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INTERNATIONAL: Response erodes conflict warning effect

November 5, 2010

SUBJECT: Conflict early warning systems.

SIGNIFICANCE: The importance of conflict early warning systems has increased significantly in recent decades, primarily owing to the international community's failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the mass atrocities in the Balkans in the mid-1990s and more lately the violence in Darfur.

ANALYSIS: Conflict early warning systems (CEWS) are employed mainly to predict, prevent and respond quickly to violent conflicts, and as a means of protecting and preserving life. They are common tools for organisations working with conflict prevention and response, including national governments, multilateral agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Crisis responses. The concept of a 'sudden crisis' is increasingly seen as false. Rather, information gaps, incorrect understanding of the meaning of available information, as well as cognitive and organisational constraints to responding to given information have led to the notion of unexpected calamities.

CEWS are an attempt to address these issues, by first identifying then estimating the magnitude, timing and relative risk of emerging threats, and by promoting proactive decision-making and improved programming, primarily through:

systematic country and situational reviews, and expert analysis on broader contextual aspects, ensuring a comprehensive situational understanding;

compilation of watch-list services, enabling effective prioritisation of interventions and resources; and

detection of longer-term trends, including historical data and analysis of future developments.

Methodologies. From its conception in the 1970s -- stemming from, in part, intelligence analysis -- the methodological advances in the area of CEWS have primarily been driven by the progress made in the development of quantitative and qualitative analytical models:

Quantitative. Mainly using statistical data to measure economic, social and political risk and vulnerability, they are primarily used to provide macro-level trend analysis on countries or crisis regions. Although quantitative methods have strong predictive capabilities, particularly in relation to political crisis and instability, statistical data are only updated periodically. Moreover, many of the more relevant conflict areas suffer from significant data deficits, further undermining such capabilities.

Qualitative. These models aim to provide contextual analysis of unfolding situations through expert input. These tools often use information from open (ie public) and closed wires, as well as information from questionnaires and interviews. Information sources are often continually monitored in systematic and standardised ways, including news services, intelligence sources, research institutes, embassies, NGOs, fact-finding missions and local networks. A varied and diverse team is key, with both prominent subject-area experts and generalists able to 'connect the dots'. Qualitative methods assist decision-making in conflict prevention and response programming, since they are likely to present up-to-date analysis of complex and fluid situations that is not easily captured with statistical data. However, they are often situational snapshots that are quickly outdated.

Although different tools suit different purposes and organisations, the ideal CEWS uses a combination of both methods to ensure the necessary information required for creating a robust evidence base for decision-making.

Approaches. There are varying approaches to implementation of such methodologies:

First generation. The traditional approach is largely headquarters-based. Global organisations provide macro-level analysis and risk assessments for international, regional or national actors to act upon:

This type of approach is typically utilised by larger multilateral actors, such as the UN and EU, and individual donor countries, as to inform their and their partners' conflict prevention and response capacities.

Although sophisticated, it often misses ground-level signals based on the knowledge of local populations and grass-roots organisations.

These systems often fail to convince end-users to take appropriate early action.

Second generation. Second-generation CEWS typically employ a more qualitative bottom-up approach comprising field monitoring, combined with quantitative analysis, where community-level approaches, often including local NGOs, play a central role. Highly regarded systems such as Swiss Peace's FAST International, and the International Crisis Group (ICG), are typical of this approach.

However, although they aim at an improved qualitative approach, as well as on the ground verification and situational analysis, they have still been criticised for providing 'Western' analysis, where information is taken from the local level to inform high-level global, regional or national response decisions, rather than informing the affected population and local decisionmakers.

Third generation. Recently, systems based in the field have come to the fore, which provide a micro-level focus and share the information and analysis with stakeholders at all levels including the affected population:

The information gathered is real-time, and responses are based on a participatory process, although overall response responsibility remains with governments and multilateral authorities.

This process aims at capturing the information and knowledge available within local societies, with field monitors often serving as first-responders to signs of potential violence.

Typically, third-generation systems are country-based, such as the model developed by the Foundation for Co-Existence (FCE) in Sri Lanka, or regionally based, like the ECOWAS Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN).

Challenges. Although the predictive capacities of CEWS have greatly improved over the last two decades, they still face significant challenges:

Predictive capabilities. Some CEWS have managed to develop strong forecasting accuracy with regard to political instability. Statistical models, such as those developed by the US-funded Political Instability Task Force, claim they are able to pick out with roughly 80% accuracy countries heading for new crises within two years.

However, most systems still have poor predictive qualities. In particular, predicting instability and conflict in moderately stable countries remains a challenge, and there is still little knowledge of the impact of small events, which in some cases may trigger the outbreak of violent conflicts. Producing convincing overall risk analyses combined with possible tipping points remains a challenge.

Early action. The link between early warning and response action remains weak. Although there have been advances in closing the gap between early warning and early action within the humanitarian community (see INTERNATIONAL: Early warning gains momentum - September 5, 2008), the conflict prevention, response and peace-building communities are still lagging behind:

Shortcomings in the structure and quality of early warning systems, structural disconnects between early warning analysts and decisionmakers, inefficient use of resources and overarching political considerations are some of the reasons.

There remains a significant accountability deficit for inaction or poor action in responding to conflict early warnings.

Duplication. The multiplicity of actors involved in CEW at various levels leads to a more fragmented situational overview for conflict preventers and responders. It has been increasingly difficult for decisionmakers in authoritative institutions responsible for acting on evidence of escalating conflicts to know what analysis to trust. Better levels of collaboration and integration of systems would also help as conflicts become more complex.

New technology. Although the recent turmoil in Iran demonstrated the prominence of new technology in monitoring and information sharing in politically instable situations, the field of CEWS has not gone much beyond the use of websites for collection and email for communication and dissemination of information. However, new initiatives such as Web 2.0 applications, satellite information gathering, blogmining and crowdsourcing offer clear potential in conflict early warning.

CONCLUSION: Although there is progress in the predictive capabilities of CEWS, mainly through the development of new-generation tools, the international community is still significantly challenged in ensuring that the appropriate analysis reaches the right people in a timely manner, and that decisionmakers at various levels act upon the information to prevent or respond to the risk of escalating violent conflict. However, as security challenges multiply, the need for early warning systems is likely to increase, leading to greater pressure for improvements in their capability to predict future conflicts.


Oxford Analytica
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