Early Warning

 

By
Eric Brahm

January 2005
 

"At present, early warnings are rarely "early," seldom accurate, and moreover lack the capacity to distinguish among different kinds of conflict or crises."[1]

In a way, it has become a holy grail to come up with ways to identify potential conflict before it actually erupts. Based on similar efforts to predict natural disasters and crop yields, for example, many have attempted to construct models for conflict early warning. One could distinguish between early warning as contingency planning, e.g. for refugee flows, and as conflict prevention. Early warning is a tantalizing prospect since, should we become more cognizant of such mechanisms, it provides the opportunity to do something to prevent the emergence and/or escalation of conflict. Lives can be saved more economically and conflict perhaps better contained. Yet, as this essay will document, many obstacles, both theoretical and practical, remain for realizing this vision.

What is Early Warning?

"Effective preventive strategies rest on three principles: early reaction to signs of trouble; a comprehensive, balanced approach to alleviate the pressures, or risk factors, that trigger violent conflict; and an extended effort to resolve the underlying root causes of violence."[2]

The goal of early warning is born from a hope to head off conflict before it becomes costly. When on considers early warning, it is fruitful to divide it into two parts. [3]

  • First, there is a goal of collecting data to make the determination that a situation is risky. Actually, prior to this, is determining what the important variables are to be monitored. This list of variables, however, is relatively long, presenting a daunting task for the observer. What is more, there is not agreement on their relative weight. Collecting the data, too, is a costly process and often involves a number of participants. It is also difficult to do in conflict situations. Antagonists often have an incentive to obfuscate.
  • Second, where information of impending crisis exists, there remains the task of persuading political leaders to act upon the warning. This requires a very high standard of warning quality, since leaders will typically look for any excuse not to get involved. Should effective models be developed, early warning holds the prospect of facilitating advanced planning and the early deployment of supplies and personnel, as well as prompting diplomatic efforts.

A number of factors have been identified as potential early warning signs. They include:

  • sudden demographic changes and population displacement;
  • rising unemployment rates;
  • economic shocks or financial crises;
  • destruction or desecration of religious sites;
  • discrimination or legislation favoring one group over another;
  • government "clamp-downs";
  • destabilizing referenda or elections;
  • a rise in "societal" intolerance and prejudice;
  • an increase in numbers of demonstrations or rallies;
  • foreign intervention;
  • contagion; and
  • an influx of refugees.

As one might suspect, the appropriate response depends on the stage of crisis development.[4] First, structural tensions are slow-moving trends that create conditions conducive for crisis. Examples include exclusionary policies, growing population pressure, resource strain, and government repression. Second, an accelerant added to the mix can lead the situation to escalate into crisis. Escalation might be caused by new policies, increased support from the outside, or economic crises. Third, triggers such as coups or military intervention can provide the spark for the onset of crisis.

One report delineates four types of conflict prevention models: the correlation model, the sequential model, the conjunctural model, and the response model.[5] Correlation models focus on structural factors and how they contribute to conflict. Sequential models, by contrast, pay attention to short-term variables and examine past conflicts to identify the importance of the sequential ordering of events. Conjunctural models use inductive methods to identify the role of unique combinations of variables. Finally, response models focus less on causes as on identifying critical junctures in conflict processes where interventions might by most productive.

Who is Involved?


William Ury begins explaining his role in trying to prevent a civil war in Venezuela, where the country is extremely polarized between those who support the president and those who oppose him. Like many other countries, it is essentially a conflict between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

Identifying warning signs requires an extensive network of local expertise. In many ways, the entire notion has been facilitated by the astounding development of the NGO sector. Local networks of civil society and associations are important in providing information on conditions on the ground. Global civil society and intergovernmental organizations play an important role in collecting and disseminating information, coordinating responses, and generating funds for the intervention. Jones and Stein, for example, argue that NGOs, especially smaller ones, are often best suited to collecting information and monitoring situations.[6] NGOs, whether humanitarian relief, human rights, or development oriented, are more attune to local conditions and are often the only eyes and ears the international community has in many locations around the world. Small NGOs have another advantage. In assessing the failure in Rwanda, Jones and Stein contend that information moves too slowly up the chain of command within large organizations.[7] Leaders of larger organizations also often tend to discount important information that requires a quick response. By contrast, small NGOs have direct access to their headquarters and there is not a Byzantine organization to navigate. As a global effort, the effective transmission of information is in itself a formidable task. Despite the growth of NGO monitoring, reporting in many areas remains episodic, anecdotal, and incomplete.[8] In another sense, the amount of information has exploded such that there is an equal challenge of managing the volume of data successfully.[9]

Global civil society can provide the information and normative pressure, but a coordinating body to act on the information is also important. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations such as the OSCE have an important role to play here in conducting fact-finding missions and distributing information,[10] but they still rely on the political will of their member-states to act. In another development, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an organization of states in the Horn of Africa, created the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) in 1995 to help foresee potential inter-communal conflicts. Given that nation-states generally have the greatest capacity to respond to early warning, IGOs are an important venue for deliberation and planning regarding whether and how to respond to early warning signals. The UN, in fact, has an extensive information network through its different agencies, but efforts toward early warning have lacked cooperation and coordination within the institution.[11]

Academics have also shown a keen interest in early warning. A number of projects have sought to accumulate data to produce better early warning systems. Some of the major examples are: Global Events Data System (GEDS)[12], The Kansas Event Data System (KEDS), Protocol for the Assessment of Nonviolent Direct Action (PANDA),[13] Minorities at Risk (MAR), and State Failures Project.

