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Insights and Analysis

Subnational Conflict: New Approaches Needed

August 13, 2014

By Patrick Barron

In last week’s In Asia, I examined how the rise of Asia in recent decades has been accompanied by a growth in deadly subnational conflicts (SNCs). These conflicts are occurring across the continent, including in middle-income and otherwise stable states. Democratization has not been a cure. Asia’s subnational conflicts last twice as long as those elsewhere in the world.

The failure to bring an end to Asia’s SNCs is not for want of trying on the part of international aid agencies. Between 2001 and 2010, the international community pumped $5.8 billion into Asia’s subnational conflict areas. (This figures excludes the billions more that arrived in Aceh and Sri Lanka following the Indian Ocean tsunami.) Since 2007, aid to subnational conflict areas has been around $400 million per year.

What impacts has such aid had on prospects for peace? There have of course been successes. International assistance to Aceh, Indonesia, did not alone end the three-decade civil war, or prevent serious post-conflict violence, but it did play a supporting role. Mindanao’s peace process is at an advanced stage and international efforts have helped support this.

Yet in Thailand’s Deep South, violence has risen in intensity in recent months and continues in several of India’s regions and Pakistan. Large-scale subnational conflict in Nepal and Sri Lanka has ended, yet the risk of resumption is real. Aid to Myanmar’s contested states may support nascent peace processes, but there is also the potential for it to do harm.

So why has aid not been more effective in helping to end Asia’s subnational conflicts?

At least three factors have limited the effectiveness of international development agencies in helping to resolve SNCs in Asia (Figure 1).


The government doesn’t want help. Many Asian governments have been reluctant to seriously address their subnational conflicts. Each SNC tends to affect a relatively small amount of territory. Thailand’s Deep South is home to only 3 percent of the national population. Less than 2 percent of Indonesians live in Aceh. SNC areas are usually relatively isolated peripheries. In nations’ capitals, the killing is often too distant to arouse widespread indignation. Governments often find it easier to ignore or contain SNCs than to deal with the complex underlying problems.

Powerful elites within countries, such as those from the armed forces, often favor a continuation of unrest because it can be in their own – or that of their organization’s – interests. Only where there is forceful pressure from outsiders for alternative approaches does change tend to happen. Yet Asia’s middle-income countries, where governments are not dependent on donors for funding, are less susceptible to any such pressure than are weak states.

Other things matter more. Subnational conflicts are usually marginal issues for bilateral relations. Donors may be committed to reducing subnational conflict but these aims usually have to compete with other concerns. In middle-income countries, many donors will be more concerned about ensuring that trade relations or anti-terrorism cooperation remain strong. Strong middle-income governments are often sensitive to foreign involvement in highly sensitive domestic fields. Trying to address SNCs can expend donors’ political capital with government, with potential negative consequences for the rest of their country programs.

The wrong theories and tools. Simplistic theories of change are often applied to donor programming in SNC areas whereby poverty reduction is deemed to be the key to ending conflicts. Nearly 88 percent of aid funds to SNC areas focus on traditional development sectors such as infrastructure, economic development, and service delivery. While development outcomes such as reducing poverty, improving health, and education are certainly important, they are not adequate to end conflicts. Where aid agencies do focus specifically on peacebuilding, the tools they use, and the lenses they employ, are often not fit for purpose. There is generally an over-reliance on generic toolkits and conflict guidance rather than deep local knowledge and many of the assumptions that underlie these approaches have not been fully tested. Many such toolkits were developed based on experiences dealing with national-level civil wars in the fragile states of Sub-Saharan Africa, very different contexts to most of Asia’s SNC areas.

Three ways for aid to play a more supportive role

If aid actors want to be more effective in helping nudge areas entrenched in subnational conflicts toward peace and preventing violence from reoccurring, there is a need for new approaches.

Three things will be key:

  1. Deepening our understanding. Conflict areas are complex. Working out where there are opportunities to have transformational impacts requires in-depth knowledge of who the actors are, what their interest are, and identification of openings when they arise. There are practical implications. Agencies need to be in for the long haul and retain staff to allow them to build up cultural understandings and relationships. Investing in on-going knowledge generation, and processes by which information and ideas shape practice, is vital.
  2. Working politically. Subnational conflicts are ultimately political problems; overcoming them requires political solutions. Changing the approaches of governments to their subnational conflict areas also requires political will and this cannot be externally imposed. If donors and aid agencies are to be effective, they need to think and work politically). This requires investing in relations, and building networks and coalitions with key actors and brokers, in both national capitals and SNC areas.
  3. Developing new approaches. Above all, new ideas and spaces to develop them are needed to develop them. Building up skills in Asian universities and think tanks, and developing regional networks of practitioners and thinkers, could be useful. Donors should think about supporting the establishment of an Asian conflict and peacebuilding institute. The institute could bring together development agencies, civil society, and governments to think through what is distinctive about Asia’s SNCs, what new tools are needed for dealing with conflicts in middle-income and growing states, and to document cases of success and failure. There is a real opportunity for Asia’s economic rise to be accompanied by leadership to find new ways to deal with the region’s subnational conflicts.

Patrick Barron is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Development based in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]. This piece draws on The Asia Foundation’s “Contested Corners of Asia” study. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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