Thoughts on Early Warning & Prevention: Key Points for Improving Effectiveness

A multi-stakeholder planning process in Sudan prior to the referendum on independence for Southern Sudan
A multi-stakeholder planning process in Sudan prior to the referendum on independence for Southern Sudan


This note was developed as a quick ‘brief’ for an EU foreign ministry following their request for key issues in improving Early Warning and Prevention in 2011. It is shared here for broader distribution and dialogue in the field.

1.    The Logic and Argument for Early Warning & Peacebuilding/Prevention Still Need to be Made Concrete and Realistic

Far too many government officials, decision makers and staff of governmental and non-governmental organisations (as well as media, academics and analysts, etc) are still unclear about the practicality of early warning and prevention. Discussions are still too theoretical and abstract. The value, benefits and the practical viability of Early Warning & Peacebuilding/Prevention need to be made clearer, concise and credible.

2.     For Early Warning to Lead to Effective Prevention, there needs to be:

  1. Standing Institutional Capacities for Peacebuilding, Conflict Transformation and Violence Prevention in place[1];
  2. Clear Policy & Political Commitment prioritizing (or at least accepting / supporting) peacebuilding as a value and an approach to dealing with conflicts (including commitment to nonviolence, support for human rights, and peaceful resolution of conflicts)[2];
  3. Operational Frameworks – standing frameworks and ‘fora’ which bring together they key institutions and actors which would be involved in peacebuilding / prevention;[3]
  4. Well trained and capable personnel (both specialized and general)[4]
  5. Up-Stream peacebuilding and prevention which addresses issues before they reach crisis;
  6. Systemic strengthening of peacebuilding capabilities in the society, government and key actors on a standing basis

3.     Early Warning Needs to be Integrated Into an Overall / Coherent Conflict Intelligence Capability

Early Warning should be part of a standing, well supported conflict analysis & intelligence capability. This should support on-going analysis and identification of conflicts to improve government and multi-stakeholder capabilities to address and engage with them. ‘Early’ warning should kick in:

  • To identify situations which could escalate
  • To prioritize situations which are escalating or which are in clear threat of escalating

Logic: There is a need to improve overall understanding of conflict and conflict issues. On its own, early warning is too often ignored or not addressed. If it’s part of an enhanced capability for intelligent conflict analysis and understanding as  whole, it can carry greater weight when providing actual ‘warning’. Linking with enhanced conflict intelligence can also contribute to enabling improved upstream approaches to address conflicts before they even become situations requiring ‘warning’.

4.     Training & Capacity Building Are Key

Those responsible for dealing with conflicts often don’t have the necessary skills to do so in a way that mitigates/prevents violence or escalation or deals with them effectively. Police on the front lines often respond with actions/behaviours that escalate violence. Local authorities often don’t know what to do when confronted with escalating situations. Politicians often face choices where there only known/trusted policy options may in fact make the situation worse. Training and Capacity Building for peacebuilding and working with conflict effectively need to be entered into the standing curricula of those sectors and institutional actors who will be responsible for addressing conflict issues, including:

–       Local Authorities

–       Civil Servants

–       Police & Security Personnel

–       Government & Members of Parliament

–       Media

Other institutions / actors which play major roles in addressing conflicts, such as religious, social and cultural leaders, youth, unions and businesses, etc., should also be encouraged and supported to weave peacebuilding skills into their training, charters, and curricula.



Today many governments have barely begun to conceive of the idea of investing in standing peacebuilding and preventative capacities. This is largely because:

  • They previously haven’t considered it;
  • They are still largely unclear about ‘what are’ peacebuilding and preventative capacities
  • They haven’t been convinced (yet) of the logic, viability and practicality – for the most part because they haven’t been significantly exposed to it

Arguments for the importance of building standing capacity can be drawn from the health, military and other sectors. To support the argument for peacebuilding and prevention specific capacity, more work needs to be done to:

–       Make concretely and realistically visible for governments, policy makers (and citizens, media, academics, etc) what capabilities and mechanisms are involved in peacebuilding and prevention; and

