People queue to vote in Kenya's 2013 elections People queue to vote in Kenya's 2013 elections (© ILRI)

As Kenya’s national elections approached earlier this year, dozens of international, national, and local organizations actively mobilized to help prevent a repeat of the 2007/2008 post-electoral violence that took some 1,300 lives, displaced hundreds of thousands, and shocked the world and Kenyans themselves. The Kenyan government set up a nation-wide early warning system, the United Nations engaged the African Elders group, the United States and other donors supported youth engagement and pressed for accountability of past crimes, and dozens of civil society groups worked for peace in their local communities.

The sheer amount of resources and human energy invested in trying to avert violent conflict before it erupted was itself an important success, as was the national and local leadership of Kenyans themselves in claiming ownership of the potential risks they faced and committing themselves to a peaceful election and beyond. More specifically, examples of community-led monitoring and peacemaking networks offer hope for the future of early warning and response.

Early warning and early response (EWER) systems have become a major area of investment within the agenda on preventing violent conflict, and Kenya proved a particularly ripe opportunity for experimenting with trying to advance EWER technology and capacity. The largest effort involved a national partnership of the Kenyan government, Ushahidi, and civil society groups, which sought to create a nation-wide early warning system that would provide real-time information and response as the elections unfolded, with particular attention to hot spot areas. Hundreds of volunteers were trained, thousands of calls, emails, and texts came in, and some responses did happen. But most observers question how well the system worked and note the ongoing challenges of such systems in identifying real signal from a whole lot of noise, verifying events, and mobilizing appropriate and timely response.

These challenges stem from the very nature of EWER as it has thus far been conceived and implemented. Technology-based information gathering networks are created, usually outside the context of a conflict situation, and messages are sent to a central location for collecting and verifying. Again, the center of data collection and analysis is somewhere outside the actual reality of the conflict, most famously on a Ushahidi platform. Response to warnings received has remained a more difficult and under-developed side of such systems , with the persistent problem of a “response gap” as outsiders must verify data and then seek to mobilize some sort of response from outside a situation, while the facts on the ground continue to evolve.

In Kenya, community-based EWER networks sprung up around the country, particularly in hot spots, often with the help of some external funding, but in many cases designed and led entirely by locals. This was the case in Western Kenya with the Friends Church Peace Teams, a Quaker initiative which trained 1400 volunteer citizen monitors, provided them cell phones, and created a local call-in center for warning and response. The system relied on simple technology and integrated a network of “watch dog units” – local leaders in communities who would respond to warnings by quickly visiting the site of the report to assess the situation and engage directly with those impacted to develop response options. Sometimes they called the police, sometimes offered mediation, sometimes began intensive peacemaking and conflict transformation processes that continue today. In one case, a political killing on Mt. Elgon, led to months of trauma healing and civic education work that the community itself credits for helping not only keep the peace during elections but also build a base for more active civic engagement and deeper peacebuilding.

Community-based EWER is not a panacea for the challenges of preventing violence before it erupts, but it is a critical element that has thus far been largely missing from the agenda. Some examples that do offer promise – including the Kenya experience, a nation-wide network in Liberia, and a very well-developed system in Sri Lanka from 2002-2009 – have thus far been under-examined. Locally led EWER has the enormous benefit of being grounded in local knowledge, culture, and relationships; more effective integration of warning and response to close the response gap; and the potential for building longer-term peace capacities that benefit a peacebuilding process beyond any single high-risk event like elections.

Community-based EWER does not mean the broader national, regional, and international communities do not have a critical role to play. They can and should actively support EWER and play a strong back up role if crises escalate. But the fundamental shift would be beginning EWER by supporting capacities within the conflict context, at the local level, first. It would go local first and turn EWER inside out.

Is Kenya a success story for locally led prevention of violent conflict? The elections were relatively peaceful compared with past cycles, and many are hailing it as a positive case for the responsibility to protect and international progress on atrocities prevention. Still, a marriage of convenience between the two major rivals – both indicted by the International Criminal Court for links to violence in 2008 – might have been the most critical preventive factor. And many in Kenya, particularly in local communities that feel they lost in the elections, fear the calm is just another momentary lull in a long cycle of deeply embedded conflict, the roots of which have yet to be addressed. All in all, its probably still too early to tell.

What does seem to be clear is that the remarkable work across the country by communities and individuals to keep the peace by creating locally-led early warning and response systems made a significant contribution to strengthening peace capacities during the elections, and perhaps beyond. Community-based EWER holds considerable potential for moving the world from a state of ignorant or willful neglect of impending violence to one of informed and motivated prevention.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.