More About Foresight
- To identify and evaluate the underlying factors shaping the production, communication and perception of early warning.
- To identify and evaluate the factors, which influence whether early warnings are taken seriously relevant responders.
- To develop criteria for evaluating early warning production, communication and perception with the aim to improving the performance of relevant players at all of these stages.
- To compare the findings regarding the impact of forecasts on conflict prevention with the insights of the broader literature regarding preventive action in other policy areas
Foresight's Accomplished Objectives
The Foresight project evaluated the underlying factors shaping the production, communication and perception of early warning of intra-state armed conflict as well as those concerning the public and non-public interplay between early warning suppliers, communicators and political users. On the user-side, the empirical focus was limited to the UN, the EU and the OSCE as well as the UK, Germany and the US. Please see under “Publications” for the findings or contact the authors directly.
Members of the research group continue to work on aspects relating to warning-response dynamics and the prospects for preventive action in the area of genocide and mass atrocities and, particularly, the role of intelligence in the EU using the case study of Libya.
Whenever a major crisis or disasters occurs, questions are asked whether the harm could have been averted and whether credible warnings had been recklessly ignored by those able to act on them. In order to increase the chances that harmful effects are prevented or mitigated, states and international organizations have tried to develop warning-response systems or mechanisms. It is in this context that FORESIGHT systematically analysed the nature of the warning-response problem and investigated under what conditions warnings are noticed, prioritized and reacted to. We have concentrated on the link between communication and perception, although questions of forecasting accuracy and effectiveness of responses came into play as well. Our primary empirical focus has been on warning-response dynamics in the case of violent conflict within states. A second pillar of the project broadened to other areas such as financial instability, pandemics, flooding, organized crime, air pollution or climate change with the help of other experts. Our main findings are below. Further detailed finding can be found under publications.
1. Our research suggests a substantial distortion (or “bias”) in how we investigate warnings and assess the predictability and preventability of disasters. Simple reports that contain indications or signals are mistaken as warnings in retrospect, little attention is paid to whether warnings were intelligible and whether sources could be considered credible by a given recipient. Cases where warning supply and quality were exaggerated included most of the writing about the genocide of Rwanda, but also the official investigations in the US into the origin of the financial crises. There is a powerful political impetus to attribute blame for disasters and it is difficult to accept that some disasters were neither predictable nor preventable at an early stage, even if steps may be taken to prevent similar events from happening again. So-called hindsight bias has been shown in experiments with individuals, but not yet studied at the level of public and expert discourse. This matters because learning the wrong lessons from ‘failures’ can lead to prescriptions that lead to either paralysis or overreaction. Instead, we propose to more carefully distinguish between listening and responding to warnings and offer a model to better identify the different challenges involved in warning-response and how they are interlinked.
2. We found that the impact of a warning about violent conflict, in terms of the warning being noticed, accepted, prioritized and reacted to, to be dependent primarily on the source under a given set of conditions. The content of the warning message could boost impact, but only certain sources had a chance to be noticed in the first place. The most important source in this respect were senior officials who had recently been in the country in question and who were considered by recipients as part of the ‘in-group’, i.e. someone with a similar ideological background and some personal connections to recipients. The second most important source were articles in quality newspapers of political relevance to the recipient and written by journalists with an established track-record for informed writing about a given country, region or issue. Less important but still influential sources were conflict parties with influence on the dynamics of the conflict itself and Non-Governmental Organisations such as the International Crisis Group. The ‘perfect warning’ highlights a threat to a value important to the recipient, uses analogies to other cases, takes recipients worldviews into account and is sufficiently certain and specific in its judgement.
3. We found that the ability of states and international organizations was hampered by four main factors: firstly, recipients have limited confidence in the accuracy of warnings about violent conflict and its consequences, hence the reliance on certain people, rather than systems, evidence and methods; secondly, the relationship between producers and consumers of warnings is shaped by an organizational culture that inhibits learning and discourages the communication of truly surprising and politically challenging news; thirdly, while organizations invest heavily into information gathering and analysis for warning, they are often unable to decide quickly enough whether they are important and urgent and if so, what to do with them; fourthly, within organizations but also the public at large there are little incentives for preventive action in terms of either resources or political credit for preventive action, some of which are is attributable to the lateness of media coverage. Remedies should be targeted at these factors, rather than concentrating on ever more sophisticated systems of risk assessment.
Christoph O. Meyer
London, December 2011
Listen to the Podcast on the Foresight's findings and conference
Listen to The Cassandra Curse: Why We Heed Some Warnings, And Ignore Others, US National Public Radio Broadcast
European Global Strategy Event: Improving conflict prevention in response to warning intelligence
Professor Christoph Meyer was invited to talk about the potential for the European Union to become better at conflict prevention in response to warning intelligence. He spoke at a public workshop on Intelligent Foreign Policy on 14 December 2015 in Stockholm, organised jointly by the EU Institute for Security Studies (EU-ISS) and the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). This was part of a series of workshops as part of the consultation process launched by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy over a new European Global Strategy to be agreed by summer 2016. Please see the YouTube video here (from 38 mins)
Beyond the Cassandra Syndrome: Understanding the failure and success of warnings
On 2 February 2014, Professor Christoph Meyer gave his inaugural lecture, 'Beyond the Cassandra Syndrome'. When terrorists attack, financial systems collapse or mass atrocities are committed, probing questions are asked about whether such events could have been prevented. Attention inevitably focuses in post-mortems on whether quality warnings have been ignored by those with the power to act. Much of the blame is heaped on decision-makers for wilfully ignoring or even suppressing inconvenient warnings. However, these judgements are often not sustainable because of prevailing hindsight bias in judging warning quality, caused in no small part by the drive to attribute blame. Furthermore, the overemphasis on studying episodes of failure can get in the way of understanding the true potential as well as the limits of warnings. This can lead to costly but ineffective or even positively harmful prescriptions about what needs to be done to prevent future harm. Based on lessons from a range of cases, this lecture set out how to judge warning success and failure, how individuals and organisations can become better at producing and processing warnings and when it is best to prepare for warning failure.
Foresight Workshop: ‘How to Warn’ - Best Practices in Communicating Warnings of Violent Conflict
On 7 November 2012, the Foresight Research Group hosted a workshop that brought together practitioners from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, different non-governmental as well as international organisations to discuss current warning practices and explore potential avenues for enhancing the impact on relevant decision-makers. Research carried out by the Foresight Project (now the Foresight Research Group) suggests a number of ways in which NGOs can enhance their credibility with practitioners and improve the chances of being heard by getting the timing right and better tailoring the warning message to particular recipients. A discussion of Foresight’s research findings was followed by presentations from practitioners and a discussion of best practices in the field.
Dowlnload the summary of the workshop’s discussion and findings here.
The Warning-Response-Gap in Preventing Violent Conflict:Insights from the Foresight Project
On 16 September 2011, the Foresight team has presented the findings of its three-year research in a conference that brought together leading scholars and practitioners in the field of conflict prevention. Questions relating to the relationship between warning producers and consumers have been discussed as well as the impact and success of warnings from various sources and under what circumstances warnings about violent conflict are noticed, prioritised and acted-upon. The project team discussed its holistic understanding of warnings and presented a range of cases of more and less successful preventive action such as Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, Georgia. It also analalysed different actors on the responder-side, including a number of states (UK, US, France and Germany) and international organizations (UN, EU, OSCE).
Each session of the conference took at its starting point presentations by members of the Foresight team, summarising the key arguments contained in draft chapters of a planned monograph with Cambridge University Press. External discussants have commented on the talk and contributed with their own views on the leading questions. The conference concluded with a session on how to improve the chances of early preventive action without falling into the traps of overwarning and overreaction.
Workshop on Preventing Violent Conflict
The FORESIGHT Project, in collaboratrion with the Egmont Institute hosted a workshop on "Preventing Violent Conflict: Improving the EU’s Capacity to Recognise, Prioritise and Respond to Warnings." The workshop took place in Brussels on 15 April 2011. Download the Programme with abstracts
Workshop on Forecasting, Warning and Preventive Policy
FORESIGHT hosted a Workshop on Forecasting, Warning and Preventive Policy which took place at King's College London on 18-19 September 2009. The workshop brought together a select group of leading experts from a range of disciplines and policy fields to investigate the prospects for identifying, communicating and preventing transnational threats through timely regulatory or political action.
Participants included Sir David Omand (King's College London), William Shapcott (EU SitCen), Gillian Tett (FT), Thomas Huertas (FSA), Warren Fishbein (US State Department), Jan Goldman (NIC), Marc Gernstein (Gernstein Associates), Corene Crossin (Control Risks), and Bastian Giegerich (IISS).
Please find below a detailed programme of the workshop including abstracts of presentations.
FORESIGHT at ICG and USIP
Following the presentation at ISA, Christoph Meyer presented the project in Washington to six staffers of the International Crisis Group (ICG), including the head of communication, advocacy and the vice-president. Furthermore, he gave a presentation at at the US Institute for Peace (USIP) in the framework of a seminar organised by Lawrence Woocher and attended by staff from USIP, SAIS, USAID and the US State Department. Read presentation:
FORESIGHT at ISA 2009
In February 2009, the Foresight Team participated in the International Studies Association (ISA) Convention in New York by presenting a co-authored paper which is entitled: "Communicating Across the Warning-Response-Gap: Theorising Persuasion about Preventive Policy."
Lawrence Woocher on Preventing Genocide
In February 2009, the FORESIGHT group hosted a special lecture delivered by Lawrence Woocher, senior program officer in the Institute’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention – Washington DC. As member of the executive committee and lead expert on early warning for the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Woocher presented the results of the Task Force’s efforts which are summarised in the report entitled “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers.”
Woocher explained that genocide is preventable and that making progress toward doing so begins with leadership and political will. He also illustrated the recommendations included in the report, including the need for high-level attention, standing institutional mechanisms, improved early warning mechanisms, early action to prevent crises, timely diplomatic responses to emerging crises, and action to strengthen global norms and institutions.
- Meyer, C. O. (2018) The Cassandra Curse: Why We Heed Some Warnings, And Ignore Others, US National Public Radio Broadcast
- Meyer, C. O with G. Kurtz, (2018) 'Beyond wishful thinking and technocracy: conflict prevention as science, craft, and art’. Global Affairs
- Meyer, C. O with F. Otto, (2016) How to Warn: ‘Outside-in Warnings’ of Western Governments about Violent Conflict and Mass Atrocities, Media, War & Conflict, Vol. 9, No 2, pp. 198-216
- Meyer, C. O, 2016 ‘Over- and Under-reaction to Transboundary Threats: Two Sides of a Misprinted Coin?’, Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 23, No 5, 735-52.
- Meyer, C. O with K.E. Smith and C. De Franco, (2015) ‘Living by Example?’ The European Union and the Implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 53, No 5, 994-1009.
- Meyer, C. O. (2015) ‘Early Warning about Violent Conflict: Better Intelligence for Early Action’. Policy brief presented at a public workshop on Intelligent Foreign Policy on 14 December 2015 in Stockholm, organised jointly by the EU Institute for Security Studies (EU-ISS) and the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).
- Meyer, C. O. (2015) ‘Building an Effective Warning-Response System on Violent Conflict and Instability’. Policy brief presented at the SaferWorld organised Roundtable of the Conflict Prevention Working Group (CPWG) on “ Bridging the gap between early warning and early response to violent conflict”, King’s College London, 24 April 2015
- Meyer, Christoph O. de Franco, Chiara, Brante, John and Otto, Florian (under review with Cambridge University Press) Heeding Warnings about War? Persuasion and Learning in Conflict Prevention.
- Otto, Florian and Meyer, Christoph O. (2012) ‘Missing the Story? Changes in Foreign News Reporting and Their Implications for Conflict Prevention, Media, War & Conflict, Vol. 5, No 3.
- Meyer, Christoph O. (2012) Normative, theoretische und praxeologische Defizite der Friedensforschung am Beispiel der Konfliktprävention, Zeitschrift für International Beziehungen, Vol. 19, No. 1.
- Meyer, Christoph O. (2011) Abstract of Findings of the Foresight Project
- Meyer, Christoph O. (2011) 'The Purpose and Pitfalls of Constructivist Forecasting Implications of Strategic Culture Research for the European Union's Evolution as a Military Power', International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 55, No 3, pp. 1-22.
- Brante, John (2010) Strategic Warning in an EU Context: Achieving Common Threat Assessments, European Security and Defence Forum, Chatham House,
- De Franco, Chiara and Meyer, Christoph O. (eds.) 2011. Forecasting, Warning and Responding to Transnational Risks. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan
- Brante, John; de Franco, Chiara; Meyer, Christoph O.; Otto, Florian (2011) “‘Worse, Not Better?’ Reinvigorating Early Warning For Conflict Prevention In The Post-Lisbon European Union”, Egmont Paper 48, Gent: Academia Press.
- Meyer, Christoph; 2011. The Financial Crisis Commission Report
- Meyer, Christoph; Otto, Florian; Brante, John and de Franco, Chiara 2010. Re-casting the Warning-Response-Problem: Persuasion and Preventive Policy, International Studies Review, Vol. 12, No 4, pp. 556-578.
- Meyer, Christoph 2010. The dangers of excessive air safety. FT online.
- Meyer, Christoph; Smith, Karen; de Franco, Chiara et al (2013). Report on Strengthening the EU’s Capacities for the Prevention of Mass Atrocities and Genocide, (ISBN 978-693-08-5971-4) pp, 98, also available here
- Christoph Meyer, Karen Smith, Chiara de Franco et al (2013) Report on Strengthening the EU’s Capacities for the Prevention of Mass Atrocities and Genocide, (ISBN 978-693-08-5971-4) pp, 98, also available here
Professor Christoph Meyer, MPhil PhD (Cambridge) firstname.lastname@example.org
European Union politics and integration theory; European public sphere and political communication; EU security and defence policy; Constructivist approaches in political science.
Former team members
Florian Otto, currently Principal Risk Analyst, Maplecroft
John Brante, currently Second Secretary, Swedish Embassy to Russia
Chiara de Franco, currently Associate Professor, University of Southern Denmark