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Insights from Disaster Early Warning

The disaster and conflict early warning communities rarely share lessons learned and best practices. Why? Disasters are qualitatively different than armed conflicts. There are nevertheless clear operational parallels between disaster and conflict early warning systems—from risk assessment and monitoring to analysis, communication and response. Early warning systems generally share the same overarching goal, early detection, early response. Furthermore, over 150 natural disasters have occurred alongside complex political crises in the past seven years alone (UN 2006). This is why the undergraduate, graduate and professionals seminars I have tought since 2005 are entitled: “From Disaster to Conflict Early Warning and Response”.

Understanding how disaster early warning systems work, and in particular their link to response, can provide important insights for bridging the conflict early warning-response gap. What is especially telling is the disaster management community’s focus on mitigation, preparedness and contingency planning. Clearly, forecasting a hurricane is not tantamount to actually preventing the hazard from translating into a disaster. Response measures therefore need to be put in place regardless of the forecast’s accuracy. Moreover, the  discourse on disaster early warning is increasingly shifting towards “people-centered early warning,” the purpose of which is,

“to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods” (UN 2006).

Forecasting conflict is clearly more difficult than forecating environmental hazards such as hurricanes. And our track record is far less impressive than our colleagues’ in the disaster early warning community. This begs the following question: why does our field not take a “people-centered” approach and provide training for conflict mitigation, preparedness and contingency planning? Surely, if the disaster community were to focus exclusively on forecasting, millions would die. We would be shocked at such a decision. And yet, we seem unphased by the fact that our community does not provide even the most limited tactical traning in civilian protection and conflict preparedness. Should we still be suprised that our field continues to struggle in trying to link warning with response?


Survey on Information Management & Sharing in Crisis Response Situations

On behalf of the Crisis Management Initiative, IASCI is conducting a research project related to information management and sharing in crisis response situations. IASCI is contacting fellow practitioners from key institutions and agencies to canvas their expert views and experiences regarding information systems and features of utility, and to learn about primary information gaps and constraints.

If you are professionally familiar with crisis response, either from the field or management perspectives, CMI and IASCI would very much appreciate if you could take a few moments to respond to our questions under the following link:

Online Survey

If you have any questions or suggestions, you can contact IASCI at

Discussion with David Carment and Michael K

The following is a recent email exchange on conflict early warning and response. Please note that the views expressed below in no way reflect the opinions of the organizations we work with unless otherwise specified.
———- Forwarded message ———-

Date: Mon, May 26, 2008 at 10:52 AM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

Hi Patrick — pleased to meet you, first of all. For what it’s worth, and
not having read all of the links below, much like your plea for 80% of time
analysing, the EW problem is largely one of response — to quote Tjip
Walker at USAID — we need fire inspectors (and fire brigades for when our
inspections fail), and we need people looking at the processes around how
we build all kinds of different buildings .. extending the fire analogy.
To further complicate this, response to violence, armed violent conflict,
and fragility tends to be more politically controversial than responding to
health pandemics or even a humanitarian crisis (or fires). The duty of
care is well accepted in these latter contexts whereas R2P and the duty to
prevent is in no way taken seriously when we think about and act on our
“duties beyond borders”. In extremis seems to be “their” problem; and we
don’t even do exante assessments so we “do no harm” effectively where we
are working. How do we get response? Perhaps by by being actor specific
and timely. Donor government instruments have effect over different time
horizons as the UK PM Strategy UNit project on countries at risk of
instability showed. Tackling the structural is the biggest challenge
because no one politician will reap any political gain. Look at climate
change. ICG has had some success — their model is an advocacy one: tie
solid qualitative (highly subjective and non-comparable) assessments to
letterhead that is beyond reproach: I am not clear though how ICG would
fare if assessed in relation to the response their reports elicit. Maybe
advocacy, and the incredible force that millions of blogs represents, is
going to generate response, but I am not sure that it will be enough to
elicit behavioral change. The quote In DC’s original message below on
celebrity homes is telling.

Some thinking generated through interaction with Michael and David, and
many others, over the past several years is attached. The demise of FAST
is, in my view, a real blow to the collective nascent capability we had in
this area only two years ago. I am trying to keep work on EW-ER alive at
the DAC. In fact David Nyheim who used to lead FEWER has written a per we
will be discussing next week. I attach his critique which he contributed
to the OSER workshop.

I was in contact with the ICT4Peace initiative at the UN back in
September/October on some of this, but have been unable to follow up.

Michael, just thought I would mention that Ambassador Wolpe was up here
last week, and I was interested to hear about the project you are working
on with him. Can African leaders be expected to identify the ways we can
engage so they can live up to their duty to prevent?

For my part, things here are really at rock-bottom. It is quite

– Michael

———- Forwarded message ———-
Patrick Meier <>
Date: Mon, May 26, 2008 at 1:08 PM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

Hello Michael,

Thanks for your insightful reply.

Yes, I know Tjip and do agree that the problem is largely one of response. Michael knows I’ve been arguing this for years. As you’ll note from my latest blog entry, I conclude with the following: “Of course, like any early warning initiative, the link to early response will dictate the ultimate success or failure of this project.”