Obstacles to Early Warning

To be more effective, early warning requires dealing with definitional issues. There is a need for greater specificity in most areas, but perhaps most crucial are the concepts to be measured and the obligations that come when early warning signs are observed. At present, policymakers use the term in different ways. A more specific definition, yet a general one, is needed to make early warning both more accurate and politically acceptable.[14]

Such steps would help realize a more effective means of preventing conflict. However, political will is also crucial. Often, the vagaries of early warning are strategically useful for politicians not wanting to act. In fact, creating the perfect early warning system in terms of accuracy and effectiveness is of little use if there is no desire to act on the information. This is compounded by varying beliefs about the sanctity of sovereignty and the appropriate forms of intervention.

What is more, there is no consensus on what an effective early warning system would look like. Conceptual clarification and further experimentation are needed before early warning becomes truly practical.[15] Because it involves human behavior, conflict early warning is a more challenging task than earlier types of early warning systems. As a result of this complexity, warnings are more easily dismissed or perhaps even missed. For advocates, there is much at stake in getting it right as some early false alarms may sour policymakers to the whole idea.

Given this, some question whether early warning is, in fact, possible. As Carment and Garner put it, "the early warning required to respond to humanitarian disasters is really late warning; a response to disasters that are at an advanced stage of escalation and violence."[16] Once the crisis becomes visible to an early warning system, it may not be too late, but it is unlikely to actually head off the conflict. While some critics are quick to point out that early warning rarely succeeds, supporters counter that the critics are frequently using examples where responses have treated the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.[17] The potential benefits, they argue, seem too great to abandon the effort, no matter how difficult.


[1] Barbara Harff, "Early Warning of Humanitarian Crises: Sequential Models and the Role of Accelerators," in Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, eds (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998) p. 71.

[2] Holl, Jane, et. al . 1997. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report. Executive Summary.

[3] Conflict Prevention and Early Warning in the Political Practice of International Organizations. The Hague: Clingendael Institute. , 1996. Available at: http://www.clingendael.nl/publications/1996/19960000_cru_paper.pdf

[4] John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, "Preventive Measures: An Overview," in Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, eds (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998) p. 4-5.

[5] Suzanne Verstegen, "Conflict Prognostication: Toward a Tentative Framework for Conflict Assessment," 1999, http://www.clingendael.nl/publications/1999/19990900_cru_paper_verstegen.pdf

[6] Jones, Bruce and Gross Stein, Janice. 1997. "NGOs and Early Warning: The Case of Rwanda" in Schmeidl, S. & Adelman, H. eds. Synergy in Early Warning Conference Proceedings, March 15-18, 1997, Toronto, Canada, pp. 235-248.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Greg Beyer, "Human Rights Monitoring: Lessons Learnt from the Case of the Issaks in Somalia," in

[9] Hans Thoolen, "Information Aspects of Humanitarian Early Warning,"

[10] Kumar Rupesinghe, "Introduction," in Early Warning and Conflict Resolution, Kumar Rupesinghe and Michiko Kuroda, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992).

[11] Michiko Kuroda, "Early Warning Capacity of the United Nations System: Prospects for the Future,"

[12] For background, see John L. Davies and Barbara Harff with Anne L. Speca, "Early Warning of Humanitarian Crises: Sequential Models and the Role of Accelerators," in Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, eds (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998) ch. 6.

[13] For a discussion, see Doug Bond, "Timely Conflict Risk Assessment and the PANDA Project," in Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, John L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr, eds (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998) ch. 8.

[14] Conflict Prevention and Early Warning in the Political Practice of International Organizations. The Hague: Clingendael Institute. , 1996. Available at: http://www.clingendael.nl/publications/1996/19960000_cru_paper.pdf

[15] Leon Gordenker, "Early Warning: Conceptual and Practical Issues," in Early Warning and Conflict Resolution, Kumar Rupesinghe and Michiko Kuroda, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992).

[16] David Carment, Karen Garner, Early Warning and Conflict Prevention: Problems, Pitfalls and Avenues for Success. , 1998 http://www.carleton.ca/~dcarment/papers/ew&cp.html

[17] See for example: Stedman, S.J. 1995. "Alchemy for a New World Disorder: Overselling Preventive Diplomacy", Foreign Affairs, (May/June).


Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Early Warning." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/early-warning>.


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