–       What would be possible ‘blueprints’, examples of effective preventative capacities[5]

Points to Develop Further:

Infrastructure for Peace (I4P):

Key to prevention is the development of effective infrastructure for peace from the local levels through district, national, regional and international. This should be a key issue recognized and promoted through the conference. (some examples of I4P: Ministries and Departments for Peace, Early Warning, Civil Peace Services, etc. )

Early Warning – Integrated Planning & Engagement

Early Warning needs to be directly linked with integrated planning of engagement / response options linking all key actors involved in structural and operational prevention. Drawing from the Clingendael Institutes’ Conflict Policy Assessment Framework which recognized the need to directly link analysis and intelligence with operational planning. Therefore: in designing the early warning systems, attention must be paid to the institutions and agencies which will respond / address identified crisis and conflicts, to ensure that the information is analysed, gathered and processed in a way which enables them to act upon it.

Training & Capacity Building

Training and Capacity building is key. Far too few people actually have effective capabilities for prevention and peacebuilding. A major focus should be to integrate relevant, practical training into core curriculum of staff colleges, diplomatic academies and training institutions preparing people for key civil and government functions.

Training should also be inter-agency cutting across organisations and institutions so people learn the same language, concepts, and operational framework, to improve their ability to work together effectively in prevention of crisis.

Training should also include simulation of actual contingencies and scenarios which are likely to be faced in a situation / region. As with natural emergency crisis management, the more people are prepared and ‘role played’ in actual crisis, and given opportunities to improve inter-agency interaction, communication and coordination, the more effective they will be in responding to actual emergencies and crisis situations.

Prepare Institutions / Sectors responsible for dealing with conflict issues: One of the most important issues in training is to identify the spectrum of institutions and responsibilities which will be engaged in managing / preventing conflicts and crisis and ensuring they are appropriately trained. This needs to be done by weaving training into core national training capacities and institutions (as no external agency can ensure enough people are trained, that the training will fit local needs, and that the training will be continuous / sustainable.).


Governments should develop standing policies, handbooks and operational guidelines for peacebuilding and violence prevention, the same way they do for natural disaster management.

Operational Framework – practical bodies linking key agencies/organisations

Practical operational frameworks linking agencies and organisations which will engage in prevention should be developed and standing (in place) in advance of particular crisis.

Up-Stream Prevention: Peace and conflict sensitizing policies

Upstream prevention is the most important form of prevention, working to address conflicts before they develop. For this, conflict analysis and intelligence are necessary to identify conflicts at these early stages. A means should also be developed for evaluating / assessing the conflict sensitivity of government policies. Often governments may produce policies which escalate violence / conflict.


[1]  Examples here are medical and military capabilities which are enabled on a standing basis to respond to ‘crisis’ when they break out. There would be no ‘warning’ system in health or military without effective capacities and spectrum of measures to be able to address them. The metaphor of the ‘switch and lightbulb’ is appropriate. If early warning is the ‘switch’, the standing capacity of the wiring, the lightbulb, etc., needs to be already invented and in place and in good order(!). A switch with no lightbulb doesn’t exist, and a broken light bulb won’t go off no matter how often you flick the switch.

[2] Many countries actually proclaim their commitment to these values and principles and this can be built upon

[3] Peacebuilding and Prevention require coordination amongst a number of actors and agencies, including government (and local authorities); police and security services; media; NGOs; social, cultural, religious and traditional leaders; economic actors (businesses, unions, etc); educational actors (teachers, professors). Preparation of these actors (capabilities) for peacebuilding and prevention roles needs to be done in advance and on a standing basis, building a culture and practice of peace within these sectors and linking them together. Only if they have standing understanding and operational capabilities can they then best become active in times of need.

[4] The best early warning system without a skilled surgeon is not that effective. The people doing the peacebuilding/‘responding’ need to know how to do it.

[5] While these are still being developed there is more than enough experience in many areas of the world to develop a basic model that would outline some of the elements or architecture / infrastructure for peacebuilding and prevention, and to make visible the logic and how (practicality) of its pieces.