A Note on Trends in Armed Conflict

In a report released earlier this month, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) observed that “the body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more than 28% higher than in the previous year.” They counted approximately 163 thousand deaths in 2014, up from 127 thousand in 2013. The report described that increase as “part of a broader multi-year trend” that began in 2007. The project’s executive director, Peter Epps, also appropriately noted that “assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates.”

This is solid work. I do not doubt the existence of the trend it identifies. That said, I would also encourage us to keep it in perspective:

That chart (source) ends in 2005. Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict (UCDP) hasn’t updated its widely-used data set on battle-related deaths for 2014 yet, but from last year’s edition, we can see the tail end of that longer period, as well as the start of the recent upward trend PS21 identifies. In this chart—R script here—the solid line marks the annual, global sums of their best estimates, and the dotted lines show the sums of the high and low estimates:
Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

If we mentally tack that chart onto the end of the one before it, we can also see that the increase of the past few years has not yet broken the longer spell of relatively low numbers of battle deaths. Not even close. The peak around 2000 in the middle of the nearer chart is a modest bump in the farther one, and the upward trend we’ve seen since 2007 has not yet matched even that local maximum. This chart stops at the end of 2013, but if we used the data assembled by PS21 for the past year to project an increase in 2014, we’d see that we’re still in reasonably familiar territory.

Both of these things can be true. We could be—we are—seeing a short-term increase that does not mark the end of a longer-term ebb. The global economy has grown fantastically since the 1700s, and yet it still suffers serious crises and recessions. The planet has warmed significantly over the past century, but we still see some unusually cool summers and winters.

Lest this sound too sanguine at a time when armed conflict is waxing, let me add two caveats.

First, the picture from the recent past looks decidedly worse if we widen our aperture to include deliberate killings of civilians outside of battle. UCDP keeps a separate data set on that phenomenon—here—which they label “one-sided” violence. If we add the fatalities tallied in that data set to the battle-related ones summarized in the previous plot, here is what we get:

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Note the difference in the scale of the y-axis; it is an order of magnitude larger than the one in the previous chart. At this scale, the peaks and valleys in battle-related deaths from the past 25 years get smoothed out, and a single peak—the Rwandan genocide—dominates the landscape. That peak is still much lower than the massifs marking the two World Wars in the first chart, but it is huge nonetheless. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a matter of months.

Second, the long persistence of this lower rate does not prove that the risk of violent conflict on the scale of the two World Wars has been reduced permanently. As Bear Braumoeller (here) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here; I link reluctantly, because I don’t care for the scornful and condescending tone) have both pointed out, a single war between great powers could end or even reverse this trend, and it is too soon to say with any confidence whether or not the risk of that happening is much lower than it used to be. Like many observers of international relations, I think we need to see how the system processes the (relative) rise of China and declines of Russia and the United States before updating our beliefs about the risk of major wars. As someone who grew up during the Cold War and was morbidly fascinated by the possibility of nuclear conflagration, I think we also need to remember how close we came to nuclear war on some occasions during that long spell, and to ponder how absurdly destructive and terrible that would be.

Strictly speaking, I’m not an academic, but I do a pretty good impersonation of one, so I’ll conclude with a footnote to that second caveat: I did not attribute the idea that the risk of major war is a thing of the past to Steven Pinker, as some do, because as Pinker points out in a written response to Taleb (here), he does not make precisely that claim, and his wider point about a long-term decline in human violence does not depend entirely on an ebb in warfare persisting. It’s hard to see how Pinker’s larger argument could survive a major war between nuclear powers, but then if that happened, who would care one way or another if it had?

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Early Results from a New Atrocities Early Warning System

For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to help build a new early-warning system for mass atrocities around the world. Six months ago, we started running the second of our two major forecasting streams, a “wisdom of (expert) crowds” platform that aggregates probabilistic forecasts from a pool of topical and area experts on potential events of concern. (See this conference paper for more detail.)

The chart below summarizes the output from that platform on most of the questions we’ve asked so far about potential new episodes of mass killing before 2015. For our early-warning system, we define a mass killing as an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed, usually in a period of a year or less. Each line in the chart shows change over time in the daily average of the inputs from all of the participants who choose to make a forecast on that question. In other words, the line is a mathematical summary of the wisdom of our assembled crowd—now numbering nearly 100—on the risk of a mass killing beginning in each case before the end of 2014. Also:

  • Some of the lines (e.g., South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan) start further to the right than others because we did not ask about those cases when the system launched but instead added them later, as we continue to do.
  • Two lines—Central African Republic and South Sudan—end early because we saw onsets of mass-killing episodes in those countries. The asterisks indicate the dates on which we made those declarations and therefore closed the relevant questions.
  • Most but not all of these questions ask specifically about state-led mass killings, and some focus on specific target groups (e.g., the Rohingya in Burma) or geographic regions (the North Caucasus in Russia) as indicated.
Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

I look at that chart and conclude that this process is working reasonably well so far. In the six months since we started running this system, the two countries that have seen onsets of mass killing are both ones that our forecasters promptly and consistently put on the high side of 50 percent. Nearly all of the other cases, where mass killings haven’t yet occurred this year, have stuck on the low end of the scale.

