Early Warning/Early Action Lessons from Burundi and South Sudan

14 December 2016   ·   PeaceLab2016 editorial team

On 26 October 2016, Foresight Intelligence, the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the German Federal Foreign Office hosted an expert workshop on early warning and early action in the recent cases of conflict in Burundi and South Sudan. The event was held in Berlin.

Using a newly developed method of “historical process tracing,” a multi-sectoral group of participants reconstructed challenges and (missed) opportunities for effective early warning and early action to prevent the post-2013 civil war in South Sudan (2010-2013) and the massive escalation of violence around the 2015 presidential election in Burundi (2010-2015). In the closing session, the group drew conclusions for improving early warning and early action more broadly.

1. Avoid getting seduced by earlier successes and wishful thinking.

  • Some of the most serious risks emerge in moments of relief – just after a peace agreement is signed, independence is won peacefully (as in South Sudan) or international pressure leads to what appear to be credible commitments for change (as in Burundi at one point). Early warning systems need to counteract the psychological and organizational tendency to focus on the status quo, engage in wishful thinking and to downplay indicators of risk to avoid undermining a positive narrative. In particular during these moments of relief, early-warning staff should be mandated to critically monitor and potentially counterbalance embassy reporting that might be prone to a positive narrative.
  • Systematically shield risk assessment (what might happen?) from strategy development (what should we do?). Strategy development should be informed by risks assessments, but not the other way around.
  • At regular intervals, several possible scenarios for future developments should be developed. This makes the credibility of both positive and negative indicators easier to assess and helps identify decision points at which to abandon a best-case scenario as the main basis for one’s strategy.

2. Establish effective ways for sharing information and challenging analysis.

  • While the key problem of prevention is not a lack of information as such, there are critical gaps of information and analysis on political dynamics within institutions (or institutional shells) such as political parties or security forces. Reducing such gaps requires early investment into the political analysis capacity of embassies (number of staff and their skills), improving the quality of intelligence as well as more effectively pulling together information collected by other actors (such as military and police advisors, international partners).
  • Analyzing uncertain, unpredictable future risks is subject to cognitive biases and groupthink. Pressures for conformity within hierarchical organizations such as government ministries only reinforce these effects. To alleviate them, state actors at field and HQ level should systematically establish processes to engage external expertise from civil society and international partners to share and discuss analytical assessments and possible courses of action. Such meetings or workshops can only add value if set up in a way that enables challenges to assessments and narratives that are “mainstream” or championed by the most powerful players at the table.
  • Inside any German ministry (or any other), the pressures of hierarchy favor consolidated analyses of any situation. Exposing the system to analytical alternatives from close allies or international organizations can help challenge groupthink, but simply distributing others’ reports or papers is insufficient. Trusted individuals are needed to translate and contextualize the deviant assessments made within other organizations – an important reason to deploy more Germans, particularly civil servants, to UN political and peacekeeping operations, human rights observation mechanisms and similar monitoring missions. The same logic would suggest to prioritize crisis-related country-desk assignments for German liaison officers in other foreign ministries (e.g. for Sahel countries in the Quai d’Orsay).

3. Communicate risks and policy options more effectively to decision-makers.

  • “Warners” and “decision-makers” at all levels need to establish trust with one another before the first warning is communicated. This includes all actors along the warning chain at all levels, e.g. between local NGOs, international NGOs and embassies in country, between international NGOs and headquarters in capitals, etc. German embassies and the foreign ministry, in particular, should cultivate contacts to potential “warners” in peacetime, in order to have reliable relationships to build on when a major escalation becomes possible.
  • In the context of fragile states, effective communication of risks is difficult because of their inherent uncertainty. Honest and credible assessments of risks will necessarily remain speculative and are thus ill-suited to generate bold action. If decision-makers need to depart from “business as usual” to react to a threat, they must be provided with a very clear distinction of how the assessed risks differ from the normal pattern of political developments in the same country or region. Rather than just highlighting “more” human rights violations and political violence, for example, warnings need to describe very specific consequences of any given dangerous trajectory. Since such consequences are by definition uncertain and based on contestable interpretations of evidence, spelling out alternative scenarios helps making risks more explicit while maintaining honesty and credibility.
  • Policy options need to be specific and plausible; suggesting both short-term and longer-term options can help communicate the risks of “wait-and-see” (“if we don’t do this now, we’ll have only fewer, more risky options later”). This is particularly important where the chain of effects is long (early warning ? early action ? change of behavior by partner government ? desired political effect on risks).
  • For multilateral organizations’ early warning to work, member states need to raise the alarm, as well. There are too many organizational and political pressures on the UN and other IOs to expect them to reliably provide early warning even on the countries in which they are present. Member states with large networks of embassies and high global credibility such as Germany are called upon to operate their own early warning system (closely intertwined with EU partners, but not blocked by consensus) and feed warnings into the international community.
  • Standards of assessment for crisis and atrocity risks are always political but the UN human rights mechanisms as well as NGOs are undertaking important efforts to solidify objective criteria for sound procedures and benchmarks for assessing evidence. Supporting these efforts and engaging skeptical but constructive actors (such as non-Western democracies) on these discussions could be an important element of counteracting the increasing politicization of facts in debates about crisis prevention.