Special Feature: Between Warning and Action: Preventing Mass Violence and Atrocities

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Neil Levine is the director of the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. He has worked at USAID since 1993 after serving for ten years on Capitol Hill. 1

Since Cote d’Ivoire’s outbreak of violence in 2002, the country has been in a state of political crisis. In October 2010 the first round of the long-postponed presidential elections produced indeterminate results that ultimately led to armed conflict. Over roughly four months in early 2011, over 3,000 people were killed, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and severe human rights violations appear to have occurred, including systematic rapes. President Obama indicated at the time that Cote d’Ivoire was among his foreign policy priorities, and one can infer that it is precisely the type of case he would intend to see addressed through Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD 10) on the prevention of atrocities and any policy directives that might flow from it.

Unfortunately, Cote d’Ivoire also exemplifies one of the greatest challenges to preventing mass violence: translating warning or knowledge of a looming crisis into action to prevent or address it. Before the crisis of 2010–11, Cote d’Ivoire had consistently ranked among the most fragile and at-risk countries in the world on various early warning metrics of conflict and instability. Partly in recognition of these dynamics, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored a civil society team to conduct a countrywide conflict assessment in spring 2010 that identified many of the dynamics that ultimately proved most salient in the crisis that unfolded after the election later that year.

Despite the early warning, neither the U.S. government nor any other international organization, including the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), which had been a partner in the 2010 assessment, did much to prevent the conflict. On the eve of the election, the U.S. government had essentially two development programs operating in Cote d’Ivoire: one large-scale AIDS relief program and one small reconciliation program designed to address conflict dynamics at the village level. Cote d’Ivoire is relatively peripheral to U.S. interests as they are commonly understood and a nonpresence country for USAID, so it is understandable that it would not see major U.S. diplomatic or development involvement. But even after the assessment, the scale and scope of U.S.-supported activities was not particularly calibrated to the problems Cote d’Ivoire faced.

The consistent experience for most fragile has been that basic, intuitive actions have not been taken to prevent conflict.

The consistent experience—not only for Cote d’Ivoire, but for most fragile and conflict-affected states—has been that basic, intuitive actions have not been taken to prevent conflict. The problem involves how to galvanize action with uncertain information, given policymakers’ understandable resistance to bearing certain costs today as a hedge against uncertain costs tomorrow (see “Preventing Genocide: The Report of the Commission on Preventing Genocide,” chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former secretary of defense William Cohen). In recent years, with renewed attention to preventing atrocities, the State Department and USAID have made several attempts to overcome the disincentives to preventive action, notably in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a high-level review of how State and USAID can coordinate policies and programs. Conflict management professionals among various agencies have begun to reach consensus around a proposed solution that is both worthwhile and attainable. In their emerging vision, foreign policy leaders would draw upon existing early warning resources within the government to develop at least two regularly updated country lists to mobilize attention. In both cases, a country appearing on the list would trigger certain U.S. responses, eliminating some of the lag and confusion that currently occurs between warning and action.

Imagine the U.S. government were to produce both a short warning list and an expanded list. The short list would comprise roughly two to five countries or subnational regions most likely to experience major instability and to be of strategic importance to the United States in the upcoming months. This list would no doubt include certain critical priority countries, such as Afghanistan and Sudan, but others could appear after decisions by high-level officials based on their reading of a situation’s foreign policy relevance and the interests of the National Security Council.

Most likely, the countries on the short list would already be in some degree of crisis, if not outright war. Thus the mechanisms for response would also be oriented toward immediate crisis management: deployment of disaster assistance response teams (DARTs) or hybrid humanitarian-civilian deployments (as occurred in Cote d’Ivoire), eligibility for additional funding through contingency mechanisms such as the Complex Crisis Fund or the Office of Transition Initiatives, tapping of surge personnel through the Civilian Response Corps, or initiation of a planning process with the military that involves multiple government agencies. The institutional structure now developing in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance must be woven into the practice of USAID and State Department regional bureaus as envisioned in the QDDR.

The expanded list would be a set of another approximately dozen countries or territories perceived as less likely to experience instability, or of relatively less strategic interest, but nevertheless a priority. This expanded list would be for countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, where there is a known chronic problem of fragility or conflict recurrence; a potential trigger looming, such as an election, an aging leader, or an economic downturn; and an existing but not imminent risk of major crisis. In other words, the expanded list would include countries that held the greatest opportunity to leverage resources to prevent crisis altogether.

The country teams would be tasked to prioritize conflict sensitivity and the prevention of mass violence and atrocities.

The country teams in countries on the expanded list would be tasked to prioritize conflict sensitivity and the prevention of mass violence and atrocities across their respective portfolios. Country reporting would focus on sources of grievance and conflict triggers. Military and commercial contacts could be queried on their perspectives and proposals for mitigating conflict. A diplomatic engagement strategy would be outlined to hone the U.S. policy message and accompanying public diplomacy activities. Staff training on conflict management principles and a conflict audit of programs would build missionwide sensitivity to which actors are involved in creating the conditions for violence. Contingency planning could be undertaken to define the roles and responsibilities of various U.S. government actors in the political, diplomatic, military, security, development, intelligence and information spheres as the country approaches a triggering event. These plans might include various scenarios and what U.S. government policy, diplomatic, strategic communication and assistance tools might come into play. Finally, planning could identify what human and financial resources are needed and how to meet those needs.

The above constitute concrete, achievable changes in the way the U.S. government organizes its response to warning signs of conflict. There is no guarantee that conflict will not erupt despite planning. But there is a very real chance that some conflicts can be avoided, contained, or resolved with less loss of life, destruction, and human suffering. Documenting cases of successful conflict prevention and early intervention could build momentum for greater investment in developing locally owned peacebuilding efforts, from early warning and mediation to support for more inclusive and responsive governing institutions that address the core grievances that ripen into conflict.

There is a very real chance that some conflicts can be avoided, contained, or resolved with less loss of life, destruction, and human suffering.

Among U.S. agencies, USAID is particularly well poised to develop a long-term strategic perspective to preventing conflict. Good development practice incorporates many of the key principles to guide such an approach: paying careful attention to the local context, assessing the capabilities of national and local institutions, and focusing on how projects are implemented as much as on what those projects are. USAID is already engaging local stakeholders to establish early warning capabilities and disseminating conflict resolution techniques in at-risk communities. It is also building an appreciation of conflict vulnerability into planning and programming decisions as it trains more officers to consider the chances of conflict in their analyses of local contexts. These small investments can reduce the need for costly interventions later and suggest the possibility for structural conflict prevention that is the ultimate solution to the problem of inaction.

1 Comment
  1. MPORE, LIOBA says:

    Unfortunately the intervention from the International Community comes when it is too late. Conflict starts as a small seed and then grows and become a big tree. We are trying to come out with strategic plan on conflict prevention in Tanzania following many tensions in many issues, unfortunately nobody is capturing the idea and read to fund those initiative. But what happen in Ivory cost can happen in Tanzania, because there are certain issues not settled well. Let us join together to prevent conflict instead of waiting until conflict is at the overt stage

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