloodshed.”

I also included this quote: “Regional and local interactions between early warning personnel and local people [are] largely non-participatory exercises used to elicit and extract information, not to engage.” Finally, I somewhat provocatively likened first/second generation early warning systems to the Emperor’s new clothes. Like I said, not very diplomatic.

In any case, I’m really impressed to see just how much the mainstream discourse on conflict early warning has changed over the past 5 years. The authors even refer to third generation early warning systems in contrast to state-centric approaches. In addition, the authors emphasize the problems with mainstream definitions of conflict early warning, noting that these are “still focusing on one single facet of the threat spectrum, which is violent conflict.”

This explains why I have been using a people-centered definition of conflict early warning since 2004. The purpose of a people-centered conflict early warning system is to empower local communities to get out of harm’s way and safeguard their livelihoods. Clearly, harm has diverse sources but these must be understood through local perceptions, not through a Western mind-set seeking to apply an academic conceptual framework like human security.

I was particularly pleased to read the authors’ following comment: instead of carrying out human security audits and developing a human security index to prevent violent conflict, what is needed is “the presence of domestic opposition groups who are capable of challenging irresponsible governments by nonviolent means.” I’ve been making this link with nonviolent action for years:

Me (2007): “Although the conflict prevention community has yet to embrace a new discourse let alone a people-centered approach, nonviolent social movements may be the closest parallel we have to people-centered early warning systems.”

“Unlike highly technical and hierarchical early warning systems, nonviolent social actions are more effective in responding to conflict since they recognize the inherently political nature of armed conflict.”

I also quoted the following: “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.”

I was further pleased to see the authors emphasize the critical link to response and the recipients of conflict early warning analysis. The authors also note the decline in available funding in the field of conflict early warning. Unfortunately, they don’t relate this to the fact that major donors originally backed first and second generation early warning systems, which were largely ineffective. There’s no reason to blame the donors, but ourselves.

In my opinion, we need to own up to the failures of traditional approaches to conflict early warning and emphasize to donors that third-generation initiatives and crisis mapping are distinctly different approaches that deserve funding.

Another very pleasant surprise about the Schnabel-Krummenacher piece is the authors’ reference to preparedness and mitigation strategies. Again, this is an approach I’ve been lobbying for since 2004. The authors also address the need to measure success, which has been lacking in the field of conflict early warning. I particularly like their approach:

Authors (2009): “Assessment of response measures requires a clear understanding of the targets, goals and indicators for success associated with each of them. We are thus not dealing with counter-factuals: We do not search for what has not happened (i.e. a crisis), but what has happened (i.e. the effect that counter-measures had on specific root causes).”

Me: It is unfortunate that they don’t include the stakeholders themselves in the assessment and evaluation process, particularly since they advocate a third generation (or people-centered) participatory approach.

Authors (2009): “While even functioning early warning systems will not always lead to early and effective responses, there is no alternative to the creation and strengthening of early warning systems. The often-mentioned claim that despite the ample and timely availability of information and warning, response measures fail due to inadequate political will is also an overstated and unhelpful argument.”

Me: I’m always weary and suspicious when I read “there is no alternative.” I tend to object to using this kind of language. Of course there’s an alternative, as the authors themselves noted, we could work to strengthen local political opposition groups so they can engage in nonviolent actions that can place pressure on ruling regimes.

I do however fully agree that referring to the lack of political will is an unhelpful argument. I had this to say in a 2005 co-authored paper:

“Political will is often cited as the main culprit responsible for late (or no) response. This term, however, is often used as catchword—one that is more descriptive than analytical. Some scholars suggest that the “expression be banned from political discourse” unless it is “subjected to analysis, and, for purposes of action, to pressures and mobilization […] Lack of political will is symptomatic of numerous underlying pressures that are often personal, professional and political.”

The change in discourse reflected in the Schnabel-Krummenacher piece is truly remarkable. They write that the core reason for the existence of conflict early warning systems is to “generate knowledge about effective response options to prevent major disasters from threatening populations’ safety and survival.” I’m honestly stunned. As readers of this blog will know, the focus on response and preparedness is one that I’ve long pushed for but which has largely been ignored by the mainstream literature.

What is largely missing from this chapter, however, is any reference to communication technology and new-media, which is rather surprising given the authors’ reference to open source intelligence and emphasis on participatory approaches. Surely mobile technology has an important role to play in this respect.

In sum, I am glad to note the significant change in discourse. The fact that conflict early warning experts like Krummenacher are (finally) changing their approach to the field is something I admire and highly respect. I have too often seen scholar-practitioners in this field stick to their own convictions and not have the open mind to consider other alternative approaches. The change in discourse if 5 years overdue. But better late than never!


2 responses to “Towards a Human Security Based Early Warning System

  1. I just came across your interesting blog.

    You may be interested in the Website (which is just starting up – based on work linked to here:

    which discuss a new Human Security Index. Healthcare and environmental disaster planning/mitigation/early-warning/response are among the hoped-for beneficiaries, and participants in improving the design, input datasets, and use of the HSI. The goal of the Website is to support developers of source materials (e.g. the Global Peace Index, and possible future complementary efforts), improve consensus on crafting a better HSI and applications thereof.

  2. Good-day to whom it may concern.

    I am a student and i visited your website,and browsed through it,well my reason of writing you a mail is to get an article from you concerning this topic “Conflict Early Warning Signal(of any country in Africa)”.I will really appreciate if my request will be granted.

    Yours Faithfully,

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