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Insights and Analysis

‘Countering Violent Extremism’ and Development Assistance in Asia

April 5, 2017

By Bryony Lau

How we describe violence—riots, insurgency, terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing—is always politically charged even when it is well-intentioned. Language shapes our understanding of the perpetrators, their motives, and the legitimacy of their cause. It names patterns of violent behavior, drawing parallels across very different political contexts. And it guides our responses, shaping efforts by governments, civil society, NGOs, and development organizations, including where and how foreign aid is spent.

Bangladesh market scene

In Asia, as elsewhere, violent extremism has many potential causes, ranging from societal factors like socio-economic marginalization, discrimination, corruption, and poor governance, to individual factors like personal experiences of human rights abuses, and injustice. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Violent extremism is a recent and divisive addition to this lexicon. It gained remarkable prominence on the global policy agenda following the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. But its ubiquity masks confusion over what violent extremism is and how it differs from terrorism and other types of violence.

To take just one example, USAID defines violent extremism as “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic, and political objectives.” Many forms of violence can be described this way, making it hard to talk meaningfully about the problem. What is violent extremism? What is causing it? And what should be done about it?

The last question matters particularly for development agencies attempting to incorporate countering violent extremism—or CVE—into their programs and strategies. Violent extremism shouldn’t just become the latest term for an old problem, whether it be terrorism in Indonesia or communal violence in Bangladesh. In the absence of a widely accepted definition—which the UN Secretary-General has called on member states to provide—donors seeking to support CVE through development assistance should proceed with caution.

So, what does this policy agenda mean for Asia? With the support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Asia Foundation recently convened a workshop in Bangkok for donors, government representatives, civil society organizations, and researchers from 13 countries to discuss the nature of violent extremism in the region and ways development assistance can help.

Here are four key lessons from the workshop:

While CVE may be a new name for it, countering violent extremism isn’t new in Asia. For many years, foreign aid in Asia has helped marginalized communities, encouraged youth political participation, held police accountable, and unclogged slow court systems, often in Asia’s subnational conflict areas. Programs such as these fit many donors’ current definitions of CVE, even if this label was not applied at the time.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Aid Transparency Initiative databases show almost 200 projects funded by the UK, the U.S., and Australia from 2006 to 2014 in Southeast and South Asia that could be categorized as CVE. Almost one quarter of these were in Pakistan, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. Of these, 20 projects, none with a budget over $1 million, sought explicitly to counter extremism and radicalization. In short, they are strikingly similar to what “new” CVE programming says it will do.

Donors can draw useful lessons from past projects like these. Context matters for all development assistance, and CVE is no exception. Lessons derived from domestic CVE in Western countries are not necessarily transferable to Asia—the problems and solutions may be different. For example, radicalization in detention is well-documented globally, but in Asia the handling of violent extremist prisoners needs to be addressed along with other urgent problems like prison reform and overcrowding.

Research can pinpoint where development assistance may help. In Asia, as elsewhere, violent extremism has many potential causes. These range from societal factors like socio-economic marginalization, discrimination, corruption, and poor governance, to individual factors like personal experiences of human rights abuses and injustice, or a search for identity and belonging.

Donors would be wise to support research that identifies the relative importance of different factors for specific forms of extremist violence in Asia. Targeted attacks on religious minorities don’t necessarily happen for the same reasons as ethnic riots. And development assistance might not be the best tool to address all causes.

Donors should also take stock of their existing programming in Asia—both official development assistance and other bilateral aid—and assess where and how it intersects with the known causes of violent extremism. Are there gaps? What systems are in place for monitoring CVE results, however those might be defined? And crucially, donors should identify where it is possible to incorporate CVE into existing aid programs, and where it is not. In some cases, CVE may be potentially harmful because it may stigmatize individuals and communities by labelling them as “extremists” or it may put implementing partners in danger. Mainstreaming CVE isn’t necessarily the best solution.

The OECD should track spending on CVE as funding scales up. It is currently difficult to search for CVE projects in public aid databases. In light of the February 2016 decision by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee to make certain kinds of CVE eligible as official development assistance, aid reporting systems should capture spending earmarked as such (as others have pointed out too). This is important for transparency and gauging aid effectiveness in the future.

The report from the workshop indicates participants were cautiously optimistic about using development assistance to address violent extremism. But as budgets shrink, spending aid on CVE instead of other pressing needs will remain controversial.

Bryony Lau The Asia Foundation’s program manager for conflict and development within the Program Specialists Group based in Thailand. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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