Category Archives: Successes

Sri Lanka: Citizen-based Early Warning and Response

Colleagues at the Foundation for Coexistence (FCE) in Sri Lanka just shared their report on “Citizen-based Early Warning and Response” with me (PDF). I’ve been following the Foundation’s work for the past five years so I was keen to get an update on their work in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response.

What follows is a brief review of the report and the FCE’s conflict early warning and rapid response initiative. I conclude with some of my own thoughts based on my early warning experience with FAST, CEWARN, ECOWARN, WANEP, MARRAC, EC, OSCE, OECD, UNDP, UNEP, OCHA, UNICEF,  WFP, USAID, IFES, BELUN, ICG, JRC, International Alert  and Ushahidi.


The Foundation takes a human security approach to early warning, which focuses both on protection and empowerment. They note that in most standard definitions of early warning, e.g., “the systematic collection and analysis of information,” do not actually include giving a warning—a point which certainly resonates with my experience.

Evolving Generations

One of the conceptual innovations that FCE contributed to the field of conflict early warning is the notion of first, second and third generations early warning systems. A first generation system monitors and analyzes conflict from outside the conflict regions; they are typically based in the West. “The problems of the first generation are consistent with those of quantitative approaches; they use limited secondary sources which do not provide any certainty about their accuracy and they have difficulty in predicting eruption of armed conflict accurately.” In other words, they focus exclusively on prediction and “do not have effective procedures to communicate with [Track 1] decision-makers for early response.”

Second generation early warning systems conduct monitoring within conflict countries and regions. “However, analysis is still conducted outside conflict countries (in the West).” Second generations systems entail field-based monitoring, risk assessments and active lobbying. “The advantage of qualitative approaches is that [they offer] vastly more content-rich and contextual information than quantitative statistical analysis.” However, the actors engaged in “second generation” early response are no different from those of the first, they are strictly Track 1 actors.

Third generation early warning systems are created by people in conflict areas for themselves. “It can be referred to as ‘Early Warning and Early Response system of citizens, by citizens and for citizens.'” Unlike first and second generation initiatives, monitoring and analysis is conducted on-site. “The logic behind them is that closeness to the conflict area enables one to understand the situation better and intervene rapidly and appropriately.” According to FCE, third generation systems thus have a stronger link between early warning and rapid response.

Early Warning

The FCE uses an events-data software program called FCEWARN for early warning; the unique feature of which is “that it can be utilized to monitor conflicts at the ‘micro’ level, especially at the village level.” The software basically quantifies conflict and peace indicators to display them as descriptive statistics such as tables and graphs. The FCE combines this software with “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software that visualizes spatial dimensions of conflict and peace indicators.”

The information fed into the software program is collected by the Foundation’s 37 field monitors operating in teh conflict zone.

“They are organic members of the communities they represent. They collect information on peace and conflict indicators and send it to the information center in Colombo in a specific format on a daily basis. […] The field monitors collect information through co-existence committees, state and non-state actors, local media and interpersonal relationships

As a result, the information centre in Colombo […] receives 30 event data forms in the least a day. In total this amounts to 600 event data on average per month.  This density of first hand information allows for adept trend analysis at the early warning stage.”

The FCE draws on the software and data to generate early warning products that “support the early response functions in the conflict zone by teh field monitors […].” In addition, the Foundations makes use of SMS alerts. The FCEWARN software program has the flexibility to integrate a functionality for SMS alerts.

Rapid Response

The FCE claims that “the development of computer software (FCEWARN) for early warning” is their “key achievement” vis-a-vis their “venture into conflict early warning during the past five years.”

However, I would point to their success in responding to 156 cases of conflict as their key achievement. According to the Foundation, their early warning initiative has “intervened in a recorded number of 156 cases of conflict.” The Foundation nodes that “four independnent evaluations by international experts in the science of conflict resolution have attested that this system has prevented or mitigated or contributed to resove conflicts.”

