Atrocity prevention practitioners have long called for greater investment in lessons learned efforts. Amid recent legislation and policy initiatives, the US government is positioned to improve its use of evidence in atrocity prevention policy making.
The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s latest report draws attention to obstacles to—and ways to improve—the use of lessons learned and other evidence for atrocity prevention at the US Department of State.
What is effective use of lessons learned and other evidence?
By “lessons learned and other evidence,” we mean information or knowledge drawn from systematic analysis of data or review of experience that can help officials make and carry out more effective policy decisions.
Effective use of lessons learned and other evidence for atrocity prevention can take many different forms. For example, it can promote earlier recognition of risks, more early action to mitigate risks, and more systematic consideration of a wide range of potential responses.
While no review of lessons learned or evidence will provide a guide of exactly what to do in a specific situation, their use can help maximize the chances for success, even if uncertainty remains.
What are the obstacles to use of lessons learned and other evidence for atrocity prevention?
Interviews we conducted with 25 current and former US government officials underscored the challenges to the use of lessons learned and other evidence in atrocity prevention policy making.
Most interviews suggested that the attributes that support effective use of lessons learned and other evidence—such as an established learning culture—are weakly present in the State Department.
More specifically, interviewees mentioned several challenges to the use of lessons learned and other evidence in atrocity prevention policy-making processes, including perceived skepticism that evidence could influence atrocity-prevention policy decisions; capacity constraints; inefficient and disorganized learning management systems; and inconsistent support from senior leadership.
How can the State Department improve its use of lessons learned and other evidence for atrocity prevention?
A strong foundation exists for improved use of lessons learned and other evidence at the State Department. The legal and policy mandates now in place make using lessons learned and other evidence a requirement, not simply a lofty aspiration.
Our report offers 19 specific recommendations to advance priority goals, including promoting a stronger learning culture, strengthening internal knowledge generation and sharing, enhancing the use of lessons learned and other evidence in training, and increasing accountability for using lessons learned and other evidence in atrocity prevention decision making.
There are no simple solutions to the prevention of mass atrocities. Decisions about what actions to take to address atrocity risks are invariably difficult judgment calls. Policy makers should make every effort to increase their chances—even if just marginally—of making wise decisions. Taking steps to improve the use of lessons learned and other evidence is one way to do that. Policy makers should seize the opportunity.
Tallan Donine is a research assistant with the Simon-Skjodt Center.