Chapter 2: Three Generations in Early Warning – Challenges and Future Directions

This chapter of the FCE book written by my colleague David Nyheim starts to wrestle with some of the challenges of conflict early warning systems across three generations. This is an important chapter that seeks to go beyond some of the commentary that already exists on the topic. At the same time, however, I found several sections in the chapter rather puzzling.

I was perhaps most troubled by the categorization of CEWARN as a third generation system. This is simply wrong and the categorization is unfortunate as it means one of two things: either my colleague is not familiar with CEWARN, or worse, there is confusion over what constitutes a third generation system altogether. I worked directly on the operationalization of CEWARN. This explains why it is crystal clear to me that this regional, inter-governmental early warning system is at best a second-generation system and in no-way a micro-level system.

The reason I feel somewhat strongly about “semantics” here is because CEWARN has only prevented 4 or 5 pastoral conflicts out of several thousand conflicts since 2003. This is hardly a success by any measure and clearly shows that simply having a “rapid response mechanism” does not make an early warning system successful. Calling CEWARN a third generation system is thus particularly unhelpful to those of us presenting third generation systems to donors as distinct from the failures of CEWARN.

Why is CEWARN not a third generation system? Let me count the ways. Writing that CEWARN has a micro-level focus is misleading. True, CEWARN employs field monitors and the system does not monitor entire countries but rather on specific sub-national areas. However, lets take the example of CEWARN’s three field monitors who cover Kenya’s Turkana District in the Karamoja Cluster. While the discourse labels them as “field” monitors, which suggests a “local” presence, these three monitors are tasked with monitoring events and processes taking place on a weekly basis across more than 70,000 square kilometers—equivalent to the landmass of Lebanon, East Timor and Burundi, put together.

David cites “real time monitoring” as one of the principal points of comparison between first-, second- and third-generation systems. The latter systems “access information on a real time basis” and “verify information quickly.” CEWARN’s information collection process is hardly real-time. When I left in 2005, we were still struggling to reduce the time lag between event and reporting from 3-4 weeks to 2 weeks. This is hardly real time. Even David himself notes (later in the chapter) that governmental and intergovernmental organizations with larger mechanisms were unclear—or did not share—about “how quickly or not responses were.”

Another important point of comparison between early warning systems across generations is “local ownership.” David writes that “with strong field-roots, third generation systems are sometimes able to ensure greater local ownership of warnings and responses than other systems.” This description hardly applies to CEWARN. The vast majority of pastoral communities in the cross-border areas have never heard of CEWARN because the system is hierarchical and centralized.

David also refers to “several success stories” reported by several conflict early warning initiatives like the FCE* and CEWARN. While commendable, these success stories in no way imply that the systems themselves are successful. Just because I happen to serve one ace in a tennis match does not mean I’m a successful tennis player. The question, rather, is this: how many aces do I serve on average per set and how does this figure compare to professional tennis players?

I do agree with David vis-à-vis the following: “It is important to stress that different generational systems meet different demands, institutional needs, and mandates—which means that all serve important current needs.” In addition, I also agree that, “there remains a significant accountability deficit for inaction or poor action in responding to violent conflict and state failure.” And David is right in arguing that, “more work can be done to empower institutional responders,” and “strengthen response delivery mechanisms.”

But lets be very clear that CEWARN (or other governmental/inter-governmental initiatives) are not third generations systems; they do not have local ownership.

In closing, I would suggest that more focus be placed on organizational theory when discussing the differences between first-, second- and third-generation conflict early warning systems. One should understand the implications of using “generations” as a metaphor to describe different early warning systems. For example, the term “generations” implies “evolution”, “learning,” “adaptability” etc., which is precisely why political scientists refer to different generations of warfare.

An important difference between various generations of warfare is the organizational element. Al Qaeda is far less centralized killing organization than any other in history. It is their network structure that enables them to adapt and respond quickly. If anything, we need to learn how such terrorist cells operate in order to apply the same efficiency and speed to the prevention of violent conflict. See this previous post for more details.

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One response to “Chapter 2: Three Generations in Early Warning – Challenges and Future Directions

  1. Pingback: Chapter 3: An Overview of Early Warning and Its Three Generations « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

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