Of note is that the FCE’s early response system is “based on the application of multi-track diplomacy,” unlike first and second generation systems. The Foundation “emphasizes making citizens a major stakeholder in the process of transforming the conflict.” They also recognize the need to build “sufficient capacity and power of mobilization to solicit substantial amount of stakeholder effort from different vantage points.”

To this end, the field monitors are “the primary coordinating hubs of information and early response interventions in the conflict zones. They collect and analyze information and initiate early response processes to prevent conflicts.” Field monitors should therefore have “substantial influences on the masses and/or stakeholders in the conflict zone.” In sum, the rapid response component has to “assume the role of a ‘near’ mediator.”

Unlike the vast majority of conflict early warning initiatives, the FCE actually “reviews the outcomes of one instance of intervention and builds analysis and prognosis for another phase of intervention. This cycle continues until the conditions to the precipitating event are transformed or diluted to a satisfactory level.”


The FCE continues to make important contributions to the field of conflict early warning by demonstrating what an alternative, third generation approach can accomplish compared to top-down first-generation systems. Perhaps what is missing from the report is a stronger emphasis on preparedness and contingency planning. In other words, it would be beneficial to many of us if we could read more on the pro-active and preventive operational measures taken by FCE field monitors beyond conflict resolution excercises.

I would also suggest the notion of “fourth generation” early warning systems. While third generation systems are supposed to be “of the people, for the people by the people,” I think a direct focus on empowering local communities to manage and prevent conflict themselves (as opposed to “external” field monitors) would constitute a fourth generation system. A partial example is Ushahidi, which allows villagers to report alerts by SMS and to also subscribe directly to SMS alerts of incidents taking place in their vicinity.

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 field  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.

Alex de Waal on Radio & Tactical Conflict Early Warning

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) researcher Alex de Waal recently posted this excellent blog entry on “How Genocides End.” De Waal recounts his first human rights assignments in the Nuba Mountains. Together with BBC’s Julie Flint, de Waal traveled to the heart of the Nuba Mountains to film a documentary on the horrors of the 1992 Jihad campaign and military offensives which was one of the largest onslaughts of the war.

Their efforts to document the extreme violence and immense suffering unfolding before their eyes paid off:

We caught the government entirely by surprise. The combination of film footage and documentary evidence was compelling. […]. Our report of widespread rape was denied by the government—but our human rights monitors reported that it had a rapid effect in reducing sexual violence by government soldiers. By intercepting radio communications we set up an effective early-warning system for army operations, which allowed villagers to evacuate ahead of government columns, and while it didn’t stop the burning, did hugely reduce the level of fatalities. We were proud of this achievement.

This is yet another successful example of technology-facilitated tactical conflict early warning and response.

UN & Early Warning in Kenya, Georgia

I just had a particularly interesting meeting at the UN with several well-placed and highly experienced colleagues. The topic of conversation, unsurprisingly, was conflict early warning and conflict prevention.  Academics have long drummed up the various albeit few “successes” of early warning, so it was interesting that my UN colleagues cited Ghana, Guyana and Sierra Leone as their own recent success stories. Each intervention involved substantial prevention-related programs/projects, such as “social cohesion programs,” some one to three years prior to scheduled elections.
Equally interesting were the comments made in relation to Kenya and Georgia. In the case of the former, one senior colleague mentioned that,
Our own early warning ‘systems’… or rather analyses, mislead us… they suggested that the most conflict prone places would be in the north of the country, so we focused our preventive, training efforts there to reduce the likelihood of escalating ethnic tensions… this was back in March 2007. What we didn’t realize or expect, was that the Rift Valley would become so volatile, let alone the coastal region of Kenya.
In the case of Georgia, another senior colleague commented on the fact that,
We knew full well what was about to happen, we had our teams in the field, reporting on the increasingly dicy situation several months ago. In fact, we were fully expecting the situation to escalate in August. The problem, again, was not early warning.
When I pressed my colleague further on how exactly they knew, i.e., whether they were using specific and/or sophisticated methodologies for their conflict monitoring and analysis, the answer was no. Situational awareness, fact finding, in-country missions, sharing of information between agencies/contacts in Georgia and regular meetings to discuss the situation was in effect what constituted their conflict early warning system.

