Sri Lanka: Citizen-based Early Warning and Response

Colleagues at the Foundation for Coexistence (FCE) in Sri Lanka just shared their report on “Citizen-based Early Warning and Response” with me (PDF). I’ve been following the Foundation’s work for the past five years so I was keen to get an update on their work in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response.

What follows is a brief review of the report and the FCE’s conflict early warning and rapid response initiative. I conclude with some of my own thoughts based on my early warning experience with FAST, CEWARN, ECOWARN, WANEP, MARRAC, EC, OSCE, OECD, UNDP, UNEP, OCHA, UNICEF,  WFP, USAID, IFES, BELUN, ICG, JRC, International Alert  and Ushahidi.


The Foundation takes a human security approach to early warning, which focuses both on protection and empowerment. They note that in most standard definitions of early warning, e.g., “the systematic collection and analysis of information,” do not actually include giving a warning—a point which certainly resonates with my experience.

Evolving Generations

One of the conceptual innovations that FCE contributed to the field of conflict early warning is the notion of first, second and third generations early warning systems. A first generation system monitors and analyzes conflict from outside the conflict regions; they are typically based in the West. “The problems of the first generation are consistent with those of quantitative approaches; they use limited secondary sources which do not provide any certainty about their accuracy and they have difficulty in predicting eruption of armed conflict accurately.” In other words, they focus exclusively on prediction and “do not have effective procedures to communicate with [Track 1] decision-makers for early response.”

Second generation early warning systems conduct monitoring within conflict countries and regions. “However, analysis is still conducted outside conflict countries (in the West).” Second generations systems entail field-based monitoring, risk assessments and active lobbying. “The advantage of qualitative approaches is that [they offer] vastly more content-rich and contextual information than quantitative statistical analysis.” However, the actors engaged in “second generation” early response are no different from those of the first, they are strictly Track 1 actors.

Third generation early warning systems are created by people in conflict areas for themselves. “It can be referred to as ‘Early Warning and Early Response system of citizens, by citizens and for citizens.'” Unlike first and second generation initiatives, monitoring and analysis is conducted on-site. “The logic behind them is that closeness to the conflict area enables one to understand the situation better and intervene rapidly and appropriately.” According to FCE, third generation systems thus have a stronger link between early warning and rapid response.

Early Warning

The FCE uses an events-data software program called FCEWARN for early warning; the unique feature of which is “that it can be utilized to monitor conflicts at the ‘micro’ level, especially at the village level.” The software basically quantifies conflict and peace indicators to display them as descriptive statistics such as tables and graphs. The FCE combines this software with “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software that visualizes spatial dimensions of conflict and peace indicators.”

The information fed into the software program is collected by the Foundation’s 37 field monitors operating in teh conflict zone.

“They are organic members of the communities they represent. They collect information on peace and conflict indicators and send it to the information center in Colombo in a specific format on a daily basis. […] The field monitors collect information through co-existence committees, state and non-state actors, local media and interpersonal relationships

As a result, the information centre in Colombo […] receives 30 event data forms in the least a day. In total this amounts to 600 event data on average per month.  This density of first hand information allows for adept trend analysis at the early warning stage.”

The FCE draws on the software and data to generate early warning products that “support the early response functions in the conflict zone by teh field monitors […].” In addition, the Foundations makes use of SMS alerts. The FCEWARN software program has the flexibility to integrate a functionality for SMS alerts.

Rapid Response

The FCE claims that “the development of computer software (FCEWARN) for early warning” is their “key achievement” vis-a-vis their “venture into conflict early warning during the past five years.”

However, I would point to their success in responding to 156 cases of conflict as their key achievement. According to the Foundation, their early warning initiative has “intervened in a recorded number of 156 cases of conflict.” The Foundation nodes that “four independnent evaluations by international experts in the science of conflict resolution have attested that this system has prevented or mitigated or contributed to resove conflicts.”

Of note is that the FCE’s early response system is “based on the application of multi-track diplomacy,” unlike first and second generation systems. The Foundation “emphasizes making citizens a major stakeholder in the process of transforming the conflict.” They also recognize the need to build “sufficient capacity and power of mobilization to solicit substantial amount of stakeholder effort from different vantage points.”

To this end, the field monitors are “the primary coordinating hubs of information and early response interventions in the conflict zones. They collect and analyze information and initiate early response processes to prevent conflicts.” Field monitors should therefore have “substantial influences on the masses and/or stakeholders in the conflict zone.” In sum, the rapid response component has to “assume the role of a ‘near’ mediator.”