Having worked on dozens of early projects with FAST, CEWARN, ECOWARN, MARAC, OSCE, EnvSec, ICG, HEWS, WFP, UNDP, UNEP, UNECE, NATO, USAID, GPPAC, IFES, Fund for Peace, the EC and the EU over the years, I can certainly attest to response being the main problem. I recently presented this paper on “New Strategies for Early Response: Insights from Complexity Science” which clearly identifies response as the problem and why FAST and CEWARN are particularly unsuccessful. This is why I have been calling for alternative approaches to early warning/response for several years now and am working on a deliverable for Harvard that addresses the potential of community-based, or people-centered approaches. I was in DC just last week to present on the topic at a USIP panel:

“Maybe advocacy, and the incredible force that millions of blogs represents, is going to generate response, but I am not sure that it will be enough to elicit behavioral change.”

Exactly, I recently carried out a comprehensive study on the challenges of early response at the UN with my colleague Susanna Campbell. The study, “Deciding to Prevent Violent Conflict at the UN: Decision-Making and Early Warning,” included numerous interviews with policy / decision-makers. Our findings reveal that decision-makers across the UN do not draw on the analysis of formal conflict early warning systems. Conventional early warning systems are used for the purposes of lobbying and advocacy, but these should not be mistaken for operational response. The study is available at:

Thanks for the attachments, I am particularly familiar Michael and both David’s work. As for the demise of FAST, to be honest, I’m not particularly surprised. I’ve known the FAST team (Heinz Krummenacher, Susanne Schmeidl, Albrecht Schnabel, etc)for almost 8 years now and my concern throughout was that FAST did not take the initiative to measure any impact they were having. They were therefore unable to demonstrate any success. Moreover, FAST had some serious methodological issues–see my paper on Early Response above for a detailed critique. CEWARN is in a similar situation. Neither initiatives are actual conflict early warning systems, they are more geared towards monitoring conflict, and, as we agree, that is not the challenge. Response is.

On ICT4Peace, I’m in regular contact with Sanjana, although his focus is not conflict early warning per se, but rather the use of technology for mediation.

I don’t feel that the field of early warning is at rock-bottom. My perspective is that we are finally coming to terms with the fact that much of the early warning systems out there have little to no impact. This is finally leading to innovative and promising initiatives. Early warning projects that take an alternative, bottom-up approach, are likely to have more of an impact e.g., the early warning/response projects out of Kyrgyzstan and Timor-Leste (the latter of which I am working on).

For more reflections on early warning by several experts in the field, see the regular updates and email exchanges posted on my other blog:

Thanks again for your email.

———- Forwarded message ———-

Date: Mon, May 26, 2008 at 3:02 PM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

Hi — thanks for this response. The rock bottom comment is in reference to
the challenges that exist within my organisation. I have come to terms
with the political nature of response (let alone effective response) by
donor agencies. Where I am stuck is how to move forward. As a policy
analyst it is the lack of space for decisions formed on the base of
evidence that is disconcerting, along with the unwillingness at the
political level to do things based on evidence unless it is expedient.
Regarding FAST, has any of the impact assessment work you refer to been
done for ICG? Please keep me in the loop on your work, and I will do
likewise. Regards, – Michael
———- Forwarded message ———-
David Carment <>
Date: Mon, May 26, 2008 at 4:29 PM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

Let me throw in my two cents for what its worth

I don’t see the problem as either warning or response; but integrating analysis into decision making processes that are need specific, relevant and costed. Its rarely the case that warning is deficient and little can be done.

The issue is having a handle on what the end user is capable of doing. That is what I think is a stake and that is why our project took the direction it did; deliberately so. The key impediments at the government level are those who feel threatened by such an approach namely: middle managers and central HQ bureaucrats.

———- Forwarded message ———-
Patrick Meier <>
Date: Tue, May 27, 2008 at 12:04 AM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

Dear David and Michael,

Many thanks for your replies. May I have your permission to place our email exchange on the conflict early warning blog? Chic Dambach, John Packer, Michael Lund and I are having a similar discussion via email and they’ve just given me the green light to post our exchange on the blog so more of us can be involved in sharing our thoughts and experience.

On the political nature of response raised by Michael:

As Alex de Waal writes, conventional early warning systems tend to depoliticize a crisis by translating political problems into a technological challenge of monitoring and responding to changes in indicators and baselines. However, the local human factor—perceptions, needs and interests—is significant for early warning. Indeed, as Rubin argues, long-distance expertise and “analytical capacity alone will never be sufficient for generating effective response,” since “to have significance operationally, analysis cannot simply be factual but also has to address the issue of perception (e.g., perceived needs, values and symbols).” Rubin adds that “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.”

