Chapter 3: An Overview of Early Warning and Its Three Generations

UPDATE: I realize that I wrote up this review too  quickly while traveling between airports and did not emphasize how much I agree with Kanno. Instead, I mistakenly only focused on the sections that I disagreed with. While I realize that is the point of a critique, it is not a balanced review of Kanno’s chapter. So I highly recommend anyone interested in this field to read the chapter as there is a lot to learn from what Kanno has written.

Tadakazu Kanno authored the third chapter in the FCE book, which has some overlap with Chapter 2 by David Nyheim. While I do critique several sections of the chapter, criticizing is always easy and this chapter remains an important contribution to the discourse. Kanno provides a basis on which to continue discusssing third generation initiatives.

Kanno notes that the field of early warning and response has traditionally “been the purview of inter-governmental organizations such as the UN, EU [etc.].” Moreover, “early response in particular has been confined to the sphere of the UN and regional organizations.” He points to the post-election violence in Kenya as yet more evidence on the ineffectiveness of today’s sophisticated top-down systems.

Like David Nyheim, however, I obviously disagree with Kanno’s notion that third generation systems include those mechanisms implemented by regional organizations such as IGAD’s CEWARN. Again, I hope that this misunderstanding has to do with a lack of knowledge on CEWARN rather than confusion over what third generation systems entail.

Kanno writes that third-generation systems are “early warning and response systems of citizens, by citizens and for citizens.” This is not what CEWARN is since the initiative is first and foremost an inter-governmental mechanism. And yet, one page later, Kanno argues that there are two different kinds of actors in third-generation systems: local NGOs and non-Western regional governments. This is in my opinion a conceptual mistake and also a misunderstanding of what third generation systems are—citizen based.

Continuing with the confusion, Kanno argues that the “micro size” of third generation system “is the most important [point] to understand.” He writes that unlike previous generations, “actors of third generation EW/ER are smaller than those of the first and second” which means the main actors of third generation systems are “local NGOs and regional governments.” Am I the only one who sees this as contradictory? Local NGOs are civil society groups and hence citizen based. Regional organizations simply aren’t.

Kanno further argues that the information flow in third generation systems is “horizontal only from field officers to the Head Office within the conflict area.” CEWARN’s headquarters are in Addis, not in the Karamoja Cluster. And the information flow is anything but horizontal as I have argued in detail in this paper (PDF) back in 2007. See CEWARN’s organizational chart in network form below (taken from my 2007 paper). As the graphic denotes, CEWARN is hardly an example of horizontal information flow.

Picture 1

I was also disappointed by the definition Kanno users for early warning and response: Collection of data; Analysis of data; Formulation of best/worst scenarios and response options; and Communication to decision makers.” I had really hoped the discourse and literature on conflict early warning had progressed more than that. The above definition implies that a successful early warning system is one in which response options are communicated to decision makers, end of story.

Surely we can do better than this. Why not define a successful early warning system as one that is able to trigger an operational response? I don’t even set the bar higher by requiring that successful systems should trigger an operational response by decision makers *and local communities that either mitigates or prevention violent conflict; simply operation response. Surely we can adopt this definition.

In the section of first generation systems, Kanno writes that information collected by this generation of systems initially came from newspapers but that modern systems have “shifted to the much denser and more even coverage of on-line newswire sources such as Reuters.” This may have been true 5 years ago. We are today way beyond the use of simple key word searches of sources like Reuters, etc.

Today’s most sophisticated first generation systems employ advanced natural language processing algorithms to comb thousands of different sources in dozens of different languages. Some systems like Crimson Hexagon* go beyond standard simple event data and use sentiment analysis. Others are parsing SMS, Twitter, Flickr, etc., as well as new media content and user-generated content such as blogs. It is important that the conflict early warning community get up to speed on technology.

Kanno suggests that the shift away from first- and second-generation early warning systems can be explained by “generational trends in analytical methodologies.” In other words, Kanno argues that the development of analytical methods for conflict early warning explains the emergence of first- and second-generation systems. I would personally phrase this another way: the emergence of first- and second-generation systems is the result of Western Ivory Tower academics being hired as consultants to develop operational conflict early warning systems in developing countries.

I agree with Kanno that third generation early warning systems “are not the best systems to prevent macro-level political conflicts.” That said all politics is local, right? Local politicians are often responsible for fueling violent conflict that can quickly escalate. Still, I agree that current third generation systems do not “possess coercive power to stop impending and ongoing violence.” That is why I introduce the concept of fourth-generation systems, which specifically focus on preparedness and civil resistance.

To conclude, it is always easier to criticize but Kanno has produced an important chapter that enables us to continue the conversations and progress forward. The heart of my criticism is simply with respect to CEWARN but I realize that little has been written on the topic which makes it harder for colleagues who have not worked directly on the system to have a solid understanding of the project. Also, while I was critical of some sections, please note that I fully agreed with the vast majority of what Kanno wrote.


2 responses to “Chapter 3: An Overview of Early Warning and Its Three Generations

  1. Pingback: Chapter 4: FCE’s Early Warning and Early Response System « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Third Generation Early Warning « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

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