The conclusion I take from this meeting is not that early warning is not important, but that “good enough” analysis is more important than sophisticated approaches to conflict early warning and forecasting.

Conflict Early Warning for Abkhazia & South Ossetia?

With 1,500 reported dead in clashes between Georgian and Russian forces, does anyone know whether any conflict early warning systems had already forecast the outbreak and escalation of violence? I wonder if DARPA’s Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (ICEWS) project accurately predicted this “Event of Interest” or EOI.

In any case, I did some quick research to identify potential “early warning” signs in the news back in January and February 2008 and came across these:

January 18: Moscow Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey:

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh believes it is quite possible that Georgian President elect Mikhail Saakashvili could resort to increasing tensions between Tbilisi and the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in an attempt to consolidate the Georgian nation. “It is always extremely alarming when a neighboring country is in turmoil. You cannot be democratic for the outside world and undemocratic in your own country. Therefore, when the country is in such a situation, the only way to consolidate the nation is a small victorious war,” Bagapsh said on Russia’s Channel One television on Friday. “I cannot rule out the possibility that Georgia might resort to such a conflict,” he said. “A war in the Caucasus might start in regions, either in South Ossetia or in Abkhazia,” he said. Georgian opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava, who also took part in the program, said, “we are used to the fact that people in both Sukhumi and Tskhinvali talk about war all the time. However, talk is one thing and reality is quite another.”

February 6: Moscow Nezavisimaya Gazeta in Russian:

South Ossetian Leader Believes Kokoyty’s Plans Could Lead to Major Russian-Georgian War. “In general, I have to say that Kokoyty is playing a very dangerous game. After all, South Ossetia joining Russia is in essence an annexation of Georgian territory. Given such a turn of events, a clash between Georgia and Russia would be inevitable and a major war could start in which everyone would suffer, above all the Ossetians. Not a stone would be left standing here. We are offering another way, which, first of all, would allow us to avoid that catastrophe and, secondly, would preserve the territory’s integrity. What Eduard Kokoyty is trying to bring about in his political goals is a dead end.

February 19: Tbilisi Rustavi-2 Television in Georgia:

The Abkhaz de-facto government has started a military exercise on (word indistinct) territory in Ochamchire (district). The training is being carried out near the settlement. Military hardware, armoured vehicles, howitzers, anti-tank missiles and guided devices are used in the exercise. Several families have been harmed as a result of the exercise. Representatives of the de-facto government are saying openly that they are getting ready for war and are training the population as reservists. The de-facto government is again urging the population to take Russian passports. An Abkhaz television (station) has circulated footage where the population welcomes Kosovo’s independence, saying that Abkhazia’s independence should have been recognized prior to Kosovo’s recognition.

And more recently, on July 15, the Washington Post wrote this piece entitled “A War the West Must Stop.” I’d say these early warning signs are rather clear. Which begs the following question: is conflict early warning really the problem, or is early response (a.k.a. political will, or lack thereof) the main barrier?

New Prediction Center Created

The “Prediction Center” is a new joint venture between The Washington Post and Predictify. The service allows readers to vote on possible outcomes for selected stories.

The project goes beyond basic polling systems by integrating discussion features and monitoring a users’ accuracy score across the entire service. While there isn’t currently a way to weight one question more than another, the site’s algorithm does take into account the type of question and the accuracy rate of participants.

To offer an incentive for users to take part in the polls, the site has also implemented a premium program that allows companies to sponsor a poll and reward the most accurate participants with cash. In return, these sponsors are entitled to the demographics data that the service asks for with each vote.

Can crowd-sourcing be an effective way to predict conflict?

From Intellipedia to Conflict Early Warning?

