Tag Archives: Swisspeace

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.


Towards a Human Security Based Early Warning System

My colleague Albrecht Schnabel and his co-author Heinz Krummenacher recently published (June 2009, PDF) an excellent chapter on a human security approach to conflict early warning and response in an edited book entitled “Facing Global Environmental Change.” (Thanks to MP for flagging this chapter so I could blog about it).

Using human security as a conceptual lens for conflict early warning is not new (see this MA thesis from 2003, for example), but it is a logical extension to the discourse given the shifting definition of security.

The authors argue that the “contextualized, sometimes multi-layered nature of human security must […] be matched with an equally multifaceted monitoring, warning and response system.” This explains the motivation behind my paper on “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems (2007).” Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many parallels between the authors’ chapter and the approach I have promoted since 2005. It’s great to see the discourse finally changing.

Authors (2009): Contemporary political early warning systems “focus exclusively on trends leading towards or away from violent conflict. Environmental, economic, and other threats do not feature on the radar screen unless they trigger social unrest or political upheaval.”

Me: No surprises there, to be honest. This really ought to be common sense. I published a co-authored paper in the Journal of Political Geography in 2007 that empirically demonstrates the added value of taking a more multi-sectoral approach in conflict early warning and response.

Authors (2009): “[…] ‘Open source intelligence’ provided more or less exclusively for the donor community is not appropriate anymore–indeed has never been. Early warning information needs to be shared with all stakeholders and the response to human security threats has to be found in a participatory process with the response itself mainly being the responsibility of the local/national governments and non-state actors. […] Moreover, the up to now ‘extractive’ approach to early warning practiced by Western governments has to give way to one that is based on true partnership.”

Me (2005-present): The above comes as quite a surprise (understatement). I honestly never thought that my former boss Heinz Krummenacher would ever question his hierarchical approach to conflict early warning. To be sure, the FAST early warning system he had co-designed was an excellent example of an extractive approach to conflict early warning.

The above also resonates with a chapter I co-authored in 2006 on open source intelligence and local stakeholders. In addition, that last sentence on the extractive approach to early warning is also verbatim what I wrote in a 2005 co-authored paper.

In 2006, at a time when I wasn’t particularly diplomatic, I wrote the following in another conflict early warning paper:

“The ‘Center-Periphery’ model outlines how Colonial powers preyed on the resources of developing countries to fuel the West’s insatiable thirst for progress through technological innovation. First and second-generation early warning systems [like FAST] replicate a similar pattern. While not preoccupied with diamonds or coltan, these organizations hire locals to mine information (a resource no less precious) in conflict zones. This (previously free) merchandise is then shipped to Bern along secure electronic channels.”

“The data and analysis is then sold to the ‘highest bidders’, not the populations at risk from whence the information originated but to the headquarters of organizations located at a comfortable distance from possible mayhem and bloodshed.”

I also included this quote: “Regional and local interactions between early warning personnel and local people [are] largely non-participatory exercises used to elicit and extract information, not to engage.” Finally, I somewhat provocatively likened first/second generation early warning systems to the Emperor’s new clothes. Like I said, not very diplomatic.

In any case, I’m really impressed to see just how much the mainstream discourse on conflict early warning has changed over the past 5 years. The authors even refer to third generation early warning systems in contrast to state-centric approaches. In addition, the authors emphasize the problems with mainstream definitions of conflict early warning, noting that these are “still focusing on one single facet of the threat spectrum, which is violent conflict.”

This explains why I have been using a people-centered definition of conflict early warning since 2004. The purpose of a people-centered conflict early warning system is to empower local communities to get out of harm’s way and safeguard their livelihoods. Clearly, harm has diverse sources but these must be understood through local perceptions, not through a Western mind-set seeking to apply an academic conceptual framework like human security.

I was particularly pleased to read the authors’ following comment: instead of carrying out human security audits and developing a human security index to prevent violent conflict, what is needed is “the presence of domestic opposition groups who are capable of challenging irresponsible governments by nonviolent means.” I’ve been making this link with nonviolent action for years:

Me (2007): “Although the conflict prevention community has yet to embrace a new discourse let alone a people-centered approach, nonviolent social movements may be the closest parallel we have to people-centered early warning systems.”

“Unlike highly technical and hierarchical early warning systems, nonviolent social actions are more effective in responding to conflict since they recognize the inherently political nature of armed conflict.”

I also quoted the following: “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.”

