An Ounce of (Conflict) Prevention, UK Style

In a report released yesterday (pdf), the U.K. government lays out a new “integrated cross-government strategy” for mitigating violent political conflict in parts of the world where those conflicts could harm its national interests. The strategy has three parts:

  1. Forecasting conflict. The plan is to establish a global “early warning system” that uses all-source analysis (i.e., both classified and unclassified inputs) to identify “countries in which political, economic, and security shocks over the next 12 months could trigger violence.” The product of this forecasting process will be a biannual Early Warning Report. The report will be reviewed by a Steering Group that will decide which warnings merit a response and what kind of responses they require.
  2. Responding rapidly to incipient crises. The report says the U.K. will augment its existing cross-government instability-prevention fund with a 20-million-pound annual pool to pay for rapid responses to brewing fights. Apparently, the existing fund “lacks the flexibility needed to fund responses to early warning signals and other opportunities that arise in situations of instability and conflict.” The government also plans to expand its use of so-called Stabilisation Response Teams, the first of which deployed to Libya in May 2011, and to engage in more “expeditionary diplomacy.”
  3. Expanding investment in upstream prevention. The new strategy also describes the U.K.’s official development assistance–a.k.a. aid–as a set of long-term investments that will help to prevent conflict by addressing what the strategy’s authors see as its root causes.

I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On the plus side, the process described in this report sounds like it would elevate the role of conflict forecasting in the U.K. government’s foreign-policy planning process and more tightly integrate those forecasts with preventive action. If you believe as I do that a) it’s possible to generate reasonably accurate forecasts of the onset of violent conflict and that b) preventive action can be effective, then you’re bound to see this kind of institutionalization and integration as a good thing.

As it happens, the U.S. Government already does something like this through the Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), established in 2004. As its web site describes, S/CRS uses inputs from other U.S. agencies and non-governmental organizations to compile a set of global forecasts–a “watch list”–“to help identify priority countries that could merit conflict prevention and mitigation.” That watch list informs decisions about where to apply S/CRS’s Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF), and those assessments, in turn, are used to help guide U.S. Government planning “to support stability” in a particular country or region. As the U.K. strategy would do, those stability plans are also backed with earmarked funding (although in the U.S. case the funding is, peculiarly enough, controlled by the head of another department). According to the S/CRS web site,

With nearly half of rebuilding countries falling back into conflict within a few years, there is a concerted need for the U.S. to engage in conflict prevention activities around the world. Congress responded to this need by authorizing Section 1207 of the Fiscal Year 2006 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 109-163, as amended), which authorizes the Secretary of Defense to transfer funds to the Secretary of State for the provision of reconstruction, security and stabilization assistance to countries in post conflict situations or at risk of conflict. The transfer authority has, to date, resulted in the transfer of $442 million in 1207 funds to the Department of State to support 33 projects in 28 countries.

So, in effect, the U.K. government is now following suit. In fact, the U.K. strategy seems to take things a step further than the U.S. government by giving its Steering Group a degree of authority and pool of dedicated funding that S/CRS lacks.

At the same time, I’m not confident the U.K.’s warning will be done nearly as well as it could. The new report gets off to a bad start by only loosely defining what it aims to warn about, and it is silent on the methods that will be used to generate those warnings. Those omissions lead me to believe the watch list will be the product of subjective analyst judgment when we know that statistical models would almost certainly do better. On the risk factors for violent conflict, the report offers a laundry list of conventional assumptions without any discussion of their relative importance or predictive power. For example, on political factors shaping the risk of violent conflict, the report says that “Political inclusion is essential for peace” and “Public confidence is critical” before also concluding that “Bad governance works for some.” It’s hard to see how a framework based on these kinds of loose assertions would lead to reliable forecasting.

In short, it’s nice to see that governments see real value in instability forecasting and are trying to integrate those forecasts into their planning processes, but it looks like there will still be plenty of room for improvement.

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