A note on the California Consensus (CalCon) and empirical peace research

Bullets whizzing by your head have a way of lodging in the brain, even if they mercifully miss striking you. One of my formative professional experiences occurred about 15 years ago crossing an ordinary street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Gunfire erupted around me as one gang fended off the attempted theft of their armored SUV by another. The story of how armed urban gangs became central actors in first securing, and later undermining, the security of a democratic Haiti is as involved as it was far from my mind as I dove behind a nearby pickup truck and hoisted myself up by the side mirror to keep my legs out of the way of bullets ricocheting off the asphalt.

One of the central lessons I drew from this experience was that small arms have big impacts on humanitarian, economic, and political life. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted:

The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some areas of Mexico are testament to this fact, with over 138,000 homicides committed since 2006, 95% of them by firearm. And Mexico’s small arms problem pales in comparison with those of some other countries. Accordingly, target 16.4 of the UN’s newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals states: “By 2030, significantly reduce illicit […] arms flows[…].” The UN’s 2013 Arms Trade Treaty now regulates the sales of conventional weapons in order to curb irresponsible transfers. For as the prices of small arms and ammunition rise and fall, so too do the costs of violence.

Yet there is currently no good way of detecting and quantifying international illicit arms trades. Illicit trades are notoriously difficult to detect and quantify, be they in small arms, illegal drugs, counterfeit products, or even humans. Trade facilitators usually have incentives to shield their activities from public scrutiny. This being the case, numbers of illicit small arms seizures have become the UN’s principal metric for inferring volumes of illicit arms flows. But such statistics are highly flawed: Cross-country comparisons may be biased due to divergent capacities or corruption levels, for instance. And even comparisons between time periods within a single jurisdiction may not hold if regulatory priorities or regimes change. These problems lead to a kind of moral hazard: countries may actually be dis-incentivized to intercept illicit small arms and ammunition flows for fear that the increase in official seizures will be interpreted as a real increase in illicit flows.

My new research project, the Illicit Small Arms Trafficking (i-SAT) project, jointly led by myself and Nicholas Marsh of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), seekes to crack this touch empirical nut. We have painstakingly assembled a dataset of prices of small arms and light weapons on black markets around the world. We think that if we can build statistical models that control for both demand-side factors (e.g., population, income, homicide rates, etc.) and legal supplies as revealed by commercial trade databases, we can detect and even quantify the net illicit inflows and outflows of small arms. The basic idea is that if observed priced in a given country and year deviate significantly from our predictions, it will tell us something: lower prices will imply that the total supply exceeds the licit supply. Significantly higher prices will suggest that there are exports unaccounted for by licit trade figures. We hope in future to dramatically improve the precision and responsiveness of these models with web-crawling algorithms capable of generating real-time updates for a global monitoring system.


This research project was just one of many presented on April 13th at the California Consensus for Peace Through Technology (CalCon for short) – a unique event co-convened at the Kroc School by myself, Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute (Rio de Janeiro), Gary Milante of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and Lindsay Heger and Conor Seyle of the One Earth Future Foundation. CalCon was intended to catalyze more policy-relevant and rapidly-responsive peace research via the application of technology. This inaugural year had a focus on challenging violent movements. Invited presenters – some of the most innovative and promising in the world – gave 5-minute pitches to a room of technologists, funders, and policymakers. They then had an opportunity to workshop their ideas with interested attendees. Projects ran a wide gamut. One project proposed a new secure platform for accessing “big data” from telecommunication corporations to inform the targeting and design of humanitarian and development interventions. Another proposed a crowd-sourced online forum for engaging the Mexican public in the identification of those disappeared by drug trafficking organizations and other groups. My colleague, Prof. Choi-Fitzpatrick, presented his idea for creating an automated system for estimating protest sizes via drone imagery.

There is, of course, nothing inherently peaceful about technological change. Violent actors ranging from legitimate militaries to the Islamic State to urban gangs are pioneering ways of harnessing technology to enhance their capacity for violence. In doing so, they continue a very long tradition. Those of us seeking to bring about a more peaceful world must also adapt to new platforms and learn new tools to compete effectively in today’s evolving landscape. The conscious application of advanced technology to peace research has the potential to base the practice and policy of peacebuilding on relevant, real-time empirical data to an unprecedented extent.

CalCon has begun to put the Kroc School on the map as a force for innovation in peace research. For my part, I’ll be tracing those bullets that passed me by – and those that continue to find targets, cutting short the lives of roughly one half million people each year.


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