I was further pleased to see the authors emphasize the critical link to response and the recipients of conflict early warning analysis. The authors also note the decline in available funding in the field of conflict early warning. Unfortunately, they don’t relate this to the fact that major donors originally backed first and second generation early warning systems, which were largely ineffective. There’s no reason to blame the donors, but ourselves.

In my opinion, we need to own up to the failures of traditional approaches to conflict early warning and emphasize to donors that third-generation initiatives and crisis mapping are distinctly different approaches that deserve funding.

Another very pleasant surprise about the Schnabel-Krummenacher piece is the authors’ reference to preparedness and mitigation strategies. Again, this is an approach I’ve been lobbying for since 2004. The authors also address the need to measure success, which has been lacking in the field of conflict early warning. I particularly like their approach:

Authors (2009): “Assessment of response measures requires a clear understanding of the targets, goals and indicators for success associated with each of them. We are thus not dealing with counter-factuals: We do not search for what has not happened (i.e. a crisis), but what has happened (i.e. the effect that counter-measures had on specific root causes).”

Me: It is unfortunate that they don’t include the stakeholders themselves in the assessment and evaluation process, particularly since they advocate a third generation (or people-centered) participatory approach.

Authors (2009): “While even functioning early warning systems will not always lead to early and effective responses, there is no alternative to the creation and strengthening of early warning systems. The often-mentioned claim that despite the ample and timely availability of information and warning, response measures fail due to inadequate political will is also an overstated and unhelpful argument.”

Me: I’m always weary and suspicious when I read “there is no alternative.” I tend to object to using this kind of language. Of course there’s an alternative, as the authors themselves noted, we could work to strengthen local political opposition groups so they can engage in nonviolent actions that can place pressure on ruling regimes.

I do however fully agree that referring to the lack of political will is an unhelpful argument. I had this to say in a 2005 co-authored paper:

“Political will is often cited as the main culprit responsible for late (or no) response. This term, however, is often used as catchword—one that is more descriptive than analytical. Some scholars suggest that the “expression be banned from political discourse” unless it is “subjected to analysis, and, for purposes of action, to pressures and mobilization […] Lack of political will is symptomatic of numerous underlying pressures that are often personal, professional and political.”

The change in discourse reflected in the Schnabel-Krummenacher piece is truly remarkable. They write that the core reason for the existence of conflict early warning systems is to “generate knowledge about effective response options to prevent major disasters from threatening populations’ safety and survival.” I’m honestly stunned. As readers of this blog will know, the focus on response and preparedness is one that I’ve long pushed for but which has largely been ignored by the mainstream literature.

What is largely missing from this chapter, however, is any reference to communication technology and new-media, which is rather surprising given the authors’ reference to open source intelligence and emphasis on participatory approaches. Surely mobile technology has an important role to play in this respect.

In sum, I am glad to note the significant change in discourse. The fact that conflict early warning experts like Krummenacher are (finally) changing their approach to the field is something I admire and highly respect. I have too often seen scholar-practitioners in this field stick to their own convictions and not have the open mind to consider other alternative approaches. The change in discourse if 5 years overdue. But better late than never!

Ushahidi and Conflict Early Response

Ushahidi‘s approach to conflict early warning/response is refreshingly different from mainstream conventional approaches.

Conflict early warning systems like CEWARN in the Horn of Africa, ECOWARN in West Africa and the African Union’s CEWS are all top-down, centralized and hierarchical. Some argue that these systems actually take both a top-down and bottom-up approach since field monitors (at the bottom) document early signs of conflict escalation for policy makers (at the top). True, but as we know all too well, policy makers rarely close the feedback loop by responding early  and effectively to conflict warnings.

To paraphrase Erik Hersman at Ushahidi, this lack of response is perhaps like the “pothole theory”: you generally don’t care about the pothole on a street, unless it’s yours. This helps to explain why we don’t respond to problems further down the street. Ushahidi therefore takes a different approach; one that I like to call the “bottom-bottom” approach.

Just how different is Ushahidi’s approach to that of other NGOs? Take for example Swisspeace‘s  conflict early warning system, FAST, one of the early pioneers in the field of conflict early warning. The architects of FAST understood that early warning information needs to be actionable and customized to meet the demands of the end users. They described this using the analogy of planning food for a dinner party.

“We not only need to know how many people are coming but who is coming, the time of the day, and the season. Without such knowledge, we may prepare the perfect dinner for the wrong set of people” (Krummenacher and Schmeidl 2001, PDF).

