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Conflict prevention and early warnings: closing the gap through communications?

The catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia led to a debate in the 1990s about the warning-response gap. Conflict prevention and early warning systems did not seem up to scratch. Third parties intervened too late, if at all. Spending was skewed towards mitigating the effects of conflicts, not on stopping them happen in the first place. The spread of satellite television brought conflicts into more immediate public vision. It was feared this created a CNN effect whereby policymakers were forced into military intervention for humanitarian causes to satisfy a more globally-aware public opinion. But this meant only those conflicts caught on camera would be responded to. The overall picture was a mess, it was argued. International relations lacked an effective system of warning-response.

A new study has cast doubt on these assumptions. This opens a space for a more analytical approach to how media, NGOs and intelligence agencies provide warnings and how states and international organisations can decide to respond. The Foresight project has spent three years analysing under what circumstances warnings are noticed, prioritised, and acted upon.  The team, led by Christoph Meyer, has looked at a series of case studies offering various degrees of warning and response, including Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, and Georgia. They have interviewed responders from the UK, US, Germany, the UN, EU and OSCE and analysed media and NGO reporting around these conflicts. In short, they’ve done a lot of the empirical work that was missing from the 1990s debate. What have they found?

First, Rwanda could not have been prevented. Valid warnings only emerged when conflict was escalating, not pre-escalation. Those who suggest a lack of political will or ignorance on the part of decision-makers have misinterpreted the warning data available at the time. Second, those providing warnings anticipate what responders want to hear, and provide them with that. Decision-makers hate surprising warnings which don’t fit their mental models of how the world works. They are overloaded with situations they’re already dealing with and favour responding to emerging conflicts that look like ones they’ve dealt with before. Third, decision-makers are as likely to respond to warnings from preferred journalists or NGOs rather than intelligence from their own state agencies. They trust lone, grizzled hacks or aid agencies they might be funding. Fourth and finally, for all the usual factors of resource-availability, credibility of warning sources and so on, military and aid responses are often a matter of context and chance, neither of which social scientists handle particularly well. 

At a discussion of the findings yesterday, Piers Robinson, author of The CNN Effect, made the point that journalists cannot be relied on to provide early warnings in the future. The study indicates it is too dangerous, insurance is too expensive, and they are driven by news cycles in which what is happening trumps what might happen. Robinson also suggested that the Foresight project misses the systematic relation media and NGOs have to political power. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all point to the fact that journalists only question a war when leading politicians have already expressed dissent. Journalists don’t lead, they follow. While the former BBC journalist Martin Bell might argue for a ‘journalism of attachment’ that ‘cares as well as knows’, mainstream media organisations do not employ journalists to undertake moral crusades to warn states that if they don’t act in Rwanda, Georgia or wherever, there’ll be trouble.

Will citizen journalism and data mining of social media conversations around the world lead to improved warnings? This is the question decision-makers have been asking recently.  They want to know how to integrate warning data from journalists, social media, NGOs and intelligence channels. In theory, the warning-response gap should shrink to zero.  The time between an event and the state knowing about it promises to disappear with the right technology and tools to mine Big Data. But decision-makers are often of an age or disposition not even to understand Facebook and Twitter: there is a generational anxiety they are missing out on something and the kids have all the answers, and a cultural faith that free information will lead to the best outcomes. No discussion can develop until someone has mentioned ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘if only we had known’. But anyone who has done social media monitoring knows it requires a lot of qualitative know-how and interpretive work to get any sensible findings.

And as the Foresight study shows, decision-makers will still pick up the New York Times or turn on the BBC and trust their favourite reporter, even though those reporters might no longer be able to go to the countries they’re reporting on. Hence, for all the promise of communication technology, foreign policy is still about the human factor and cognitive biases.  Understanding the warning-response gap in the next decade will involve some careful unpicking of the interplay over time of stressed, confused people in media, humanitarian and government agencies. 

Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 11:33AM by Registered CommenterBen O'Loughlin | CommentsPost a Comment

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