Tag Archives: CEWARN

An Open Letter to CEWARN Colleagues

Dear CEWARN Colleagues,

I am honestly quite puzzled.

You know that I publicly apologized on my professional blog for the mistakes I made when characterizing CEWARN in my recent book review. You also know that I apologized privately to you via email. You kindly offered to provide me with up-to-date information on CEWARN so that I could correct my previous blog posts. So I took your criticism positively and as an important opportunity to learn more and promote CEWARN’s good work.

I very much appreciate the time you took to clarify my misconceptions of CEWARN and took this as evidence that you were serious and willing to disseminate evidence of the successful results achieved by CEWARN. You offered to share with me the contact info for CEWARN’s country coordinators and field monitors. You also kindly offered to share with me additional information on CEWARN’s remarkable progress and achievements.

I sent you two emails one month ago in which I thanked you and took you up on your offers listed above. You have ignored my emails. You have answered none of my questions. You have provided none of the specific information that you yourself had offered to share in the first place.

May I ask why? I have found the rest of the conflict early warning community to be a lot more open and transparent.

Best wishes,


CEWARN Reconsidered

See update here.

I’ve been particularly critical of CEWARN over the past few years but as a colleague of mine recently noted—and rightly so—the last time I directly worked on CEWARN was towards the end of 2005. In other words, it’s been a good 4 years. In addition, my full time work at CEWARN was limited to about 16 months of work, with about a third of the time spent on-site.

So I’d like to invite my CEWARN colleagues to elaborate on some updates they kindly shared with me via email last Friday. For example, CEWARN has established local peace committees (in addition to national early warning units) which have taken the lead in initiating early warning and response activities. It would be great if CEWARN could describe in detail the actions taken by these committees over the years so that other conflict early warning initiatives in Sri Lanka and Colombia can learn from CEWARN. For example, just how successful have these initiatives been? And what failures have they encountered?

One criticism I have had of CEWARN is the limited number of “success stories” attributed to the initiative which has been operational for 6 years now. However, according to my colleagues at CEWARN, the cases I cite are only a few amongst many others and only highlight responses to Alerts issued by different actors including Field Monitors, local peace committees, and other stakeholders in the Mechanism. In other words, CEWARN has not shared information on other types of responses including cross-border communal peace dialogues, livestock recoveries, etc.

This is really good to know, and I would really encourage CEWARN to share the full extent of these success stories since it is really important to demonstrate the impact of the mechanism. To be sure, if CEWARN has not already done this, I would recommend that they compile a full detailed list of all success stories related to CEWARN’s work. Surely, this would be a prized document vis-a-vis donor relations and beyond. In other words, such a document should figure very prominently on the CEWARN website. I for one would be ready to dedicate an entire blog post series on CEWARN to highlight the initiative’s many important successes over the past 4 years.

My colleagues at CEWARN have also brought to my attention the development of an ICT for Peace Project and a Rapid Response Fund Facility for local, national and cross-border response. These new initiatives are very timely and worthwhile. It would be great if CEWARN could upload more information on these initiatives to their website. For example, how many times has the fund facility been used and what has the impact been? And what failures has the team encountered?

In sum, I’m really looking forward to getting myself more up to speed on the incredible progress that my colleagues at CEWARN have made since I left in 2005. Indeed, they very kindly pledged to help me learn more about the mechanism’s district and local peace committees by offering to provide me with the names and contacts of their early response units and country coordinators.

I eagerly await this information from CEWARN so I can revise and correct my criticisms of this conflict early warning system. As soon as CEWARN follows through with their pledge and I have completed my updated research on CEWARN, I will be sure to write a full blog post on everything I have learned. Of course, if I don’t hear back from the team, then I’m not sure how I can correct my criticisms and share their success stories and lessons learned. In any case, the record will show that I genuinely tried.

Chapter 8: Impact of FCE’s Human Security Program

The 8th chapter of the FCE book was co-authored by Joseph Bock, Patricia Lawrence and Timmo Gaasbeek. The chapter summarizes findings from six in-depth case studies carried out to assess the impact of the FCE’s Human Security Program in the East Province. I won’t comment on the individual case studies but will review the authors’ overall findings.

The authors write that “FCE’s Human Security Program has prevented violence.” I think what’s needed beyond the qualitative case studies is some hard numbers. I could equally write “CEWARN has prevented violence.” This would be a true statement—CEWARN has intervened in a dozen or so cases to prevent or mitigate violence. But one has to ask for a percentage figure, i.e., what percentage of all violence did the FCE program actually prevent?

In the case of CEWARN, there has been well over 3,000 incidents of violence documented by the “early warning” network. This would mean that CEWARN’s “batting average” is 0.004%. So yes, CEWARN has prevented violence but is the early warning and response system successful?

I find it refreshing that the authors are so up front about the difficulty of assessing FCE’s singular impact. “Because many different actors seek to resolve problems and support peace in the Eastern Province, there are few cases in which FCE was the only actor involved. Because of this, FCE’s claims at effectiveness will by default always be contested.”

The authors also note that the reports coming in from the field are “not always read because people get so much information that they do not have time to read everything. Generally, people glance through the daily reports a few times a week, mainly to confirm reports that they have already heard.”