Unlike the vast majority of conflict early warning initiatives, the FCE actually “reviews the outcomes of one instance of intervention and builds analysis and prognosis for another phase of intervention. This cycle continues until the conditions to the precipitating event are transformed or diluted to a satisfactory level.”


The FCE continues to make important contributions to the field of conflict early warning by demonstrating what an alternative, third generation approach can accomplish compared to top-down first-generation systems. Perhaps what is missing from the report is a stronger emphasis on preparedness and contingency planning. In other words, it would be beneficial to many of us if we could read more on the pro-active and preventive operational measures taken by FCE field monitors beyond conflict resolution excercises.

I would also suggest the notion of “fourth generation” early warning systems. While third generation systems are supposed to be “of the people, for the people by the people,” I think a direct focus on empowering local communities to manage and prevent conflict themselves (as opposed to “external” field monitors) would constitute a fourth generation system. A partial example is Ushahidi, which allows villagers to report alerts by SMS and to also subscribe directly to SMS alerts of incidents taking place in their vicinity.

5 responses to “Sri Lanka: Citizen-based Early Warning and Response

  1. Pingback: Fourth-Generation Early Warning Systems « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

  2. Patrick, I agree with your impressions of the report on FCE’s Citizen-Based EW-ER System. Their innovation with third generation EWER is to be commended. It looks like they acquire a large and continual stream of useful local-level information. Though I often worry about the value of wiring EW up and away from communities, the Colombo office seems to have real value-added in that it analyzes/synthesizes reports and then wires EW and ER back down to the communities. I also like the standards/prerequisites that they say their CEC committee members and their field monitors must meet: analytic and computer skills; dense social networks; and substantial influence on the masses. The last two seem like a strong effort to assure that the people who form the nexus between “the system” and “the populace” are indeed “organic members of the communities”. As you have heard me worry before, many EW systems seem to lack a solid interface with the people actually at risk. The FCE model seems quite thoughtful in this regard.

    But, without my knowing more about FCE’s work than what’s in this report, I do have concerns similar to yours. Are their objectives enough? Is there no Plan B? Page 17 says “the function of an EW system… is to send the right info at the right time for the right people to take action for the prevention of conflicts.” The report variously refers to prevention, transformation of relationships, and transformation of conflicts. As for ER, the report says “The FCE’s ER system is based on application of multi-track diplomacy.” The report says that such diplomacy is pursued through means including negotiations, mediations, facilitations, meetings, and referrals. So prevention or transformation of conflict is the ends and diplomacy is the means.

    But as you and I have asked so many times—should we not also prepare for the failure to prevent conflict? The report’s good case example on p.25 re: Kattankudy Township ended saying, “In all these negotiations the parties made the commitment to implement action together to curb violence… and the situation returned to ‘normal’ in a few days’ time.” The eternal question is—suppose violence blew up instead? Were any of the communities in the Township ready to put into motion preplanned tactical steps to get their social units and economic assets out of harm’s way? These steps do exist and I have had the help of some bright people in assembling them. A more foreboding question is—suppose FCE’s earnest work left some activists more exposed to violence? After all, to spoilers, the whole notion of “co-existence” may appear to be collaboration worthy of death. Or suppose FCE’s work left the populace less inclined to take tactical preparations for its own safety? FCE is now “organically” linked with their fates but it does not seem to incorporate steps for more fatal outcomes.

    To be fair, FCE might already have considered supporting the proven capacity of locals in matters of physical safety, economic survival, and service delivery when facing violence alone. It might have considered these and determined them to be inappropriate. It might, for example, have thought about such contingencies but worried that even the act of “preparing for the failure to prevent” could be destabilizing. (That valid concern might be answered in two ways. One is that being and feeling physically unprepared for violence is in itself destabilizing since it can trigger provocative preemptive behavior. Two is that the spectrum of preparedness steps is very wide and also can be sequenced. The most uprooting steps come last.)

    Patrick could you possibly find out what deliberations if any FCE had about this? We could learn a lot from it.


    Mr. Casey A. Barrs
    Protection Research Fellow
    The Cuny Center

  3. Pingback: iRevolution One Year On… « iRevolution

  4. Pingback: Conflict Early Warning Blog: One Year On « Conflict Early Warning and Early Response

  5. This is important tool to inform and update the people especially living in conflict prone region.

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