I’m also gratified to see that the system is already generating the kind of dynamic output we’d hoped it would, even with fewer than 100 forecasters in the pool. In the past several weeks, the forecasts for both Burma and Iraq have risen sharply, apparently in response to shifts in relevant policies in the former and the escalation of the civil war in the latter. Meanwhile, the forecast for Uighurs in China has risen steadily over the year as a separatist rebellion in Xinjiang Province has escalated and, with it, concerns about a harsh government response. These inflection points and trends can help identify changes in risk that warrant attention from organizations and individuals concerned about preventing or mitigating these potential atrocities.

Finally, I’m also intrigued to see that our opinion pool seems to be sorting cases into a few clusters that could be construed as distinct tiers of concern. Here’s what I have in mind:

  • Above the 50-percent threshold are the high risk cases, where forecasters assess that mass killing is likely to occur during the specified time frame.  These cases won’t necessarily be surprising. Some observers had been warning on the risk of mass atrocities in CAR and South Sudan for months before those episodes began, and the plight of the Rohingya in Burma has been a focal point for many advocacy groups in the past year. Even in supposedly “obvious” cases, however, this system can help by providing a sharper estimate of that risk and giving a sense of how it is trending over time. In the case of Burma, for example, it is the separation that has happened in the last several weeks that tells the story of a switch from possible to likely and thus adds a degree of urgency to that warning.
  • A little farther down the y-axis are the moderate risk cases—ones that probably won’t suffer mass killing during the period in question but could more readily tip in that direction. In the chart above, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burundi all land in this tier, although Iraq now appears to be sliding into the high risk group.
  • Clustered toward the bottom are the low risk cases where the forecasters seem fairly confident that mass killing will not occur in the near future. In the chart above, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are the cases that land firmly in this set. China (Uighurs) remains closer to them than the moderate risk tier, but it appears to be creeping toward the moderate-risk group. We are also running a question about the risk of state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015, and it currently lands in this tier, with a forecast of 14 percent.

The system that generates the data behind this chart is password protected, but the point of our project is to make these kinds of forecasts freely available to the global public. We are currently building the web site that will display the forecasts from this opinion pool in real time to all comers and hope to have it ready this fall.

In the meantime, if you think you have relevant knowledge or expertise—maybe you study or work on this topic, or maybe you live or work in parts of the world where risks tend to be higher—and are interested in volunteering as a forecaster, please send an email to us at ewp@ushmm.org.

The Rwanda Enigma

For analysts and advocates trying to assess risks of future mass atrocities in hopes of preventing them, Rwanda presents an unusual puzzle. Most of the time, specialists in this field readily agree on which countries are especially susceptible to genocide or mass killing, either because those countries are either already experiencing large-scale civil conflict or because they are widely considered susceptible to it. Meanwhile, countries that sustain long episodes of peace and steadily grow their economies are generally presumed to have reduced their risk and eventually to have escaped this trap for good.

Contemporary Rwanda is puzzling because it provokes a polarized reaction. Many observers laud Rwanda as one of Africa’s greatest developmental successes, but others warn that it remains dangerously prone to mass atrocities. In a recent essay for African Arguments on how the Rwandan genocide changed the world, Omar McDoom nicely encapsulates this unusual duality:

What has changed inside Rwanda itself since the genocide? The country has enjoyed a remarkable period of social stability. There has not been a serious incident of ethnic violence in Rwanda for nearly two decades. Donors have praised the country’s astonishing development.  Economic growth has averaged over 6% per year, poverty and inequality have declined, child and maternal mortality have improved, and primary education is now universal and free. Rwanda has shown, in defiance of expectations, that an African state can deliver security, public services, and rising prosperity.

Yet, politically, there is some troubling continuity with pre-genocide Rwanda. Power remains concentrated in the hands of a small, powerful ethnic elite led by a charismatic individual with authoritarian tendencies. In form, current president Paul Kagame and his ruling party, the RPF, the heroes who ended the genocide, appear to exercise power in a manner similar to former president Juvenal Habyarimana and his ruling MRND party, the actors closely-tied to those who planned the slaughter. The genocide is testament to what unconstrained power over Rwanda’s unusually efficient state machinery can enable.

