Kenya: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Overreaction?

On March 4, Kenya held general elections, and nearly no one was killed. That might not sound like a big deal, but lots of smart people had been warning for months that these elections put Kenya at high risk of mass atrocities.

Assuming Kenya stays the course and completes the current election cycle without large-scale violence, the big question for people concerned about atrocities prevention is this: Did all the scrutiny and alarm help to prevent violence that would otherwise have occurred, or did we collectively overreact to the surprise of early 2008 and cry “Wolf!” when none was near?

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

I emailed this question to Ken Opalo, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who’s from Kenya and was there to analyze and vote in the elections, and he offered a favorable assessment of the many preventive efforts. “I think the peace crusade actually helped prevent violence by constantly reminding us of the cost of violence,” he said. Ken also credited the Kenyan media for choosing not to air inflammatory political statements and the government for blocking the dissemination of hate speech via short message service (SMS), an important channel of communication . Last but not least, Ken argued that the dynamics of the presidential campaign also played a role. “It also helps,” he wrote, “that one of the most volatile regions in the country—the central Rift Valley—this time round found peace in the political union between [eventual winner Uhuru] Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto (bringing together Kikuyus and Kalenjins).”

Kenyan columnist Charles Onyago-Obbo also believes that reactions to the  helped to avert violence that might have been. In a column entitled “Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk,” he acknowledges that peace campaigns by social groups and the media may have helped at the margins, but he sees the biggest effects coming from sticks and carrots deployed by the Kenyan government. Like Opalo, he credits authorities’ crackdown on hate speech, but he also believes that visible investments in major infrastructural projects in some key regions also had a significant effect.

If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.

International actors are also claiming some credit. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, told the Associated Press that the prosecutions he pursued after 2008 “were game-changers that helped prevent a repeat of the deadly rampages following this month’s vote.” Moreno-Ocampo saw his office as an instrument of deterrence, and in this case, he believes it worked.

I emailed Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University senior who is both a student and advocate of atrocities prevention, to ask him how influential the ICC indictments had been. He agreed with Ocampo that they had some effect, but he described that effect as indirect:

I don’t think there was a substantial risk of violence by Kenyatta’s close affiliates, or by [second-place finisher Raila] Odinga’s: if you look at the financial and political incentives for national-level officials, many are linked to international investments in Kenya’s economy, or to aid flows by Western donor states. This is probably less the case for [members of parliament] who weren’t as internationally prominent, and those are often the officials with the most direct links to paramilitary forces and civilian militias.

As a result, I think we can differentiate between a couple of dynamics, each of which had a unique function in the context of violence prevention: the intergovernmental preparation, which was both public at a national level (high-level diplomatic statements, threats of consequences for violence) and “behind-the-scenes”; and the non-governmental preparation, which was both public at the national level (statements about the ICC, human rights reporting) and “behind-the-scenes” at a local level (it’s hard to assess whether this was marginal, or structurally important). In one sense, it’s hard to draw a hard line between the two, but I’m not sure the non-governmental commentary would have been influential in changing those local MP incentives without an active intergovernmental process behind the scenes.

tl; dr: We were probably crying wolf where the ICC indictees were concerned (notice how that was always included in press coverage, as if that implies something about anticipated behavior), but I think that process—call it discursive, but there was also tangible diplomacy to back that up—helped diffuse the incentives for violence prevention at more local levels of governance/mobilization.

Personally, I also see the Kenyan elections as a success for atrocities prevention. Large-scale violence was a plausible threat; many efforts were undertaken to prevent that violence; and then it didn’t happen. We can’t say with confident exactly which effort contributed how much, but the risk was real, and the interventions that were undertaken were relatively cheap.

Still, it’s not clear how generalizable this success is. In terms of atrocities risk and prevention, Kenya was exceptional in a couple of important ways. First, this was election-related violence, not insurgency or civil war. That meant that the risk was tied to a specific political process with clear milestones and outcomes and was not part of a deeper syndrome of insecurity and mass violence. Second, the Kenyan government was a willing partner in atrocities prevention instead of a perpetrator.

