Convention conflict early warning systems are designed by us in the West to warn ourselves. They are about control. These systems are centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic and ineffective. And highly academic. Indeed, the vast majority of operational conflict early warning systems are little more than fancy databases used to store, retrieve and analyze data. The rhetoric is that these systems serve to prevent violence which is rather ironic since the vast majority of local communities at risk have never heard of our impressive sounding systems.
Lessons in this field are clearly not learned. Papers published by Rupensinghe (1988) and Walker (1992) could be published tomorrow with no changes and their recommendations would still be on target. Worst of all, the indicator of success for early warning systems is still the number of high-quality analytical reports produced.
Reports don’t protect people, nor do graphs. People protect themselves and others. And yet reports still get written albeit rarely read let alone ever acted upon. To be fair, however, those working on conventional early warning systems are constrained by political and institutional realities. The best that these systems can do is to build a paper trail of analysis and recommendations. In other words, convention early warning systems can be used for advocacy and lobbying, but to assume that they are appropriate for operational response is to be misguided (see Campbell and Meier 2007). Indeed the recent study by Susanna Campbell and myself showed that decision-making structures at the UN do not use analyses generated by formal early warning systems as input into the decision-making process.
In order for conventional early warning systems to engage in operational response, they would first require the paper trail, which would then be used to lobby the UN Secretariat and other member states, these actors would then have to place political and economic pressure on offending governments and/or non-state armed groups, and the latter would have to acquiesce. Now, exactly how often has this been successful? Exactly. The above process takes years and fails repeatedly.
It is high time we learn from other communities such as disaster management. The disaster community places increasing emphasis on the importance of people-centered early warning and response systems. They define the purpose of early warning as follows:
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.
The day our conflict early warning community adopts this discourse will be a good day. I hope to still be around to toast the breakthrough. Clearly, the discourse in disaster management shifts away from the conventional top-down division of labor between the “warners” and “responders” to one of individual empowerment. In disaster management, this means capacity building by training in preparedness and contingency planning. In other words, the disaster management community focuses on both forecasting hazards and mitigating their impact when they turn into disasters.
Question: Why are we in the conflict early warning community obsessed with forecasting despite our dismal track record? The disaster community is better able to forecast than we are, yet they allocate significant resources towards community-based preparedness and contingency planning programs. So when disaster does strike, the communities (who are by definition the first responders) can manage their own security environment without the immediate need for external intervention. There would be an uproar (and an escalation in disaster deaths) if the disaster community were to focus solely on prediction.
And what do we do? We work in conflict prone places and set up conflict early warning systems. When the violence escalates, we evacuate all international staff and leave the local communities behind to face the violence by themselves. How often do our conflict early warning systems fail? As often as we evacuate our staff. At the very, very least we should be preparing at-risk communities for the violence and engaging them in contingency planning so that when violence does strike, they at least have the training to get out of harm’s way and survive.
In a future blog, I will write about how some at-risk communities already do get of harm’s way, and effectively so.
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