That duality also emerges from a comparison of two recent quantitative rankings. On the one hand, The World Bank now ranks Rwanda 32nd on the latest edition of its “ease of doing business” index—not 32nd in Africa, but 32nd of 189 countries worldwide. On the other hand, statistical assessments of the risk of an onset of state-led mass killing identify Rwanda as one of the 25 countries worldwide currently most vulnerable to this kind of catastrophe.

How can both of these things be true? To answer that question, we need to have a clearer sense of where that statistical risk assessment comes from. The number that ranks Rwanda among the 25 countries most susceptible to state-led mass killing is actually an average of forecasts from three models representing a few different ideas about the origins of mass atrocities, all applied to publicly available data from widely used sources.

  • Drawing on work by Barbara Harff and the Political Instability Task Force, the first model emphasizes features of countries’ national politics that hint at a predilection to commit genocide or “politicide,” especially in the context of political instability. Key risk factors in Harff’s model include authoritarian rule, the political salience of elite ethnicity, evidence of an exclusionary elite ideology, and international isolation as measured by trade openness.
  • The second model takes a more instrumental view of mass killing. It uses statistical forecasts of future coup attempts and new civil wars as proxy measures of things that could either spur incumbent rulers to lash out against threats to their power or usher in an insecure new regime that might do the same.
  • The third model is really not a model but a machine-learning process called Random Forests applied to the risk factors identified by the other two. The resulting algorithm is an amalgamation of theory and induction that takes experts’ beliefs about the origins of mass killing as its jumping-off point but also leaves more room for inductive discovery of contingent effects.

All of these models are estimated from historical data that compares cases where state-led mass killings occurred to ones where they didn’t. In essence, we look to the past to identify patterns that will help us spot cases at high risk of mass killing now and in the future. To get our single-best risk assessment—the number that puts Rwanda in the top (or bottom) 25 worldwide—we simply average the forecasts from these three models. We prefer the average to a single model’s output because we know from work in many fields—including meteorology and elections forecasting—that this “ensemble” approach generally produces more accurate assessments than we could expect to get from any one model alone. By combining forecasts, we learn from all three perspectives and hedge against the biases of any one of them.

Rwanda lands in the top 25 worldwide because all three models identify it as a relatively high-risk case. It ranks 15th on the PITF/Harff model, 28th on the “elite threat” model, and 30th on the Random Forest. The PITF/Harff model sees a relatively low risk in Rwanda of the kinds of political instability that typically trigger onsets of genocide or politicide, but it also pegs Rwanda as the kind of regime most likely to resort to mass atrocities if instability were to occur—namely, an autocracy in which elites’ ethnicity is politically salient in a country with a recent history of genocide. Rwanda also scores fairly high on the “elite threat” model because, according to our models of these things, it is at relatively high risk of a new insurgency and moderate risk of a coup attempt. Finally, the Random Forest sees a very low probability of mass killing onset in Rwanda but still pegs it as a riskier case than most.

Our identification of Rwanda as a relatively high-risk case is echoed by some, but not all, of the other occasional global assessments of countries’ susceptibility to mass atrocities. In her own applications of her genocide/politicide model for the task of early warning, Barbara Harff pegged Rwanda as one of the world’s riskiest cases in 2011 but not in 2013. Similarly, the last update of Genocide Watch’s Countries at Risk Report, in 2012, lists Rwanda as one of more than a dozen countries at stage five of seven on the path to genocide, putting it among the 35 countries worldwide at greatest risk. By contrast, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has not identified Rwanda as a situation of concern in any of its R2P Monitor reports to date, and the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention does not list Rwanda among its situations of concern, either. Meanwhile, recent reporting on Rwanda from Human Rights Watch has focused mostly on the pursuit of justice for the 1994 genocide and other kinds of human-rights violations in contemporary Rwanda.

To see what our own pool of experts makes of our statistical risk assessment and to track changes in their views over time, we plan to add a question to our “wisdom of (expert) crowds” forecasting system asking about the prospect of a new state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015. If one does not happen, as we hope and expect will be the case, we plan to re-launch the question at the start of next year and will continue to do so as long as our statistical models keep identifying it as a case of concern.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to ask a few country experts what they make of this assessment and how a return to mass killing in Rwanda might come about. Some were reluctant to speak on the record, and understandably so. The present government of Rwanda has a history of intimidating individuals it perceives as its critics. As Michaela Wrong describes in a recent piece for Foreign Policy,

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in mid-January, “We are troubled by the succession of what appear to be politically motivated murders of prominent Rwandan exiles. President Kagame’s recent statements about, quote, ‘consequences’ for those who betray Rwanda are of deep concern to us.”

