Published on Development for Peace

Setting up early warning and response systems to prevent violent conflicts and save lives

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Daily life in Conakry, Guinea. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

As highlighted in the UN-World Bank report Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, the number of violent conflicts has increased since 2010, thus raising the question of how violence and its escalation can be prevented. Conflict prevention mechanisms exist. Let’s take a look at Early Warning and Response Systems (EWRS), but first, what is early warning and early response?

Early warning is defined as “a process that: (a) alerts decision makers to the potential outbreak, escalation and resurgence of violent conflict; and (b) promotes an understanding among decision makers of the nature and impacts of violent conflict.” It involves the regular collection and analysis of data on conflicts, by systematically monitoring and reporting conflict indicators. Early warning systems generate a set of products, based on quantitative and qualitative analytical methods. This helps formulate scenarios and response options that are communicated to decision-makers. Early warning systems are linked to response instruments.
Early response refers to “any initiative that occurs as soon as the threat of potential violent conflict is identified and that aims to manage, resolve, or prevent that violent conflict,” by using preventive instruments and mechanisms. Different types of response exist, ranging from fact-finding, mediation, peace-making dialogue, negotiations, preventive diplomacy or more robust mechanisms such as sanctions.
Early warning can be an effective tool if strongly linked to responders. However, the link between early warning and early response has not always been effective. Strengthening this link to provide better responses to violent conflicts requires:

  • Promoting stronger interactions between warners and responders, and exchanges to discuss strategies for response
  • Timely and quick responses to warning
  • Monitoring the impact of responses to conflicts to inform decision-making and strategies
  • A better understanding of the value-added of EWS among institutions, the proximity and quality of the interface between early warning and response mechanisms
  • Designing evidence-based response instruments to adequately respond to warning
  • The design of nuanced response actions to take into account changes in the conduct of warfare.

Early Warning and Response: Different Types of Systems

EWRS are designed at different institutional levels. At the governmental level, EWRS were designed in France ( Système d’Alerte Précoce, located at the General Secretariat for National Defense) and in Germany (BMZ Crisis Early Warning System).
At the intergovernmental level, the African Union has developed a Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) to advise the Peace and Security Council on “potential conflict and threats to peace and security” and “recommend best courses of action”. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has designed the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN), as an institutional foundation for addressing conflicts in the region.  These systems are top-down, state-owned, and not embedded into local dynamics.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also developed the Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN) to engage in data collection and analysis, and the drafting of up-to-date reports on possible emerging crises, ongoing crises and post-crisis transitions. ECOWAS early warning systems have been tested full scale in Ghana and Liberia. Non-governmental organizations have also set up their own early warning systems, such as FEWER-Africa that focused on the Ituri region in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Early Warning and Early Response Project (EWER) for Timor-Leste. The scope of these bottom-up systems tends to be limited to the local level, with little traction or link to the central level.

A World Bank Initiative: A EWRS Pilot in Guinea

The World Bank, with the Social Development Global Practice, is currently setting up a pilot community-based EWRS in seven communes of the Boke region in Guinea, under the Third Village Community Support Project (PACV3). The pilot is aligned with IDA18 Risk Mitigation Regime (RMR) that provides enhanced support to four countries, including Guinea, to mitigate increasing risks of Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV). The EWRS pilot in Guinea will focus on prevention and local conflict resolution, by supporting locally-owned solutions to conflicts. It will target recurrent conflicts that affect these communes, such as land, mining, pastoral, community, incivility / delinquency, and grievances around access to basic social services. The pilot is strongly embedded in existing eco-systems at the local level to guarantee ownership from the communities.
The early warning component that includes data collection and analysis will draw on information from existing and relevant grievance and redress systems set up by PACV3, and data collected by trained monitors. The early response component, or preventive action, will be rooted at the village-level and will follow accepted good practice of applying the subsidiarity principle, therefore seeking to prevent and manage conflicts at the lowest possible level before they escalate. The system will also foster communities’ resilience, by supporting social cohesion activities and exchange activities between communes to create a link of interdependence.
The pilot will run for one year and will closely be monitored to draw lessons learned and allow for timely knowledge exchange.

Moving Forward: New threats and warfare calling for a different approach

As the nature of warfare is changing, with new security threats and the use of increasingly sophisticate technologies, EWRS will need to adapt to stay relevant and address current security challenges.


Catherine Defontaine

Senior Operations Officer - Fragility, Conflict, and Violence Group

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