The FCE introduced the use of SMS, which is probably the first example of a third-generation early warning system employs text messaging for the dissemination of alerts. The authors note that this mode of communication is “relevant for people working and traveling in the districts, because it helps them avoid dangerous areas.” In terms of staff outside the districts, the authors realized that “being bombarded real-time with security information if one cannot really do anything with it might cause a lot of stress […].” Finally, two FCE staff members noted that the incident reporting via SMS was generally “correct and useful, but in very rare cases the situation is misinterpreted.”

The data analysis at FCE headquarters was found to “support early response, but it’s exact impact is difficult to measure.That said, FCE field officers “commented repeatedly about how the categorization scheme of FAST [which is actually VRA’s] and the training they received from Swisspeace […] made them think in new ways.” However, the authors note that as a macro-system, FAST was inapplicable to the micro-purpose of FCE’s initiative.

The use of a computer-assisted micro-system also has the effect of promoting forward thinking. In the authors’ own words: “To the extent that an [early warning system] requires that each location has a list of community leaders to be contacted in the event of high tensions, it fosters forward thinking.” I couldn’t agree more and also see an important parallel with crisis mapping. To the extent that crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi require georeferenced information, it fosters forward thinking on where one might intervene.

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.

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.

How Ushahidi Can Become a Real Early Warning Platform

Ushahidi currently uses incident reporting (or more technically event-logging) as the methodology to document violent events that have taken place. While Ushahidi’s use of FrontlineSMS accelerates the crowdsourcing of crisis information, the violence reported on Ushahidi has by definition already occurred and thus cannot be prevented.


This blog post is the first of a two-part series on taking Ushahidi to the next level. The second part in this series  addresses “How Ushahidi Can Become a Real Early Response Platform.”

Current Setup

Ushahidi’s use of SMS to crowdsource crisis information means that violent incidents can be reported in quasi real-time, a significant advantage over traditional conflict early warning systems such as the Horn of Africa’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Network (CEWARN) and the now defunct FAST Early Warning System by Swisspeace.

To be sure, the use of SMS and geo-tagging means that escalating violence can be documented as it happens and where it happens. This can alert organizations of the need to contain or prevent further bloodshed. However, as has been argued by scholars and practitioners, as more blood is spilled the probability of reversing the violence without military intervention grows slim.

Situation Reports

The more robust applied social science methodologies I have come across for field-based conflict early warning combine both incident and situation reporting. Think of them as two types surveys. While the list of indicators in incident reports (IncRep) comprises violent events that seek to be prevented, the list of indicators in situation reports (SitReps) comprises events that are thought to render IncRep indicators more likely.

In other words, if event E is listed on an IncRep, the corresponding SitRep would include events E – t, i.e., those events that usually precede the violent event E in time. These SitRep events can be political, social, economic, ecological, historical etc., and should be grouped into such categories.

However, events E – t that tend to mitigate or prevent events E should also be included in SitReps. We want to know what is going right in order to identify existing entry points for conflict management. Violent conflict is never total in the Clausewitzian sense of total war. There are always pockets of cooperation and intervention. These, however indirect, need to be identified and understood.

SitReps are completed periodically, e.g., on a weekly basis, unlike IncReps, which are completed episodically, i.e., as incidents of violence take place. In other words, regular and consistent situation reporting should be encouraged. SitRep events should be formulated as indicators framed as questions.

For example, “Are university students having their freedom of speech curtailed?” would imply that a regime has acted (an event) to restrict student behavior. This act could elicit student protests and thence “a violent crackdown by government forces,” which would be an IncRep indicator.


SitRep surveys should also use a Likert scale, i.e., answers to SitRep indicator questions should range from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” This means the answers can be weighted. See the CEWARN screenshot above for an operational example of a situation report.


Instead of only monitoring incident reports, i.e., violence that has already come to pass, Ushahidi users would be able to monitor and analyze the causal factors themselves to determine whether they are increasing in number and intensity. This could signal potential early warning signs before the causal factors translate into violent events.

As more IncReps and SitReps are completed, users can also empirically assess which SitRep indicators act as the real triggers (and “preventers”) of the violent events documented in IncReps. In addition, after weekly SitReps are completed over several months, they can be aggregated to form a baseline for what the “average” week looks like.

Baseline Analysis


This means that users could then compare each new situation report with the baseline as depicted above. Inflection points, the doted circles, are points of interest since they denote change in trends. The dotted lines represent the threshold beyond which an organization will intervene. Alerts 1 and 2 signal that the threshold has almost been reached.

The important point to note is that baseline analysis of SitRep indicators can identify when the causes of violent conflict are increasing in intensity and frequency. Furthermore, patterns might be identifiable in the causes of episodic conflict and these could inform structural prevention strategies as well as conflict sensitive programming.

Next Steps

It would be great for Ushahidi to at least provide users with the option of setting up their own Situation Report form. I would also recommend that Ushahidi automatically flag when thresholds are crossed. In addition, Ushahidi should integrate some basic statistical techniques so that SitRep indicators (causes and preventers of conflict) could be automatically flagged when they are statistically correlated with IncRep indicators, i.e., violent events.

The purpose of including SitReps in Ushahidi is to encourage evidence-based programming and make early warning less of a hypothetical possibility.