The rhetoric of conventional early warning systems labels local at-risk communities as the intended beneficiaries; but they are rarely included as end users of early warning activities.  To be sure, FAST never invited at-risk communities to the “dinner party” since the organizational challenges and financial costs of preparing the “perfect dinner” for the bottom billion are too bewildering. As a result, the invitee list quickly gets reduced to VIPs.

FAST’s use of the dinner party as an analogy clearly reveals the command-and-control mindset of conventional conflict early warning systems, also known as first-generation systems. Organizing the dinner is described as a centralized, almost egocentric activity: “we need to know,” so “we may prepare”. How about making it a pot-luck and use evite?

This, in essence, is the philosophy behind Ushahidi.

Ushahidi seeks to develop a more decentralized yet customized approach to throwing a dinner party. In conventional conflict early warning systems, blanket alerts are disseminated to an unknown guest list. Because the latter are never invited to dinner, there’s no way of telling whether the alerts were useful let alone received. (The field of advertising faces similar challenges, incidentally).

So why not let the end users decide for themselves what types of alerts to subscribe to? As Erik Hersman recently wrote in relation to early warning alerts,

“I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.”

Ushahidi is therefore developing a customized SMS/e-mail service alert option. Users will be able to specify what types of alerts they are interested in receiving and/or the particular location they want to receive alerts about.

This mindset is what makes Ushahidi different and why I call theirs a “bottom-bottom” approach. Needless to say, I’d rather attend Ushahidi’s dinner party over FAST’s.

FAST was the pioneer

swisspeace‘s FAST early warning project truly pioneered the practice of field-based conflict early warning. Indeed, FAST was the only project of its kind throughout it’s 10 years of operation. The project was the first to apply analytical framework using event-data at the field level, and the first initiative to implement local information networks across more than 20 countries worldwide. The field data collected by FAST was the only of it’s kind. FAST was one of the very first projects that sought to combine quantitative analysis with qualitative assessments in a coherent manner. And finally, the FAST model provided valuable guidance to other early warning initiatives over the past decade. While we have had different ideas about how to improve FAST over the years, we ultimately all shared the same goals: early detection and early response.

On a personal note, I first met the FAST team in October 2001 while on a visit to Bern. It was a truly memorable experience. In those days, swisspeace was still housed in a small office block closer to the city center. I met with a couple members of the FAST team whose enthusiasm for the project was captivating. And when I walked back out into the snowy streets, I knew what it was I wanted to do: I wanted to pursue a career in this exciting field. Coincidentally, there was an opening that Fall for a new position with the FAST team focusing on Central Asia, and I was kindly encouraged to apply.

Susanne Schmeidl interviewed me for the position the following month and offered me the job! It was one of the most agonizing decisions I had to face when it became necessary for me to decide between joining swisspeace and going to graduate school. To make long story short, I went for a potential win-win scenario: go to grad school and do my graduate internship at swisspeace. And somehow it all worked out! Indeed, I should emphasize that if it were not for swisspeace and FAST, I doubt the past seven years of my life would have been anywhere near as exhilarating both intellectually and professionally. While I haven’t been in touch with the team in a while, I am genuinely saddened that such a bold project has come to an end. For sure I had my criticisms of FAST, but it’s easy to criticize a pioneering initiative.

Since the news that FAST would be ceasing operations has been made public, I know many of us have begun to reflect (and ask each other) about what lessons we should be learning thanks to FAST. And of course hindsight is 20/20, especially since FAST was pushing the envelope to begin with. Last week, Susanne Schmeidl, Michael Lund, Lawrence Woocher and I were on an ISA panel that addressed the topic of early warning. Questions about FAST and, interestingly, FEWER were posed. We didn’t have the time to go in much detail but the conversations did remind me of Milt’s suggestion some four years ago in Belfast that we think about the reasons for FEWER closing down and the gaps that the group’s absence left.

So I wonder whether we might use this forum to share some ideas about the rich lessons that FAST has left us with? I know we also share a concern about the state of our field vis-a-vis donor funding, impact and future early warning projects. What consequences do we now face in light of FAST closing down? Is there a way to revitalize the field? How do we ensure that future projects are sustainable over the long term? If you think these questions are appropriate to ask at this point in time, and/or have others that we should be asking ourselves, may I suggest that we use this blog and the comments section (see below) to begin a conversation?

With best wishes,