It is a common enough phrase, ruing the ‘too little too late’ response to some sort of humanitarian crisis. We shake our heads at how often we hear it. But aside from the disheartened frustration the phrase engenders, it also reflects a common assumption in the world of international relations; that the only way to prevent a humanitarian crisis, is to have a more accurate crystal ball. Or more specifically, that in order to act preventatively, you have to be able to predict that a crisis will occur and then act to stop it in its tracks. In academia, this is often called ‘early warning– early response’. The assumption that this is the only way isn’t always a spoken one, but the academic literature is replete with articles and analysis examining how early warning can be improved; how it can be better communicated; and how to cultivate more adequate early-responses. The absence of articles on any other form of prevention is telling.
And don’t get me wrong, early-warnings and early-responses are both very important. We must be able to not only see and hear these warnings, but to act on them to avoid an imminent crisis, or to lessen its impact. The trouble is, that this should only be part of our preventative work. In my focus on war prevention, it has become clear to me that our ability to act preventatively is hampered if we fall into the trap of believing that early warning– early response is the only prevention option we have.
This is because of two key limitations that prediction faces. The first is that early warning– early response can only ever be reactive. Things must already be on the path towards war (or any other humanitarian crisis) in order for someone to be able to sound even the most accurate and timely alarm.
The second, is because prediction requires a level of certainty about the future that isn’t often present around complex social phenomenon like war. Relying on prediction to act preventatively is to rely on a level of certainty that we can rarely have.
It is often pointed out, usually in a shoulder shrug of political hopelessness, that governments can’t act preventatively, because it’s too difficult to prove if preventative actions are successful. What this view ignores though, is that when we decouple prevention and prediction, governments can and do act preventatively.
For example, within health, governments are excellent at valuing prevention. We know that good preventative health efforts mean paying attention to: how accessible fruit and vegies are; the legislation that keeps pollutants out of our air and waterways; low smoking rates; safe spaces for children to play; and a whole raft of other actions that address health risk-factors, without responding to any particular instance of disease. We don’t say, ‘well we can never know for sure if that person would have developed lung cancer if they didn’t smoke, so we can’t really prioritise anti-smoking campaigns as policy area’. We are fully aware that responding to health risk-factors is the best way of preventing disease and enhancing health. And because we have separated out prevention from prediction, we still prioritise these health prevention measures, even when we are unable to pinpoint exactly which instances of disease have been prevented.
It’s the same with traffic accidents. We know that having appropriate speed limits and traffic lights prevents traffic accidents. We can never point to which traffic lights, or which speed limit prevented a particular accident, but we have enough knowledge to know that we have addressed a key risk-factor, so we value our prevention efforts.
Yes, it is important to be able to sound the early-warning for a particular conflict, and it is important that we respond well and in time. But this is not enough on its own. We must stop relying on reading our crystal balls and we must start to acknowledge our collective agency over the future. We must learn to value responding to conflict-risk factors, so that a war never even has the opportunity to start developing. As long as peace work relies solely on reacting to instances or imminence of violence, we will only ever be chasing our tails.