It is a pattern that suggests the Rwandan government may have come to see the violent silencing of critics—irrespective of geographical location and host country—as a beleaguered country’s prerogative.

Despite these constraints, the impression I get from talking to some experts and reading the work of others is that our risk assessment strikes nearly all of them as plausible. None said that he or she expects an episode of state-led mass killing to begin soon in Rwanda. Consistent with the thinking behind our statistical models, though, many seem to believe that another mass killing could occur in Rwanda, and if one did, it would almost certainly come in reaction to some other rupture in that country’s political stability.

Filip Reyntjens, a professor at the University of Antwerpen who wrote a book on Rwandan politics since the 1994 genocide, was both the most forthright and the most pessimistic in his assessment. Via email, he described Rwanda as

A volcano waiting to erupt. Nearly all field research during the last 15 years points at pervasive structural violence that may, as we know, become physical, acute violence following a trigger. I don’t know what that trigger will be, but I think a palace revolution or a coup d’etat is the most likely scenario. That may create a situation difficult to control.

In a recent essay for Juncture that was adapted for the Huffington Post (here), Phil Clark sounds more optimistic than Reyntjens, but he is not entirely sanguine, either. Clark sees the structure and culture of the country’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), as the seminal feature of Rwandan politics since the genocide and describes it as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the RPF’s cohesiveness and dedication to purpose has enabled it, with help from an international community with a guilty conscience, to make “enormous” developmental gains. On the other hand,

The RPF’s desire for internal cohesion has made it suspicious of critical voices within and outside of the party—a feature compounded by Rwanda’s fraught experience of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, which saw the rise of ethnically driven extremist parties and helped to create an environment conducive to genocide. The RPF’s singular focus on rebuilding the nation and facilitating the return of refugees means it has often viewed dissent as an unaffordable distraction. The disastrous dalliance with multipartyism before the genocide has only added to the deep suspicion of policy based on the open contestation of ideas.

Looking ahead, Clark wonders what happens when that intolerance for dissent bumps up against popular frustrations, as it probably will at some point:

For the moment, there are few signs of large-scale popular discontent with the closed political space. However, any substantial decline in socio-economic conditions in the countryside will challenge this. The RPF’s gamble appears to be that the population will tolerate a lack of national political contestation provided domestic stability and basic living standards are maintained. For now, the RPF seems to have rightly judged the popular mood but that situation may not hold.

Journalist Kris Berwouts portrays similarly ambiguous terrain in a recent piece for the Dutch magazine Mo that also appeared on the blog African Arguments (here). Berwouts quotes David Himbara, a former Rwandan regime insider who left the country in 2010 and has vocally criticized the Kagame government ever since, as telling him that “all society has vanished from Rwanda, mistrust is complete. It has turned Rwanda into a time bomb.” But Berwouts juxtaposes that dire assessment with the cautiously optimistic view of Belgian journalist Marc Hoogsteyns, who has worked in the region for years and has family ties by marriage to its Tutsi community. According to Hoogsteyns,

Rwanda is a beautiful country with many strengths and opportunities, but at the same time it is some kind of African version of Brave New World. People are afraid to talk. But they live more comfortably and safely than ever before, they enjoy high quality education and health care. They are very happy with that. The Tutsi community stands almost entirely behind Kagame and also most Hutu can live with it. They obviously don’t like the fact that they do not count on the political scene, but they can do what they want in all other spheres of live. They can study and do business etcetera. They can deal with the level of repression, because they know that countries such as Burundi, Congo or Kenya are not the slightest bit more democratic. Honestly, if we would have known twenty years ago, just after the genocide, that Rwanda would achieve this in two decades, we would have signed for it immediately.

As people of a certain age in places like Sarajevo or Bamako might testify, though, stability is a funny thing. It’s there until it isn’t, and when it goes, it sometimes goes quickly. In this sense, the political crises that sometimes produce mass killings are more like earthquakes than elections. We can spot the vulnerable structures fairly accurately, but we’re still not very good at anticipating the timing and dynamics of ruptures in them.

In the spirit of that last point, it’s important to acknowledge that the statistical assessment of Rwanda’s risk to mass killing is a blunt piece of information. Although it does specifically indicate a susceptibility to atrocities perpetrated by state security forces or groups acting at their behest, it does not necessarily implicate the RPF as the likely perpetrators. The qualitative assessments discussed above suggest that some experts find that scenario plausible, but it isn’t the only one consistent with our statistical finding. A new regime brought to power by coup or revolution could also become the agent of a new wave of mass atrocities in Rwanda, and the statistical forecast would be just as accurate.

