The Quest for a Disaster Early Warning System (1988)

I assign this short report (PDF) by Kumar Rupesinghe as required reading in my courses and professional seminars on conflict early warning and crisis mapping. This paper could be published today—20 years later—and still be considered forward looking. I highly recommend reading the report along with Rupesinghe’s new edited book on Third Generation Early Warning Systems, which I reviewed in detail here.

I stumbled across this report while working for Norway’s Former Secretary of State at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) in 2006. Rupesinghe was also a research fellow at PRIO and I found the worn-down report hidden away in the Institute’s library. I carefully scanned the report and have been disseminating it as widely as possible ever since.

The excerpts below are the main highlights of the report. While some of these may seem obvious, keep in mind that Rupesinghe was writing this in 1988—well before the field of conflict early warning became formalized.

I realize there are numerous excerpts below but this just reflects how important I think this piece is.

  • It is crucial for the viability and credibility of developing information and communication systems to discuss ways in which the information can be used. Information is useful if acted upon, and when the information so produced provides choices of action to policy makers as well as to the victims to the victims of the impending disasters.
  • Discussions on ‘early warning’ systems would remain academic if information systems are developed which bear little relationship to social policy or social action.
  • Important to the discussion of early warnings are some of the issues related to the demand for a ‘new information order’. Here we have to raise the entire question of who controls information. Generally, discussions relating to early warning systems emanate from the North, and particularly in environments, which can handle large amounts of information. Little attention is paid, however, to the victims of disasters, or to the competence of local NGOs to strengthen their own capacity to handle information, to evaluate and control their own environment.
  • Akira Onishi suggests a highly sophisticated information system, since in the fields of present day technology, particularly in the astounding developments of computers in the 1980s, extraordinary sophisticated handling of information has become possible both in software and hardware systems. Onishi suggests this field of research as been stimulated by the progress made in global modeling.
  • The distinction between a ‘natural’ and a ‘social’ disaster has also been challenged, particularly by those who have witnessed the recent famines in Africa:

The causes of the African crises are increasingly perceived as man made, or they are at least attributed to human activities more than to natural phenomena. Such terms as ‘man made’ and ‘natural disasters’ widely used to distinguish two categories in the past disaster jargon, are of little relevance or may even be misleading. It is now understood that some of the major interlinked factors behind the growing disaster problem in Africa are man made.”

  • Within the discussion on restraining military technology and redeeming modern science and technology for the good of humanity, Marek Thee has proposed that research and development be subjected to national and international scrutiny. Further, he writes:

National and international technological assessment bodies can be established to serve as a kind of ‘watch and early warning system’ against military excesses. Such concurrent international measures may not be easily achieved. But, if we have the political will informed by human rationality and a comprehension of the scientific-technological global interdependence, reinforced by an awakened public opinion, the barriers for change are not insurmountable.

  • Although billions of dollars have been invested in developing sophisticated data banks and early warnings, we have to note that even the most expensive systems have shown a striking inability to forecast political events.

‘Quite simply, the record has been terrible, despite all the technological improvements of the last twenty years. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, the Yom Kippur war, and the Argentine take over of the Falklands all caught the American government by surprise.’

  • A specific proposal for [a United Nations] early warning system was made by the Speial Rapporteur, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in his report on Massive Exodus and Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Commission on December 1981. In his study, Sadruddin Aga Khan drew attention to the increase in the phenomenon of mass exodus:

‘which is becoming a tragically permanent feature of our times, … The problem is to become more serious with time unless imaginative and concrete measures are urgently taken to contain, if not avert, situations of mass exodus. … It is however my considered opinion that if we are to succeed in any measure to spare future generations the spectre of millions of uprooted peoples, more is required than reports and resolutions, however pertinent and useful they may be.’

  • A recent report of the United Nations that the UN’s own capacity to deliver is its existing commitments is seriously at stake. The report suggests that ‘today’s structure is both too top heavy and too complex.’ Further, ‘its present organizational structure is too fragmented’, and ‘without enlarging secretariat functions’, a ‘leaner Secretariat will enhance productivity and improve efficiency.’
  • In many cases, the problem has not been one of insufficient information about probable crises, but that the specialized [UN] agencies or the secretariat lack the mandate or the authority to act on the information.
  • The United Nations alone would not be in a position to assist in the building of adequate information systems, without the participation of a range of NGOs. This is particularly relevant for developing countries, who themselves can be involved in an active partnership in the exchange of information.
  • What is increasingly realized is that the NGO community in general has a profound role to play in early warnings, monitoring, providing immediate relief, and finding creative ways of resolving conflicts. […] NGOs, particularly in the Third World, and the media, can play a crucial role in early warnings, sounding the alarm in cases of emergency.
  • Most of the discussions with regard to early warning systems have emanated from a concern with the early prediction and reporting of events which could lead to social disasters. […] However, these systems have been developed in advanced environments where the intention is to gather data so as to predict events in distant places. This leads to a division of labor between those who predict and those predicted upon. And this in turn tends to draw attention only to those efforts which continue to reinforce existing unequal distribution of information.
  • A democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warnings and resolution. However, ‘information’ is a highly explosive and political issues, especially in the Third World. Many countries have elaborate laws to prevent people from gaining access to information, or censorship laws which prevent people from reporting on what actually happens in a society.
  • Thus, efforts must be made to strengthen the capacity and competence of Third World NGOs to communicate locally and internationally so as to create a democratic global communication system. An information system of the monolithic type developed by the superpowers cannot be encouraged as far as the NGOs are concerned.
  • [There is a] wealth of knowledge available within the local societies [hence the] importance of finding ways of tapping this wealth of information [and] of involving the local societies and integrating their work, so as to build local competence in monitoring and evaluating, their own experiences.
  • […] NGOs, both international and national, will have a vital role to play in the development of a global, decentralized early warning system. They now need the capacity to build information systems, and to provide the basis for rapid information exchange. In general, NGOs will have to confront the monopolization of information with a demand for the democratic access to information technology. Further, the working conditions of most NGOs and NGO networks, especially in developing countries, remain difficult.
  • Increasingly, bureaucracies are exhibiting their incapacity to manage the complexities of our global village. And today the alternative structures most likely to succeed these bureaucracies are rapidly emerging. The most common term for these structures is ‘networks’. They tend to be decentralized, where policies tend to be flexible and fluid, where staff relations are not monolithic and hierarchical, where the structure tends to be polycentric rather than monocentric.
  • NGOs lack systematization and standardization of information. Each small NGO uses its own methods often based around their previous normal systems. Thus, NGOs have to build competence in standardization of information and cataloguing procedures, to facilitate exchange of data and easy retrieval.  HURIDOCS, Human Rights Information and Documentation System, ahs been established on this basis as a network to assist information sharing and usage.
  • Low cost computers provide opportunities for information recording and retrieval and for the development of data bases in highly specialized areas. Once electronic mail becomes cheaper than the conventional post, every NGO will be able to do cheap mass mailings in a fraction of the present time.
  • With regard to the use of satellite technology, there is a strong case for involving grass roots movements and international NGOs alike in the learning process about satellites as well as radio communication. The aim would be to ensure adequate access to the airwaves for the non-governmental sector as a whole and guarantee the democratization of satellite communication.
  • In this discussion of communications and information for early warnings, we have stressed the need to strengthen the capacity and the competence in the South to store, retrieve, and analyze their own information. […] Here Northern NGOs and donors have an important role to play.

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