Those two features make Kenya in 2013 very different from places like Syria or Sudan, where state security forces and their fellow travelers are doing the killing and the governments involved reject outside interference. Future attempts to prevent election-related and other “communal” violence might look to this case to try to understand why the Kenyan government was a willing partner and which components seem to have been most effective, but I don’t think there are big lessons from Kenya that can be transferred to more typical cases of concern. To see what I mean, just think about how effective an ICC indictment has been at preventing atrocities in Sudan, or how effective hate-speech monitoring would be at stopping violence in Syria.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that, while relatively cheap, these efforts were not cost free. In a post on the New York Times‘ Latitude blog, Journalist Michaela Wrong argues that self-censorship by the Kenyan media around this month’s elections diminished the country’s democracy.

“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”

But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.

That’s an important reminder that policy interventions often entail trade-offs across values we might think of as complementary instead of competing. Democratization and atrocities prevention are both things many of us would espouse, but what’s good for one won’t always be good for the other.

Advertisements

Forecasting Politics Is Still Hard to Do (Well)

Last November, after the U.S. elections, I wrote a thing for Foreign Policy about persistent constraints on the accuracy of statistical forecasts of politics. The editors called it “Why the World Can’t Have a Nate Silver,” and the point was that much of what people who follow international affairs care about is still a lot harder to forecast accurately than American presidential elections.

One of the examples I cited in that piece was Silver’s poor performance on the U.K.’s 2010 parliamentary elections. Just two years before his forecasts became a conversation piece in American politics, the guy the Economist called “the finest soothsayer this side of Nostradamus” missed pretty badly in what is arguably another of the most information-rich election environments in the world.

A couple of recent election-forecasting efforts only reinforce the point that, the Internet and polling and “math” notwithstanding, this is still hard to do.

The first example comes from political scientist Chris Hanretty, who applied a statistical model to opinion polls to forecast the outcome of Italy’s parliamentary elections. Hanretty’s algorithm indicated that a coalition of center-left parties was virtually certain to win a majority and form the next government, but that’s not what happened. After the dust had settled, Hanretty sifted through the rubble and concluded that “the predictions I made were off because the polls were off.”

Had the exit polls given us reliable information, I could have made an instant prediction that would have been proved right. As it was, the exit polls were wrong, and badly so. This, to me, suggests that the polling industry has made a collective mistake.

The second recent example comes from doctoral candidate Ken Opalo, who used polling as grist for a statistical mill to forecast the outcome of Kenya’s presidential election. Ken’s forecast indicated that Uhuru Kenyatta would get the most votes but would fall short of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote required to win in the first round, making a run-off “almost inevitable.” In fact, Kenyatta cleared the 50-percent threshold in the first try, making him Kenya’s new president-elect. Once again, noisy polling data was apparently to blame. As Ken noted in a blog post before the results were finalized,

Mr. Kenyatta significantly outperformed the national polls leading to the election. I estimated that the national polls over-estimated Odinga’s support by about 3 percentage points. It appears that I may have underestimated their overestimation. I am also beginning to think that their regional weighting was worse than I thought.

As I see it, both of these forecasts were, as Nate Silver puts it in his book, wrong for the right reasons. Both Hanretty and Opalo built models that used the best and most relevant information available to them in a thoughtful way, and neither forecast was wildly off the mark. Instead, it just so happened that modest errors in the forecasts interacted with each country’s electoral rules to produce categorical outcomes that were quite different from the ones the forecasts had led us to expect.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even in the European Union in the Internet age, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of national elections. We’re getting smarter about how to model these things, and our computers can now process more of the models we can imagine, but polling data are still noisy and electoral systems complex.

And that’s elections, where polling data nicely mimic the data-generating process that underlies the events we’re trying to forecast. We don’t have polls telling us what share of the population plans to turn out for anti-government demonstrations or join a rebel group or carry out a coup—and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t trust them. Absent these micro-level data, we turn to proxy measures and indicators of structural opportunities and constraints, but every step away from the choices we’re trying to forecast adds more noise to the result. Agent-based computational models represent a promising alternative, but when it comes to macro-political phenomena like revolutions and state collapses, these systems are still in their infancy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to see more people using statistical models to try to forecast important events in international politics, and I would eagerly pit the forecasts from models like Hanretty’s and Opalo’s against the subjective judgments of individual experts any day. I just think it’s important to avoid prematurely declaring the arrival of a revolution in forecasting political events, to keep reminding ourselves how hard this problem still is. As if the (in)accuracy of our forecasts would let us have it any other way.

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,629 other followers

  • Archives

  • Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: