EGAP Conference on Evidence Based Approaches to Conflict Prevention and Mitigation

David M. Robinson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
Washington, DC
January 21, 2016

Date: 01/21/2016 Description: U.S. officials and researchers from Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) attend a conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC. © Photo courtesy of EGAP.Thank you, Raphael, and thanks to Deputy Secretary Higginbottom and Under Secretary Sewall for framing the challenges we face and for highlighting the need for analytic rigor as we respond to them. Collaboration among the daily practitioners of foreign policy and colleagues like Evidence in Government and Politics has never been more important, a fact the State Department clearly recognizes at the highest levels.

But now comes the hard part: Translating that recognition into everyday reality; actually practicing a diplomacy that systematically responds to data; that values evidence in deciding what likely will work to advance our interests and what probably won’t work, especially in unstable and conflicted environments.

And that is very hard to do. It’s not as if the State Department is allergic to evidence-based decision making. Bureaus designed mostly around programs -- bureaus like INL, PRM, and Consular Affairs -- do engage in monitoring and evaluation and do harvest lessons learned to guide their work. And they do a good job. But they often do it in a narrow frame, heavily reliant on their own experience and their own assumptions. And in that context, analysis may be most welcome when it validates rather than challenges.

It gets even harder to inject evidence and data into mainstream diplomacy without the clarifying boundaries of programs. There are valid reasons for that difficulty. Near the top of the list is the uncomfortable reality that today’s diplomats too often work in a world where time and distance simply have collapsed.

Desk officers, ambassadors, and assistant secretaries generally have a horizon of about one foot, the distance between their eyes and their screens. The flow of information is relentless, and the circle of actors who drive that information, who bring their own facts to the table, and who demand near instantaneous responses, is expanding. Just think about it: Can you imagine writing the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights as a blog? Under that pressure--made infinitely worse in conflict--analysis, evaluation, and data all take a back seat to conventional wisdom, to the tried-and-true, or to the next big idea. And that is precisely when we’re tempted to declare Mission Accomplished, when, in fact, the real mission has just begun.

An important part of CSO’s job, and what I hope we can accomplish together, is to restore some measure of time and distance to our diplomacy as it turns its attention to the components of conflict and stabilization, as it grapples with issues like violent extremism, mass atrocities, election violence, ceasefires, peace agreements, the disposition of militias, and transitional governance.

The term conflict itself is almost meaningless. It can refer to the Nazi invasion of Poland or to the fight you had this morning with your spouse. It can mean gang violence in Central America or ISIL barbarism in the Middle East and North Africa. And the pressure to quickly and effectively respond to all of those conflicts without really understanding them--to launch the military or to inaugurate educational programs or to declare poverty and lack of opportunity the root causes of instability--is as relentless as it is misguided.

Our job is to help diplomats facing those issues to ask the right questions, to make the right assumptions, and to establish the right priorities and sequences to secure American interests in some of the most unstable places on earth. But to succeed, we have to do more than provide libraries and toolboxes and lessons learned. All of those things are important and they all have their place. But in the world of now, of the one foot horizon, the last thing a harried action officer needs to hear from CSO or from EGAP, or from anyone else is, “Well…I’m here to help. Here’s a single-spaced 40 page analysis that throws into doubt everything you’ve done for the past six months.” Really? I’m pretty sure the expanding circle has just lost one actor. Our analysis presented that way will be next to useless. Unless it’s easily and continuously accessible and actionable, it’s likely to be seen as just more weight to shoulder and may drive us to rely even more heavily on conventional wisdom, the tried-and-true, and wishful thinking.

So that’s the challenge: to put evidence at the center of the policy discussion and to work in the field. Today’s symposium, bringing together practitioners and researchers, is an important step in that direction. Together, I hope we can embrace the “why”--why evidence-based analysis is important to conflict diplomacy—and move to the “how”--how to continually track it, analyze it, and evaluate it as part of on-going, daily diplomatic work. That’s a challenge worth meeting, and I thank you all very much for being here and look forward to your discussions.