Egypt’s recent past offers a case in point. Our statistical assessments of susceptibility to state-led mass killing in early 2013 identified Egypt as a relatively high-risk case, like Rwanda now. At the time, Mohammed Morsi was president, and one plausible interpretation of that risk assessment might have centered on the threat the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters posed to Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Fast forward to July 2013, and the mass killing we ended up seeing in Egypt came at the hands of an army and police who snatched power away from Morsi and the Brotherhood and then proceeded to kill hundreds of their unarmed sympathizers. That outcome doesn’t imply that Coptic Christians weren’t at grave risk before the coup, but it should remind us to consider a variety of ways these systemic risks might become manifest.

Still, after conversations with a convenience sample of regional experts, I am left with the impression that the risk our statistical models identify of a new state-led mass killing in Rwanda is real, and that it is possible to imagine the ruling RPF as the agents of such violence.

No one seems to expect the regime to engage in mass violence without provocation, but the possibility of a new Hutu insurgency, and the state’s likely reaction to it, emerged from those conversations as perhaps the most likely scenario. According to some of the experts with whom I spoke, many Rwandan Hutus are growing increasingly frustrated with the RPF regime, and some radical elements of the Hutu diaspora appear to be looking for ways to take up that mantle. The presence of an insurgency is the single most-powerful predictor of state-led mass killing, and it does not seem far fetched to imagine the RPF regime using “scorched earth” tactics in response to the threat or occurrence of attacks on its soldiers and Tutsi citizens. After all, this is the same regime whose soldiers pursued Hutu refugees into Zaire in the mid-1990s and, according to a 2010 U.N. report, participated in the killings of tens of thousands of civilians in war crimes that were arguably genocidal.

Last but not least, we can observe that Rwanda has suffered episodes of mass killing roughly once per generation since independence—in the early 1960s, in 1974, and again in the early 1990s, culminating in the genocide of 1994 and the reprisal killings that followed. History certainly isn’t destiny, but our statistical models confirm that in the case of mass atrocities, it often rhymes.

It saddens me to write this piece about a country that just marked the twentieth anniversary of one of the most lethal genocides since the Holocaust, but the point of our statistical modeling is to see what the data say that our mental models and emotional assessments might overlook. A reprisal of mass killing in Rwanda would be horribly tragic. As Free Africa Foundation president George Ayittey wrote in a recent letter of the Wall Street Journal, however, “The real tragedy of Rwanda is that Mr. Kagame is so consumed by the 1994 genocide that, in his attempt to prevent another one, he is creating the very conditions that led to it.”

States Aren’t the Only Mass Killers

We tend to think of mass killing as something that states do, but states do not have a monopoly on this use of force. Many groups employ violence in an attempt to further their political and economic agendas; civilians often suffer the consequences of that violence, and sometimes that suffering reaches breathtaking scale.

This point occurred to me again as I thought about the stunning acts of mass violence that Boko Haram has carried out in northern Nigeria in the past few weeks. The chart below comes from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, an online interface for a data set that counts deaths from “violent incidents directed at government property, places of worship, and suicide bombings.” The sharp upward bend at the far right of that red line represents the sudden and brutal end of several hundred lives in the past two months in various towns and villages in a part of the world that surely isn’t as alien to Americans as many of us assume. In Nigeria, too, parents wake up and set about the business of providing for themselves and their families, and many kids toddle off to school to learn and fidget and chatter with friends. Over the past few years, Boko Haram has repeatedly interrupted those daily routines with scores of attacks resulting in thousands of murders.

boko.haram.killings.chart.20140307

I suspect the tendency to see mass killing as the purview of states is driven by the extraordinary salience of two archetypal cases—the Holocaust, of course, but also the Rwandan genocide. From those examples, we infer that violence on this scale requires resources, organization, and opportunity on a scale that in “modern” times only states are supposed to possess. The Holocaust took this bureaucratic logic to unique extremes, but many accounts of the Rwandan genocide also emphasize state planning and propaganda as necessary conditions for that episode of mass murder in extremis.

It’s true that resources, organization, and opportunity facilitate mass violence, and that states are much more likely to have them. In some contexts, though, rebel groups and other non-state actors can accumulate enough resources and become well enough organized to kill on a comparable scale. This is especially likely in the same contexts in which states usually perpetrate mass killing, namely, in civil wars. In some wars, rebels manage to establish governance systems of their own, and the apparent logic of the atrocities committed by these quasi-states looks very similar to the logic behind the atrocities perpetrated by their foes: destroy your rival’s base of support, and scare civilians into compliance or complicity.

