Swedish researchers are investing in predicting conflicts

Peace and conflict researchers at Uppsala University aim to be able to predict armed conflicts around the world. If they succeed, humanitarian aid can arrive earlier and conflicts can be handled faster. FUF has spoken with researcher Håvard Hegre to hear more about how this would be possible.

On the same day as the second meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un takes place, I meet another leader with an interest in preventing armed conflicts in the world - albeit a little less dramatic. The Norwegian Håvard Hegre is the project manager for ViEWS: A Political Violence Early Warning System and receives me in his office next to Fyrisån in Uppsala. ViEWS has been run since the start in 2017 by a group of researchers at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Together, they collect data on old and ongoing conflicts to train computer systems in predicting armed conflicts.

Hegre says that the idea for ViEWS arose in connection with him writing a report on breaking the patterns in how conflicts repeat themselves ("Breaking the Conflict Trap") during his years as an employee at the World Bank.

- Many observers have pointed to the great benefits of preventing armed conflicts and thought it would be interesting to see if it is possible to predict conflicts and how well it could be done, says Hegre.

To date, ViEWS provides monthly forecasts of future conflicts only in Africa, but the goal is to cover conflicts worldwide. Hegre explains that these forecasts can facilitate the work of international organizations in several ways, for example in planning interventions in predicted conflicts and in humanitarian aid. In addition, organizations could determine in advance the risks to peacekeepers when deployed.

Today, ViEWS succeeds well in predicting the existence of protracted active conflicts, such as those in eastern Congo-Kinshasa (ongoing since 1994). The computer system is worse at giving forecasts forr new conflicts in previously unaffected areas. Hegre explains that it is increasingly common for regimes in African countries to hold political elections, not with the aim of promoting democracy, but rather with the aim of legitimizing the already ruling elite.

- Time after time, we see electoral fraud leading to military coups and consequently to war. At present, this is difficult for the computer system to predict, but we are working to collect data and specify models for the connection between choice, coup and conflict, says Hegre.

However, climate change is not something ViEWS's database takes into account, despite the dystopian headlines that permeate the media on a daily basis. Håvard Hegre believes that this type of theory that poverty leads to conflicts is a simplified model of man - in fact it is about cynical elites who see the chance to take advantage of current crisis situations in the hope of increasing their own wealth.

- Here in Congo, which today is very affected by conflict, there are lots of minerals that will be valuable in the transition to a more extensive use of electricity and therefore risk being affected by even greater conflicts in the future, says Hegre and pulls his hand in circles over the meter-large Africa poster on the wall.

"Alone is not strong" is a saying that also applies to ViEWS; collaboration with experts from different domains is a prerequisite for developing the computer system through new innovation and ideas. It is together that researchers can contribute to increased opportunities to save lives.

Read more about ViEWS here.

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