July 8, 2013 | Sean Langberg
Approximately 160 million people died in wars during the 20th century. Nearly a million more have died in the 21st century, including during current conflicts in Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, and more. Claims that we live in the safest time in human history are true for some, but tragically false for others. The war in Syria alone has claimed over 100,000 lives and shows no sign of stopping. Across the globe civilians are threatened by oppressive regimes, violent opposition groups, and battles over natural resources. The realization of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that perhaps the international community, especially governments and advocates in the West, could prevent these types of conflicts outside the realm of high-level diplomacy was transformational. However, the last several years with failure to prevent after failure to prevent proved that it’s time to question the foundations on which our understanding of conflict prevention, especially atrocity prevention, lie.
Conventionally, technology-based atrocity prevention takes the form of early warning systems (EWS). These systems are hierarchical, academic, require significant technical expertise, utilize a vertical information feedback loop, and are typically designed and located in the West. A system’s success is often based on the accuracy of its prediction capacity rather than how many lives it saves. Patrick Meier, a leading scholar on early warning systems, identified one of the major flaws with the convention when he said, “Reports don’t protect people, nor do graphs. People protect themselves and others.” This means that even the most cutting edge early warning systems that have the best of intentions are, at best, minimally effective.
(LLAMA – Locally-Led Advance Mobile Aid, Source: http://goo.gl/zDT7A)
Systems that warn communities about impending natural disasters, however, are relatively advanced and often successful. A local flooding early warning system (LFEWS), the most common type of natural disaster system, consists of four key elements: 1) Risk Knowledge 2) Monitoring and Warning 3) Dissemination and Communication 4) Response Capability.
In other words, a community assesses their risk of flooding, monitors river and water table levels, warns community members when levels are high, and then responds appropriately. This type of EWS is most famously used in the Philippines, but also exists in sub-Saharan Africa and central South America. The key to the system is simplicity. The technology is minimal, usually consisting of river gauges to monitor impending floods and a SMS texting network, radios, or bullhorns to alert community members. This allows for immediate response to danger. Moreover, the emotional and physical urgency involved in these systems is tremendous. No one has more motivation to quickly flee from danger than those about to be harmed or killed.
These are lessons that the atrocity prevention community should humbly study and consider incorporating into their EWS. The goal should be to make systems work for people in harm’s way which means making them horizontal, localized, and accessible. In this case, fancier isn’t better and, as Meier notes, reports don’t save lives.
A local conflict early warning system (LCEWS) would look similar to a LFEWS – citizen-based, ultra-responsive, and highly localized. It would be guided by an overarching, comprehensive concept of human security which would intentionally provide protection from armed violence and, perhaps unintentionally, empower communities. There is, however, a place for advocates based in the West. Experts can act as a support system for communities that are operating LCEWS in technical and strategic capacities. Additionally, predictive models, hate speech databases, crisis mapping, and other tools can be used to reduce the threat of violence over the medium- and long-term, similar to the way natural disaster systems differentiate between tornado warnings and climate change warnings.
In the coming weeks I will explore what the core components of a LCEWS should be and how they can be applied. My goal is to envision a system that puts the power into the hands of people most affected by atrocities and more effectively protects those unjustly ravaged by violence.