Rebels don’t need to govern to carry out mass killings, though, a point driven home by groups like the RUF in Sierra Leone, the Seleka and anti-balaka militias in the Central African Republic, and, of course, Boko Haram. Sometimes the states we now expect to protect civilians against such violence are so weak or absent or uncaring that those non-state groups don’t need deep pockets and sprawling organizations to accomplish mass murder. On Boko Haram, CFR’s John Campbell observes that, “Several of the most recent incidents involve government security forces unaccountably not at their posts, allowing Boko Haram freedom of movement. The governor of Borno state publicly said that Boko Haram fighters outgun government forces.” Campbell also notes that those security forces might be shirking their duty because they are poorly paid and equipped, and because they simply fear a group that “has a long tradition of killing any person in the security services that it can.” With a state like that, the resources and organization required to accomplish mass murder are, unfortunately, not so vast. What is required is a degree of ruthlessness that most of us find hard to understand, but that incomprehensibility should not be confused with impossibility.

Acts we conventionally describe as “terrorism” nowadays are also atrocities by another name, and so-called terrorist groups occasionally succeed in their lethal business on an extraordinary scale. Al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, certainly qualify as a mass killing as we conventionally define it. Nearly 3,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group (Americans) were deliberately killed as part of a wider political conflict, and all in a single day. The torrent of car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks in Iraq in recent months has surely crossed that arbitrary 1,000-death threshold by now, too.

For analytical purposes, it would be useful to have a catalog of episodes in which non-state organizations committed atrocities on such a large scale. That catalog would allow us to try to glean patterns and develop predictive models from their comparison to each other and, more important, to situations in which those episodes did not occur. Even more useful would be a reliable assemblage of data on the incidents comprising those episodes, so we could carefully study how and where they arise and accumulate over time, perhaps with some hope of halting or at least mitigating future episodes as they develop.

Unfortunately, the data we want usually aren’t the data we have, and that’s true here, too. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has compiled a data set on “one-sided violence,” defined as “intentional attacks on civilians by governments and formally organized armed groups,” that includes low, high, and best estimates of deaths attributed to each perpetrator group in cases where that annual estimate is 25 deaths or more (here). These data are an excellent start, but they only cover years since 1989, so the number of episodes involving non-state groups as perpetrators is still very small. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) compiles detailed data (here) on attacks by non-state groups, among others, but it only covers Africa since 1997. New developments in the automated production of political event data hint at the possibility of analyzing deliberate violence against civilians around the world at a much higher resolution in the not-too-distant future. As I’ve discovered in an ongoing efforts to adapt one of these data sets to this purpose, however, we’re not quite there yet (see here).

In the meantime, we’ll keep seeing accounts of murderous sprees by groups like Boko Haram (here and here, to pick just two) and CAR’s Seleka (here) and anti-balaka (here) alongside the thrum of reporting on atrocities from places like Syria and Sudan. And as we read, we would do well to remember that people, not states, are the the common denominator.

PS. In the discussion of relevant data sets, I somehow forgot to mention that the Political Instability Task Force also funds the continuing collection of data on “atrocities” around the world involving five or more civilian fatalities (here). These data, which run all the way back to January 1995, are carefully compiled under the direction of a master of the craft, but they also suffer from the inevitable problems of reporting bias that plague all such efforts and so must be handled with care (see Will Moore here and here on this subject).

Mass Killing in Egypt

Let’s define a state-led mass killing as an episode in which state security forces or groups acting at their behest deliberately kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group in a relatively short period of time—weeks, months, or maybe even several years. This is a paraphrased version of the definition my colleague Ben Valentino developed for a U.S. government-funded research project, so using it allows us to identify and compare many episodes over time, as I did in another recent post.

Since World War II, nearly all of the state-led mass killings that have occurred around the world have followed one of three basic scenarios, all of them involving apparent threats to rulers’ power.

First and most common, state security forces fighting an insurgency or locked in a civil war kill large numbers of civilians whom they accuse of supporting their rivals, or sometimes just kill indiscriminately. The genocide in Guatemala is an archetypal example of this scenario. In some cases, like Rwanda, the state also enlists militias or even civilians to assist in that killing.

Second, rulers confronting budding threats to their power—usually a nonviolent popular uprising or coup plot—violently repress and attack their challengers in an attempt to quash the apparent threat. The anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-1966 fit this pattern. In rare cases, like North Korea today, just the possibility of such a threat suffices to draw the state into killing large numbers of civilians. More often, state repression of nonviolent uprisings succeeds in quashing the challenge with fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths, as happened in China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Burma in 2007.

Third, rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power. The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.

What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency. The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance. What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

One of the many rationalizations offered for the July 3 coup was the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had used violence to suppress its political rivals during and after mass protests against Morsi last December. People were right to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood over that thuggery, which was arguably a nascent version of the second scenario described above. In calling on the military to deliver them from that threat, however, some of those challengers seem to have struck a Faustian bargain that is now producing killings on a much grander scale.