I recently attended a presentation by Intellipedia‘s developers. Intellipedia uses the same software and approach as Wikipedia does and includes a Wiki space, a blog space and a multimedia space called iVideo, the intel version of Youtube. Intellipedia also includes a tagging tool that closely resembles, an instant messaging functionality as well as RSS feeds. Most of the tools used by Intellipedia are open source and the 2-person team behind the initiative deliberately limit the modifications and new features they add to these tools in order to benefit from the rapidly innovating information economy. “We cannot keep up with the Internet otherwise,” one of the presenters commented.

Intellipedia embraces the three core principles of social software in enterprise: work at the broadest audience possible; think topically, not organizationally; and replace existing business processes. During their presentation, the team emphasized that Intellipedia serves to capture the informal dynamics and knowledge generated within the intelligence community. The Web 2.0 platform is particularly useful when contradictory information surfaces. In the past, deconfliction of intelligence reports typically meant choosing one report over the other, thus losing valuable information (particularly when intelligence becomes highly politicized).

With Intellipedia, the debate is documented and allowed to continue. This sometimes leads to agreement and other times not. The salient point here is that all views are allowed to compete and evolve. This is like depicting the probable path of a hurricane using a cone shape icon. Initially, all future paths within this event horizon are likely, but ultimately, only one point will be hit, or real.

Intellipedia seeks to facilitate a similar process albeit with intelligence information. (Incidentally, the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Committee specifically documents any differences that arise during meetings). There is no final product within Intellipedia, the wiki and blog entries are all live and evolving. Interestingly, there have been several incidents when high level personnel within the intelligence community have requested that some pages on the wiki be removed since they were too sensitive. What is stunning however is that these sites were exact copies of pages on Wikipedia. More than 90% of intelligence information is collated from open sources.

The templates used by Intellipedia are kept deliberately simple in order emphasize the focus on information and knowledge rather than form and display. This not only helps build institutional memory over time, it provides a foundation upon which future intelligence can be based. For example, an analyst began posting information on the Beijing Olympics some two years ago and continued doing so on weekly basis. While no one was particularly interested in the topic at the time, the wiki on the Olympics is now particularly active.

The Intellipedia platform itself gets some 6,000 hits/edits per day and a hundred new registered users everyday. Users are provided with incentives to contribute to the platform, e.g., an exceptional contribution award presented the CIA director and an Intellipedia shovel prize which is particularly popular. Mini contests are also held and contribution to Intellipedia is increasingly incorporated in work performance plans. The most active contributer to Intellipedia is a 69 year-old retired intelligence officer who has worked within the intelligence agency for 40 years. He still comes to work on weekends in order to write as much as he can about his experience and lessons learned. The next step in the Intellipedia project is to use or develop new tools to crawl or mine the Intellipedia space to extract knowledge.

On the handle: “I dig Intellipedia: It’s wiki wiki baby”

In concluding the presentation, the team shared that the hardest part of Intillepedia was encouraging users to let go of control; that there was no ownership as such within Intellipedia. So for example many users wanted their contribution to wikis to remain unchanged. The team was steadfast however, and encouraged those users to vent about their disagreements with the changing text on their own blogs. This is precisely what users are doing now when they feel outvoted on the wikis. These users subsequently receive many comments on their own blogs. “When you let go of control, you unleash creativity… People want to contribute, want to have a say, want to do it right, so let them.” Wisdom of the Wikis?

There is a lot that our field of conflict early warning can learn from the Intellipedia project. Following are the most critical insights we should draw on when designing (or improving) our own conflict early warning systems:

  • Let go of our ego-centric tendencies for control
  • Decentralize user-generated content and access
  • Utilization of tagging, IM, online video posting
  • Use open source tools and make minimal modifications
  • Capture tacit and informal knowledge qualitatively via blogs and wikis
  • Keep user-interfaces simple and minimize use of sophisticated interfaces
  • Provide non-monetary incentives for information collection and sharing
  • Shift from quality control mindset to soap box approach