Descending or ascending? – CSS Blog Network

Zanzibar. Courtesy of Steven Leach

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

Governments, researchers and peacemakers are constantly looking for ways to translate renewed attention and increased awareness of the knowledge base into violence prevention and conflict transformation. Currently, particular interest has returned to the improvement and implementation of effective early warning/early response (EWER) mechanisms, but this quest raises a complex question: should these mechanisms be community-based? and come from the base or should they be top down? and established as parts of larger structures? Proponents of the grassroots approach, for example, argue that it builds and sustains the capacity of local communities to anticipate and prevent violent conflict, while proponents of large centralized structures recognize the benefits of institutional support and broad mandates . The purpose of this blog is to compare these two approaches and ultimately identify the need for balance – both approaches have strengths and limitations.

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

From bottom to top

EWER mechanisms that are developed from the bottom up, however, also have their weaknesses. Specifically, without institutional or official support, communities struggle to sustainably implement the mechanisms. Actions taken at the grassroots can also arouse the suspicion of government leaders, security forces and even community members. Without the cooperation of these groups, these efforts can yield limited results and can sometimes appear to supersede the law.

Two of the most successful and well-documented cases of EWER mechanisms emerging and growing from the bottom up are the Wajir Peace and Development Committee in Kenya and the Kibimba Peace Committee in Burundi. In both cases, community members responded to escalating tensions and local outbreaks of violence by creating and expanding a coalition of people determined to resolve differences peacefully. In Wajir, the Peace and Development Committee acted with the knowledge and support of the District Commissioner and local clan elders, as well as with the participation of women’s and youth groups. This level of commitment not only enabled committee members to detect rising tensions, but also provided them with the human resources they needed to tactfully intervene in tense situations. As with the Wajir committee, the Kibimba peace committee, which was also created in the 1990s, remains an active exception to the generally short lifespan of grassroots projects or movements.

From top to bottom

Despite the success in Wajir and Kibimba, and the basic APUGE benefits they demonstrate, most documented APUGE mechanisms are part of national or regional initiatives. These mechanisms are strengthened by being part of an official mandate, whether of governmental, intergovernmental or non-governmental origin. Officially mandated EWER efforts also benefit from additional 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 show, the top-down approach does not necessarily preclude communities from shaping the local mechanisms that are ultimately used – in fact, local input is essential for the effectiveness of such mechanisms.

Before outlining examples, however, it is important to remember that top-down early warning/rapid response mechanisms have their weaknesses, including 1) a potential lack of contextual sensitivity and local buy-in; 2) a possible lack of political will that may prevent effective action; and 3) the seemingly unavoidable slowness of bureaucratic decision-making, which can prevent rapid response to rapidly changing events. Each of these limitations, however, can be recognized and addressed.

With this in mind, we consider two exemplary top-down examples. South Africa’s National Peace Accord established regional and local peace committees. Although structured and supported from the top down, local peace committees enjoyed significant autonomy, with regional offices operating primarily to support local efforts. Additionally, committees were encouraged to reflect the actual composition of their communities, which helped 1) establish their legitimacy in a context of high suspicion; 2) significantly prevent episodes of violence; and 3) respond quickly to growing tensions.

A second example is Belun, an NGO in Timor-Leste that established its credibility at the national level before implementing an EWER mechanism in anticipation of the elections. A natural evolution has occurred and Belun has supported the creation of Conflict Prevention and Response Networks (CPRNs) in each of Timor-Leste’s 43 sub-districts. Belun presented a vision of the composition of these CPRNs, but the decision whether to form one or not 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, NGO workers, women, youth, religious figures and anyone wishing to get involved – the membership is open. Since its formation, Belun has continued to provide training and expert advice to CPRN, with prevention and response efforts now often addressed within sub-districts.

One of the biggest challenges with top-down approaches is the desire for a quick fix when attempting to replicate a system. Even successful examples of bottom-up initiatives are vulnerable to this practice. Attempts have been made to introduce the Wajir model to other districts in Kenya with varying degrees of success, as has been the case in many other such efforts. However, CPRNs in Belun and local peace committees in South Africa drew on the experiences of others without attempting to implement a preformed system. A key to gaining acceptance and ensuring long-term sustainability in these cases was to allow local dynamics to shape the EWER mechanisms.

A healthy balance

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

  • Involve local actors from the early stages of a potential or actual conflict;
  • Recognizing that local conflict dynamics are not identical to national or regional conflict dynamics;
  • Establish from the outset the nature and extent of a mechanism’s response capabilities (i.e. do not promise security force intervention if it is not guaranteed); and
  • Support local capacities to transform conflicts in communities.

Almost a decade ago, discussions of early warning/rapid response best practices recognized the limitations of international and regional mechanisms for violence prevention and conflict transformation. As a result, we have seen renewed attention from those advocating for promoting, supporting and learning from community initiatives. Whether early warning/rapid response mechanisms are top-initiated or bottom-up, experience ultimately tells us that sustainable and effective violence prevention mechanisms will need to be firmly rooted in local communities. with ready external support.


Steven Leach is the author of a forthcoming CSS Mediation Resources volume on “Community 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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