In my opinion conflict early warning/response systems that are institutionalized cannot work since bureaucratic and political processes resist the type of tactical, operational response that early warning/response entails. Conventional conflict early warning/response systems segregate those who warn from those meant to be warned. So when does early warning/response work? When those doing the warning are the same as those being warned. The way forward, in my opinion, is to empower local communities facing violence to get out of harm’s way, i.e., emphasize training in preparedness and contingency planning. We would find it folly if the disaster early warning/response community focused only on prediction of hurricanes or earthquakes without any thought on training communities in preparedness and contingency planning measures. Otherwise, we’ll be the firefighters forever and always reacting as opposed to preventing. Why not empower local communities, by definition the first-responders, directly and build on existing local capacities so they can be their own firefighters and manage their security environment–especially since we have a track record of not intervening in time?

On ICG and measuring impact, when I spoke with Nick Grono a while back he mentioned that ICG would track changes in legislation in various countries where the group would advocate for such changes. This is one way they try and assess what impact their work may be having. However, since we are on the topic of ICG, we should note that Fred Cuny meant for ICG to have to integrated components, analysis/lobbying *and* operational response. Unfortunately, he disappeared in Chechnya before he could make this happen.

On the problem being the integration of analysis into decision-making processes raised by David,

I very much agree that the issue is having a handle on what the end user is capable of doing. In my opinion, political and bureaucratic processes mean that end users working within state institutions are highly constrained. I suspect that even if analysis were integrated in decision-making processes, recommendations could always be trumped by political motives. Take for example the use of the sovereignty card, most recently played by the military regime in Myanmar. The international community was in effect powerless, not willing to intervene despite all the bravado about R2P. I completely agree that decision-making processes should be draw on evidence-based analysis, but I’m still worried that political forces can all too easily dismiss these.

Thanks again for this fruitful exchange.

———- Forwarded message ———-
David Carment <>
Date: Tue, May 27, 2008 at 7:05 AM
Subject: Re: FW: food for thought

I have no problem with this and that as long as you provide a link to our revamped website in which we tackle these issues.


Of course politics has the final say – but then who are we and what is our goal? Having worked with FEWER which became a victim of political machinations and then again with our own government departments I can tell you that independence is a virtue but also a curse.

We made it our goal to provide the best possible capability for decision makers to allocate resources according to costed options. We even went so far as to develop a framework for informing relevance and impact (see the working paper on the website) laying out a procedure on working with desk officers and integrating their work into ours.

Ultimately neither you nor I can influence the political choices that governments make – but at least we can determine if these choices are well informed and likely to be effective. Our job is to be OTOH independent and critical while at the same time more informed than those making the decisions. This is difficult without working with the desk officer.

As an academic if I had to choose between pursuing peer reviewed research or compromising the analysis for political reasons and obtaining full support for the project I’d choose the former every time. I can tell you that our gov did not appreciate what we had to say about Ghana and Pakistan (ODG reports on website ) largely for political reasons and shut down further analysis of these two countries. Whereas interest in our Latin America studies and handbook was much stronger and supported within government – in fact we worked with desk officers in the production of these reports and put people in the field through their support.

The donors have two agendas: one is to make sure they are “in the game” by promoting and supporting research like ours. They can bring this to the table eg the OECD DAC and this gives them influence and some bragging rights especially if their allies like it (see our handbook on the site designed for this purpose).

OTOH they do not want to to be held to an independent analysis – even if it reflects their own input.

So what do we end up with? A plethora of duplicating initiatives globally – some of which are direct copies of others (gee take a look at the Brookings rankings and ask how is it possible that ours and theirs could be so similar – is it because Susan Rice was provided with our stuff and attended a workshop on our work?) while at the same time providing inconsistent and unfocused support for independent research.

We knew all these problems would arise before we went into our project some 4 years ago and our briefs, handbooks, concept papers and full country analyses are designed to tackle these issues. Still we were not prepared for the bitter rivalries that exist across departments within government that inhibited their willingness to work together in the design and support of a single capability.

UNICEF Reflections on Early Warning

From: Everett M. Ressler

1. On the basis of experience supporting global monitoring and stimulating early actions both within UNICEF and through collective inter-agency processes, we share the notion that a critical link between early warning and early action is the decision making processes.
2. We have drawn up a brief paper summarizing “lessons learned” on the linkages between early warning and early action which is available through the IASC Secretariat in Geneva. These conclusions are drawn from the experience of humanitarian agencies working together as the IASC SWG (Sub-Working Group on Early Warning and Contingency Planning) continues to collaborate in putting in place systems and facilitating the practice of early warning, preparedness and contingency planning.
3. As an observation, most processes related to sensitive socio-political/conflict issues, related both to preparedness and preventive action, remain internal processes within agencies.
4. Our experience working at the global level suggests that both the processes of early warning and stimulation of action, particularly related to preparedness for humanitarian support, are rather robust. Unfortunately, preventive action is often more difficult and complex than response.
5. Over the past seven years the SWG, as a collective inter-agency effort, has stimulated and supported early action in many threatening conflict situations, demonstrating repeatedly that early warning can stimulate early action.

Everett M. Ressler
Chief, Early Warning and Preparedness Unit UNICEF Emergency Services
Co-Chair, IASC SWG on Early Warning and Contingency Planning