I just gave a keynote speech in Guatemala as part of a week-long conference on developing capacity for a regional conflict early warning and response system for Central America. The conference is supported by the European Center for Conflict Prevention (ECCP) and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). The gathering brought together civil society groups from across Central America and South America.
My presentation focused on human early warning systems. But I began the talk with a brief overview of CEWARN‘s methodology, which like the majority of intergovernmental systems gets rather technical, institutional and bureaucratic very quickly. It is easy to forget the human element of early warning when faced with fancy language such as baselines, trends analysis, structural indicators, etc. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that today’s sophisticated early warning systems are relatively new mechanical inventions, which begs the question, how did people manage before these systems were available?
The answer is that they managed, they had to. I took up the example of Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s. Populations caught in between military operations and rebel activities found ways to survive. Tens of thousand lived undercover, moving only at night, building extensive underground tunnels, growing hidden gardens and carrying out regular drills to practice rapid evacuations. They would set off firecrackers to warn neighboring villages about incoming military fighter jets. These survival stories are not unique to Central America, hundreds of similar stories can be found across Africa and Asia.
Local communities across the world do not have recourse to sophisticated early warning systems, but they survive, by monitoring their own (often less tangible) indicators and by prioritizing preparedness. Surely, the human being is one of nature’s most phenomenal early warning systems, tried and tested by evolution over millions of years. Why forgo this remarkable system completely for more technical, mechanical systems and bureaucratic structures that are not “naturally” designed for early warning and response?
The disaster management community has already recognized the importance of people-centered early warning (as opposed to system-centered, or data-centered). The purpose of people-centered early warning approaches is to empower communities at risk to get out of harm’s way. This empowerment is achieved through preparedness and contingency planning. We often hear about disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation, risk reduction, etc. Why don’t we hear about preparedness in the context of conflict early warning and prevention?
I presented two case studies to outline examples of people-centered conflict early warning/response projects. The first is a new initiative out of Timor-Leste, which specifically focuses on conflict preparedness at the community level. The project, which I worked on in February, seeks to outline detailed, local contingency plans for early response at the community level. Conflict resolution and mediation skills are integral to carrying out these responses when conflict does escalate. Training in conflict mediation is therefore critical, and even more valuable when linked to specific contingency response measures. The second project I presented is Ushahidi in Kenya and emphasized the novelty of taking a crowdsourcing approach to crisis information by drawing on new information communication technologies.