Between 1999 and 2008, more people died in subnational conflicts in Asia than all other types of conflict (interstate war, terrorism) combined. Subnational conflicts usually involve state repression or discrimination against minorities—especially ethnic or religious—in geographically concentrated areas. Many of these groups will have a legacy of autonomy from the central governing authority. While these conflicts may not dominate an entire country, they tend to be prolonged, lasting close to forty years on average.

A new study from The Asia Foundation—The Contested Corners of Asia: Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance—argues for improving international development assistance for the estimated 131 million people who live in areas affected by subnational conflict, specifically in South and Southeast Asia. The authors rely on region-wide statistical analysis and fieldwork in Aceh (Indonesia), Mindanao (the Philippines), and southern Thailand, and its joint authors bring deep experience with the international development community.

The report provides a persuasive critique of the international development community’s aid programs in active conflict areas.

The problem with the current aid regimes throughout these Asian conflict zones is that the aid is not tied to political outcomes:

Nearly 88% of aid programs focus on traditional development sectors such as infrastructure, economic development, and service delivery.

These sorts of programs are ideally suited for a capacity-challenged low-income country, but many subnational conflicts are located within middle-income nations that have modestly expanding economies, capable governments, and cohesive security forces.

In many such areas of subnational conflict, the crucial issue is the legitimacy of the state’s efforts to deliver benefits and manage resources for its populace, not with its capacity to do so. While there may be economic realities, especially in the form of the marginalization of disfavored groups, that could be ameliorated through official development assistance, programs that do not address underlying power dynamics do not have high probabilities for success. In contrast to “pure” development assistance, the report authors want to see aid that is sequenced and tied directly to a political transition that directly aims to calm the political drivers of conflict within states.

To pursue that aim, it is necessary to match aid strategy to the contours of the conflict in question. While economic development has its utility in this regard, it has the potential to be counterproductive if the aid is directed through a central government or local elite who are not seen as legitimate sources of authority. Getting to the peace process, where questions of legitimacy are addressed, is thus essential.

The report cites two in-depth case studies as examples:

  • In Aceh, international aid helped to support released political prisoners as part of a peace agreement. Such aid ensured political elites that a process could be sustained as former Free Aceh Movement members could be reintegrated into society under the auspices of a joint EU/ASEAN program.

  • In Thailand, while there remains no negotiation process aimed at ending the conflict, aid created space to explore policies for ameliorating the conflict—UNICEF promoted programs incorporated both the Thai and Malay languages, and other foundations have funded projects to explore nonviolent conflict resolution mechanisms.

In both cases, as the report notes, aid served a supporting role, and no one was operating under the mistaken assumption that aid alone could move any of the parties toward a political solution.

Contested Corners charts an ambitious path forward with regard to recommendations for “fixing” aid in subnational conflict areas. In addition to adopting a development mindset that more openly embraces sequencing complementary to a political process, agencies should invest more in experienced, local staff who understand the complexities of their areas of responsibility. Additionally, the time frame for aid projects needs to be expanded: in subregions where these conflicts have been raging for twenty to thirty years, timelines of three to five years are counterproductive.

Effective aid programs could vastly improve the lives of millions living in areas of generation-long conflicts. The Contested Corners report offers compelling reasons for thinking that many aid organizations are doing it wrong. On the positive side, the report also offers the opportunity for healthy self-appraisal from the official development assistance community.

Whether aid providers, especially the multilateral giants such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, take advantage of the opportunity to respond and retool is still an open question.