Statistics Is Not Alchemy

Are aid and investment from China driving crackdowns on the press in some parts of Africa?

I don’t know.

That’s unsatisfying and maybe even a little annoying, but I’m writing a post about it anyway because why I don’t know says a lot about how hard it is to do good quantitative social science, even in the age of Big Data. Here’s the story:

A few Mondays ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “Africa’s Free Press Problem” in which the author, Mohamed Keita of the advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists, asserted that press freedom is eroding in Africa, and foreign forces are partially at fault. According to Keita, “Independent African journalists covering the continent’s development are now frequently persecuted for critical reporting on the misuse of public finances, corruption and the activities of foreign investors.” He lays part of the blame for this alleged trend at the feet of Western governments more interested in promoting economic development and stability than democracy, but he sees other forces at work, too:

Then there’s the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist.

In January, Beijing issued a white paper calling for accelerated expansion of China’s news media abroad and the deployment of a press corps of 100,000 around the world, particularly in priority regions like Africa. In the last few months alone, China established its first TV news hub in Kenya and a print publication in South Africa. The state-run Xinhua news agency already operates more than 20 bureaus in Africa. More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, called “truthful” coverage of development fueled by China’s activities.

When I finished Keita’s piece, I was sympathetic to his concerns, but I was skeptical of his claim that the ebb and flow of press freedom in Africa was being shaped so decisively by China’s recent investments on the continent. From my own reading of politics, I see the kinds of constraints on the press that Keita describes in Ethiopia and Rwanda as normal features of authoritarian rule. By my reckoning, both Ethiopia and Rwanda have been repressing independent journalism for quite a while, so I couldn’t see how China’s recent overtures would have much to do with why that repression is happening. Cause has to precede effect and all that.

Being an empiricist and a blogger, I figured I’d pursue my hunch by taking a look at the data and writing a post. In a day or two, I could run a statistical analysis that would check Keita’s implied claim that Chinese engagement was reducing press freedom in Africa. I knew that both Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders produce annual, country-level measures of press freedom covering at least the past decade, so I was confident that I could observe recent trends on that side of the equation. All I needed was comparable data on aid and foreign direct investment from China, and I could run some simple fixed-effects models to see if changes over time in those money flows really were associated with decreases in press freedom, as Keita’s essay seemed to suggest.

And that’s where I hit a wall. First, I Googled “china foreign investment data” and “china foreign aid data” and came up with next to the nothing. The best I could do was an incomplete, project-level data set of Chinese foreign aid projects in Africa from 1990 through 2005. Next, I posted queries on Twitter and the listserv of the Society for Political Methodology. The latter led me to the University of the Pacific’s Daniel O’Neill, who confirmed my growing suspicion that the data I wanted simply don’t exist. We can see annual outflows of FDI from China, but we can’t see where that money’s gone, and bilateral data on development assistance from China are not available. (Even if they were, I’m not sure I would have trusted the numbers, but that’s beside the point for now.)

So, here we are in 2012, and it’s impossible to answer a seemingly simple question because the data we need to answer that question are nowhere to be found.

In fact, there are a lot of really interesting and important social-science questions where this is true. Income inequality is one of them, as I discussed on this blog a few weeks ago. Unemployment is another. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone suggested adding unemployment to a global statistical model of political instability, I’d be a lot richer. It turns out, though, that many countries don’t report unemployment rates, and many of the ones that do only started to do so recently. A quick look at the World Bank’s World Development Indicators shows the problem clearly; lots of countries have no observations, and those gaps are correlated with other things that contribute to the risks of political instability–poverty most especially, but also authoritarian rule and recent or ongoing civil violence.

The list of known unknowns is a lot longer, but I think that’s enough to make the problem clear. From popular discussions, you’d think we’re living in an era when anything and everything is routinely quantified and the only problem left is finding the signal in all that noise. For some questions in some (rich) countries, that’s a fair description. For many of the big questions in comparative politics and international relations, though, we’re only just starting to exit the Dark Ages, and the past–and often even the present–are essentially lost to statistical analysis.

Raising the Human-Rights Bar for Development Assistance…But Will It Make a Difference?

The U.S.’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has raised the bar for countries seeking its development-assistance grants in 2012 by adopting stricter standards for civil liberties and political rights. The intentions behind this change are clear and laudable, but larger weaknesses in the MCC program and the increased availability of unconditional aid from other sources lead me to expect that this change’s impact on political development in the targeted countries will be negligible.

