Learning to Prevent Conflict: Workshop on Early Warning and Early Action

08 February 2019   ·   PeaceLab editorial team

On January 30, 2019, the African Union Peace and Security Commission in Addis Ababa hosted a one-day PeaceLab workshop on African and European lessons on early warning and early action. The German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined the workshop for a “fishbowl discussion.”

More than 25 African and European experts working on crisis prevention came together for a PeaceLab workshop on early warning and early action in the Peace and Security Building at the African Union (AU) Headquarters, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Participants included officials across a wide range of junior and senior ranks in the AU, other international organizations and embassies as well as think tank and civil society analysts.

Admore Kambudzi, acting director of the AU peace and security department, Ambassador Ekkehard Brose, Special Envoy on Crisis Prevention and Stabilisation at the German Federal Foreign Office, and Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University, welcomed the participants. In their welcoming remarks, they highlighted the importance of crisis prevention and the progresses the AU has made with its Continental Early Warning System (CEWS). The CEWS is the AU’s framework for early warning and early action, mandated to provide AU decision-makers with timely advice on potential conflicts and threats to peace and security. With the rising number of crises within Europe, European countries have quite a few lessons to learn from the AU’s experiences as well as from expert NGOs and policy research institutions.

Engaging peacemakers, policymakers and presidents

In line with the PeaceLab mission to take “a fresh look at crisis prevention”, the expert participants spent most of the day in small, diverse groups. Each group worked on the same questions, building up toward an analysis of key challenges in early warning and early action, lessons and good practices from the past decade of experimentation and development, and recommendations for the next steps to further improve.

Learning to Prevent Conflict: Workshop on Early Warning and Early Action

The highlight of the workshop was a visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, Amira El Fadil, and Hanna Tetteh, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the AU. Michelle Ndiaye, director of the Africa peace and security programme at IPSS, facilitated a fishbowl discussion that started with Tetteh, Kambudzi and Ariane Inkesha of the civil society organization Interpeace. The fishbowl’s openness allowed anybody to participate in the discussion. Several participants of the workshop made use of this opportunity, as did Commissioner El Fadil and President Steinmeier.

“Crisis prevention is about politics”

The discussants emphasized the decisiveness of political will in crisis prevention: "Crisis prevention is not only about collecting information. It is primarily taking decisions and actions", one participant underlined, arguing that it is a major challenge to turn the information into actions by decision makers. Several experts pointed to the problem of denialism, such as when member states reject the analysis of the AU’s early warning system or perceive AU’s warnings as illegitimate interference in their own internal affairs.

Learning to Prevent Conflict: Workshop on Early Warning and Early Action

Other experts drew the attention to best practices from West Africa and the crisis prevention mechanisms of ECOWAS through high-level preventive diplomacy. All participants agreed that multilateral cooperation is critical: as one participant put it, “what we need for early warning and early action are dedicated international communities and well-respected multilateral institutions.”

Better leverage comparative advantages case by case

In the final part of the day, the small groups discussed their lessons and recommendations for improving early warning and early action. Mirroring the state of the art of international debate and practice, their proposals ranged from the need for more joint analysis and better cross-agency/departmental approach to establishing clear leadership and facilitating resource ownership on Africa’s part – meaning that African actors should begin financing prevention efforts at least at minimal levels before asking for further financial support from the international community.

Learning to Prevent Conflict: Workshop on Early Warning and Early Action

Using an interactive voting tool, all participating experts jointly scored the lessons and recommendations based on their feasibility and priority. According to the workshop participants, better leveraging the comparative advantages of different institutions on a case by case basis and improving joint analysis and coordinated engagement are the most feasible and urgent recommendations, while harmonizing political engagement with crises between the AU and RECs was on average seen as barely less urgent but as the least feasible suggestion of all. In all cases, participants’ assessments – particularly in terms of feasibility – varied widely, which would have warranted much deeper discussion than the available time permitted.

“People are tired of conflict”

In their concluding remarks, Michelle Ndiaye, Ambassador Ekkehard Brose and Admore Kambudzi praised the open and critical debates during the day. Ndiaye and Brose recognized the key role of local level actors. Brose described the participating experts as a community of outlook that knows the importance of prevention as well as the difficulties of implementing preventive action, and added: “people are tired of conflict!” Kambudzi pointed to the establishment of the AU Peace Fund, which indicates that Africa is taking strides towards ownership. Finally, he made recommendations for innovative and creative ways of engaging member states in conflict prevention and resolving the problem of denialism.

The PeaceLab blog will continue to keep the topic of confliction prevention and mechanisms of early warning and early action on the agenda. There will a further PeaceLab workshop at this year’s Munich Security Conference from February 15-17. Also we will publish several articles on early warning and early action on the blog and invite you to join the debate. Pitch your ideas to us.