Building a Public Early-Warning System for Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Can we see genocides and other mass atrocities coming? If so, how, and how far in advance? And would public dissemination of those forecasts help policy-makers, advocates, and affected societies prevent those atrocities from occurring?

In October 2011, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) convened a group of advocates and academics for a one-day seminar to ruminate on these questions. These are big and difficult problems, and the event really had a more practical goal at its heart: to help the Museum and other civil-society groups assess the potential for, and value of, a new public early-warning system focused on genocide and other mass atrocities.

Based on that conversation and the recommendations of USHMM Fellow and Dartmouth professor Ben Valentino, the Museum decided that the need and opportunity were sufficient to start considering what such a system might look like and how to build it. In March 2012, the Museum hired me for an eight-month consulting project, to finish in October, that’s meant to push this process forward.

My project has two main parts. First and most important, I’ve been asked to write a prospectus detailing the elements and funding this program would require. Second, I’ve been asked to build a statistical tool that could produce one set of forecasts for this program, if it gets built. Under Ben’s proposal, a second set of forecasts would come from some form of expert survey, and the two could be compared and combined to useful effect.

As I get deeper into the project, I expect to blog occasionally about what I’m working on and where I could use some help. I’ve already had very helpful exchanges with numerous people engaged in related projects, including former Political Instability Task Force colleagues Ted Gurr and Barbara Harff, who produces her own global genocide risk list each year, and Sentinel Project founder Christopher Tuckwood. I’m also slated to present results from a preliminary version of my statistical analysis at NYU’s Northeast Methods Program (NEMP) in early May, and my work will surely benefit from the constructive criticism that esteemed audience can provide.

In the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about the Museum’s interest in this endeavor and invite your reactions and suggestions. If you know of any relevant research or advocacy projects or might be interested in supporting this work in some fashion, please post a comment or drop me a line at ulfelder <at> gmail <dot> com.

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