For readers who aren’t aid wonks, some background is in order. The MCC is a U.S. government-funded but independently managed aid agency that aims to help its recipients reduce poverty by funding programs that are meant to boost economic growth. The MCC was established by President Bush in 2004, but it was the brain child of Stanford international-relations professor Stephen Krasner, who went on to serve as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff for part of Bush’s second term.

The big idea behind the MCC was to give poor countries stronger incentive to improve their economic and political governance by making a big, new pot of aid funding available, but making access to that pot conditional on countries’ performance on a basket of governance indicators. In theory, it’s like setting up a smoothie bar  in a high-school cafeteria and then telling the hungry students they’ll get free smoothies, but only if they’ve done well enough on their report cards. If they’re hungry enough (and like smoothies enough), anticipation of that reward should encourage them to improve their schoolwork, and everyone ends up better off for it.

To be eligible for MCC grants, countries a) have to be relatively poor (“low income” or “low middle income” in World Bank parlance, meaning they have an annual gross national income per capita less than $3,975); and b) have to satisfy a battery of selection criteria across three thematic groups: “economic freedom,” “investing in people,” and “ruling justly.” The MCC spells out its criteria in painstaking detail in an annual report, identifies candidate countries based on income, issues “report cards” on those countries’ governance practices, and then, finally, announces which countries have qualified for its assistance.

The big change announced by the MCC in 2011 for fiscal-year 2012 comes in the way it handles the “ruling justly” category. In the past, countries could qualify by scoring above the median on “controlling corruption” and any two of the five other indicators in that bin: political rights, civil liberties, voice and accountability, government effectiveness, and rule of law. Starting in fiscal-year 2012, however, countries have to score above a threshold on two of those six “ruling justly” indicators: still “controlling corruption,” but now either “political rights” and “civil liberties” as well.

This change is potentially significant. Of the six “ruling justly” indicators, only three are directly indicative of democratization: political rights, civil liberties, and voice and accountability. This meant that, under the old rules, highly undemocratic countries could qualify for MCC grants, as long as they were well administered relative to their low-income peers. Under the new rules, however, countries have to be at least moderately liberalized or democratized to get through the door. (For those of you who are familiar with the Freedom House political rights and civil liberties indices used to measure these dimensions, the minima for 2012 are 4s on both scales.)

To see what this rule change might mean in the real world, I poked around the MCC’s data in search of countries that would have cleared the “ruling justly” hurdle under the old system but fall short under the new one. Instead of trying to determine overall eligibility, which is pretty complicated and sometimes involves additional considerations, I just looked at the “ruling justly” category. This unofficial and possibly error-prone exercise identified the following four countries as ones that would have made the old cut but fail to make the new one:

  • Djibouti
  • Ethiopia
  • Rwanda
  • Vietnam

That list nicely reflects the intentions behind the 2012 rule change. I know little about Djibouti, but Rwanda and Vietnam readily spring to mind as countries that often get lauded for their technocratic performance in spite of their clear failings on human rights and democracy. I would have guessed Ethiopia was more of a mixed bag, but it just barely tops the peer-group thresholds for “control of corruption” and “rule of law” while easily clearing the bar on “government effectiveness.”

Of course, the big question is whether or not MCC’s scoring change will actually help motivate the governments of those four countries to initiate political reforms they otherwise would not have taken. On that count, I’m hopeful but pessimistic. Seven years after its creation, the MCC isn’t having the transformative effects its designers intended, and that pattern isn’t likely to change any time soon.

The basic problem is that the MCC’s pot of money is too small to have the kind of “transformative” effect on the vast political economy of aid that its creators intended.  In part, that’s a function of supply. As originally envisioned, the MCC’s Millennium Challenge Account was supposed to have an annual budget of $5 billion. In fact, the budget has hovered closer to $1 billion per year, thanks to smaller requests from the presidents and smaller allocations from Congress. Given the current state of the federal government’s finances and the domestic politics of foreign aid, it’s hard to imagine that budget growing much larger in the next several years.

Budget woes aside, any transformative effect the MCC might have is also impeded by limited demand. Poor countries seeking development assistance have other options, and most of those other options don’t come with political strings attached. Faced with the choice between adopting political reforms that might threaten their grip on power in order to pursue a modest-sized grant from the MCC or seeking assistance elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine many authoritarian rulers opting for the former. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when the U.S. and Europe were pretty much the only game in town for development assistance, the MCC’s conditional offers might have been more tempting. In recent years, though, rapid growth in foreign assistance from China in particular has expanded the pool of available funds, thereby diluting the power of the MCC’s medicine.

In sum, while I applaud the MCC for making this change, I doubt it will make much difference. They’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to move the world with a short lever and a shaky fulcrum.

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