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Mediation Perspectives: Early Warning/Early Response: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

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Zanzibar. Courtesy Steven leach

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

Governments, researchers, and peacebuilders are constantly looking for ways to translate a renewed focus on and heightened awareness of grassroots knowledge into violence prevention and conflict transformation. At present, particular interest has returned to honing and implementing effective Early Warning/Early Response (EWER) mechanisms, but this quest raises a complex question: Should these mechanisms be community-based and originate at the grassroots level or should they be top-down and established as parts of larger structures? Advocates of the grassroots approach, for example, argue that it strengthens and supports the ability of local communities to anticipate and prevent violent conflict, while advocates of large centralized structures acknowledge the benefits of institutional support and broad mandates. The purpose of this blog is to compare these two approaches and ultimately identify the necessity for balance – both approaches have strengths and limitations.

Current trends in the development field suggest that a bottom-up approach, with its emphasis on local initiative and ownership, might be preferable to other options. After all, violence prevention and conflict transformation efforts at the local level can be highly contextual, which is a good thing. Such efforts can more confidently secure a community’s cooperation and support, and they typically identify more nuanced responses, including those that are sensitive to and incorporate traditional practices as well as involving key actors who are positioned to directly intervene in tense situations.


EWER mechanisms that are developed from the bottom-up also, however, have their weaknesses. Most notably, without institutional or official support, communities struggle to sustainably implement the mechanisms. Grassroots measures can also arouse the suspicions of government leaders, security forces, and even community members. Without the cooperation from these constituencies, such efforts can yield limited results and can sometimes appear to supersede the law.

Two of the more successful and well-documented cases of EWER mechanisms originating and expanding from the bottom up are the Wajir Peace and Development Committee in Kenya and the Kibimba Peace Committee in Burundi. In both cases, members of the community responded to escalating tensions and local outbreaks of violence by building and broadening a coalition of people who were committed to resolving disputes peacefully. In Wajir, the Peace and Development Committee acted with the knowledge and support of the District Commissioner and elders from the local clans, as well as with participation from women’s and youth groups. This level of engagement not only permitted committee members the ability to detect rising tensions, it also provided them with the human resources they needed to tactfully intervene in tense situations. As with the committee in Wajir, the Kibimba Peace Committee, which was also established in the 1990s, remains an active exception to the typically short life spans of grassroots projects or movements.


Despite the success in Wajir and Kibimba, and the advantages of grassroots EWER they demonstrate, most documented EWER mechanisms are part of national or regional-level initiatives. Such mechanisms are strengthened by being part of an official mandate, regardless of whether they are governmental, intergovernmental, or non-governmental in origination. Officially mandated EWER efforts also benefit from added financial and professional support, providing training opportunities and employing area coordinators for local communities. Additionally, best practices can be shared and promoted, and, as the following two examples demonstrate, the top-down approach doesn’t necessarily prevent communities from shaping the local mechanisms that are ultimately used – in fact, local input is essential for the effectiveness of such mechanisms.

Before describing examples, however, it is important to remember that top-down Early Warning/Early Response mechanisms do have their weaknesses, including 1) a potential lack of contextual sensitivity and local buy-in; 2) a possible lack of political will that may preclude effective action; and 3) the seemingly inevitable slowness of bureaucratic decision-making, which can impede timely response to fast-moving events. Each of these limitations can, however, be acknowledged and addressed.

With this in mind, we consider two exemplary top-down examples. South Africa’s National Peace Accord created regional and local peace committees. While the way they were structured and supported was top-down, the local peace committees enjoyed significant autonomy, with the regional offices primarily functioning in support of local efforts. Further, the committees were encouraged to reflect the actual make-up of their communities, which helped 1) establish their legitimacy in a context of high suspicion; 2) meaningfully prevent episodes of violence; and 3) quickly address escalating tensions.

A second example is Belun, an NGO in Timor-Leste that established credibility at the national level before implementing an EWER mechanism in anticipation of elections. A natural evolution occurred, and Belun supported the creation of Conflict Prevention and Response Networks (CPRNs) in each of Timor-Leste’s 43 sub-districts. Belun outlined a vision for the composition of these CPRNs, but the decision on whether or not to form one and the structure of the local CPRN was left to the local community. Membership includes local administrators, village chiefs and sub chiefs, police officers, military veterans, employees of NGOs, women, youth, religious figures, and anyone who wants to be involved – membership is open. Since formation, Belun continues to provide training and expert advice to the CPRNs, with prevention and response efforts now often addressed within the sub-districts.

One of the greatest challenges of top-down approaches is the desire for a quick-fix through attempting to replicate a system. Even successful instances of bottom-up initiatives are vulnerable to this practice. Attempts were made to introduce the Wajir model to other districts in Kenya with varying levels of success, as has been the case in many other such efforts. Both Belun’s CPRNs and South Africa’s local peace committees, however, drew on insights from the experiences of others without attempting to implement a pre-formed system. A key to gaining acceptance and ensuring long-term sustainability in these cases was to permit local dynamics to shape the EWER mechanisms.

A Healthy Balance

As the above cases demonstrate, both bottom-up and top-down EWER approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. While bottom-up EWER mechanisms should be supported and learned from wherever possible, the reality is that most EWER systems are still being initiated as part of a national or regional program. Some of the best practices for implementing EWER at a national level include:

  • Involving local actors at the earliest stages of a potential or actual conflict;
  • Recognizing that local conflict dynamics are not identical to national or regional conflict dynamics;
  • Establishing the nature and extent of a mechanism’s response capabilities from the start (i.e., don’t promise an intervention by security forces if it’s not guaranteed); and
  • Supporting local capacities to transform conflict in communities.

Nearly a decade ago, discussions about Early Warning/Early Response best practices acknowledged the limits of international and regional violence prevention and conflict transformation mechanisms. As a result, we’ve seen a resurgence of attention by those who advocate promoting, supporting, and learning from community-based initiatives. Whether Early Warning/Early Response mechanisms are initiated from the top or from the bottom, experience ultimately tells us that sustainable and effective violence prevention mechanisms will need to be firmly rooted in local communities with external support at the ready.

Steven Leach is the author of a forthcoming CSS Mediation Resources volume on “Community-based Approaches to Early Warning/Early Response.” He is a conflict transformation practitioner, facilitator, and scholar, with recent experience in South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.

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