Comment & analysis

Towards an effective EU early warning system

20 August 2012 Sébastien Babaud

A pregnant woman runs past burning shacks in Nairobi's Mathare slum during post-election violence in December 2007 © Julius Mwelu/IRIN Over the last three years, Saferworld has taken part in the EU-funded Initiative for Peacebuilding – Early Warning project, to learn lessons on the performance of the EU’s early warning and crisis response architecture, and recommend steps to establish an effective system at the EU level. Drawing on the findings of this project, Sébastien Babaud argues that the EU should seize the opportunity of the current revision of country strategies and programming priorities to effectively embed appropriate approaches and processes.

Back in 2001, the EU adopted an ambitious programme for the prevention of violent conflicts, setting out steps to ensure that all aspects of its external action would be driven by a conflict prevention rationale and objectives. Early warning was enshrined as a building block of this programme. A decade later, early warning and early action are still considered priority areas to be further strengthened (Council Conclusions on Conflict Prevention, June 2011). Research undertaken by Saferworld as part of the EU-funded Initiative for Peacebuilding – Early Warning project has highlighted some of the lessons to bear in mind while the EU is setting up early warning processes for the newly established European External Action Service (EEAS).

The first finding is that there has not been any clear early warning ‘system’ in place. Most EU staff interviewed during the research could not relate to nor felt part of an EU early warning system. There were also diverging views on the actual purpose of early warning systems. Whereas some viewed early warning as a tool to forecast the outbreak of conflicts, case studies on Kenya and Kyrgyzstan and recent crises like the Arab Spring, have shown that this expectation can be irrelevant and even counterproductive. If an EU early warning system’s aim is to prevent violent conflicts, then it should help EU institutions to anticipate conflicts – and that means better understanding their dynamics to enable timely and preventive responses.  

Secondly, conflict analysis is a fundamental building block within early warning. The EU has elaborated conflict analysis tools and processes in the past and these analyses have been conducted on an ad hoc basis. But overall, the EU does not currently have a systematic approach to conflict analysis to inform country strategies, its programming process, public diplomacy or political dialogue.

Thirdly, response is actually the raison d’être of early warning. Thanks to its wide array of short and long term instruments, the EU has been increasingly involved in crisis response, with a number of examples of good practice which are worth building on, such as public diplomacy and political dialogue, the increasing use of programmes like the Instrument for Stability, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and Non State Actors grants to address the causes and consequences of crises.  However, more work needs to be done on the longer term aspects of preventive action like using geographical instruments to address root causes of conflicts more proactively.

Finally, rapid responses to mitigate violence on the ground are often provided by local civil society organisations. EU support to these local and non-governmental actors in-country is critical to ensure early action is taking place where the violence is actually happening.

These findings add to a growing body of evidence highlighting the challenges and opportunities for making early warning more effective. That means creating a system which can trigger early and rapid responses and ultimately help prevent conflicts.[1] These challenges actually apply to most donors and global actors who have developed early warning systems since the 1990s – leading some to question the actual value and relevance of early warning at all.  However, if conceived and implemented in an appropriate and effective way, an early warning-response system can become the cornerstone of conflict prevention, peacebuilding and statebuilding strategies. 


So what could an effective early warning system for the EU look like?

Firstly, early warning processes need to be embedded in institutional realities, becoming an integral part of the core business, the internal culture and processes of institutions. Failing that, early warning runs the risk of being sidelined and ignored because it upsets the day-to-day functioning of institutions. Conflict prevention should be a concern and objective shared by most actors working in the realm of EU external action, as stated in the Lisbon treaty, whether they are at decision or administrative level, or working on political or programming processes.

Secondly, an effective early warning system should be supported by appropriate conflict analyses. The ability to pick up ‘weak signals’, that is early signs of conflicts at local level (often having an impact on broader conflict dynamics), and monitoring trends at a broader level, are critical to understand conflict dynamics and track evolution across time, and therefore be in a position to better anticipate crises. It is even more important to ensure that these analyses do not end up gathering dust on shelves but actually feed into practical decision making processes to address conflict causes and consequences. 

Thirdly, comprehensive responses must be an integral part of the system. Responding to conflicts must not be limited to short-termism and crisis management. The EU has the potential to use its wide array of political and programming instruments to address the structural, proximate and trigger causes of conflicts. In that respect, more efforts need to be made to mainstream conflict sensitivity across EU external action.  That would ensure EU development strategies and programmes increasingly take into account and address conflict dynamics in their design and implementation.

Fourthly, the EU needs to support local capacities for peace. Once again, most rapid responses are provided by local actors who are often best placed to intervene, given their knowledge of the context. Supporting them to overcome their own challenges and become more effective is also important to strengthen state-society relations.

One last important finding of Saferworld’s research in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan is the unanimous call of other actors (international organisations, member states, civil society) for the EU to become more proactively engaged on conflict prevention and peacebuilding-related processes in countries affected by conflict and fragility. If early warning for conflict prevention is to become an integral part of the EEAS and the EC’s day-to-day work, these institutions should seize the opportunity of the revision of country strategies and programming priorities to ensure that the appropriate processes and approaches are taken right from the start. The highest levels of the EEAS hierarchy should also provide clear signals about the importance of these efforts, to ensure change happens and that EU external action is progressively driven by a long term conflict prevention rationale.  

Sébastien Babaud is Saferworld’s EU Advocacy Co-ordinator.


Find out more about the Initiative for Peacebuilding – Early Warning project 

[1] See for instance: John Brante, Chiara De Franco, Christoph Meyer and Florian Otto: Worse, not better? Reinvigorating early warning for conflict prevention in the post Lisbon European Union, Egmont Institute, June 2011; Thematic Evaluation of European Commission Support to Conflict Prevention and Peace-building, ADE, October 2011; David Nyheim: Can violence, war and state collapse be prevented? The future of operational conflict early warning and response systems, OECD DAC, May 2008.

“Early warning processes need to be embedded in institutional realities, becoming an integral part of the core business, the internal culture and processes of institutions”

Sébastien Babaud, Saferworld