Felter: Insurgents attack aid programs to undermine governments

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Research by CISAC's Joseph Felter shows that insurgents try to derail government-delivered aid programs in poor areas because they fear successful programs will boost the government's credibility. Preventive measures include providing greater security around aid projects and limiting advance knowledge about them.

A research paper, published in the American Economic Review, involved an analysis of a large community-driven development program in the Philippines. In 2012, the World Bank supported more than 400 of these projects in 94 countries with about $30 billion in aid.

Conventional wisdom assumes that development aid is a tool to help reduce civil conflict. But some aid projects may actually exacerbate the violence, the research showed.

In an interview, Joseph Felter, a senior research scholar at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, said, "A 'winning hearts-and-minds' strategy for disbursing development aid may lead to an increase in insurgent attacks in the world's poorest areas. The study's takeaway is not to stop aid delivery, but to appreciate and plan for the possibility of unintended consequences."

Felter co-wrote the article, "Aid Under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict," along with Benjamin Crost of the University of Colorado-Denver and Patrick Johnston of the RAND Corporation. Their research relied on conflict data from the Philippines military from between 2002 and 2006 that allowed them to precisely estimate how the implementation of aid affected violence levels in ongoing insurgencies against the government.

Spotlight on the Philippines

These issues are particularly important in poor and conflict-ridden countries like the Philippines, Felter said. The Philippines is home to some of the most protracted insurgencies in the world. Islamic separatist groups struggle for an independent Muslim state; a communist group continues to wage a classic Maoist revolutionary war; and the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group conducts kidnappings and terrorist attacks.

The aid program Felter and his colleagues studied was the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan Comprehensive Integrated Delivery of Social Service – or KALAHI-CIDSS – the largest of its kind in the Philippines. Through it, poor communities receive projects to address their most pressing needs. According to Felter, this typically involved funding for projects like roads, schools, health clinics and other infrastructure.

"This is government funding for projects that citizens in these areas have expressly asked for," Felter said.

The researchers noted that community-driven development projects, also known as "CDD" projects, are popular because evidence suggests they enhance social cohesion among citizens. But sometimes they draw the wrong kind of attention from anti-government groups, as the research illustrated.

Felter and his colleagues found an increase of 110-185 percent in insurgent attacks in communities where aid projects commenced, the authors wrote. If this effect is extrapolated across all of the Philippines' municipalities, the authors estimate that the program resulted in between 550 and 930 additional casualties during three years.

"Taken together, this detailed evidence sheds new light on the mechanisms that link aid and conflict, which may eventually help design more effective aid interventions that alleviate poverty without exacerbating conflict," they wrote.

When the insurgent groups destroy such a project, it has the effect of weakening the perception that the government can actually deliver on community projects, the scholars wrote. For example, the communist rebels in the Philippines have issued public statements denouncing the KALAHI-CIDSS program as "counterrevolutionary and anti-development." If a successful aid program shifts the balance of power in favor of the government, it reduces insurgents' bargaining power and their political leverage.

As a result, insurgents tended to engage in conflict in the earlier stages of a project in order to keep it from succeeding, according to the research. In fact, conflict increased when municipalities were in the early or "social preparation" stages of publicizing an aid program, Felter and his colleagues wrote.

Sometimes rebel groups divert aid to fund their own operations – aid shipments are often stolen or "taxed" by these groups, according to the paper.

The Next Step

What can be done to prevent attacks?

"Greater security around the aid projects and limiting advance knowledge of the particular projects are good measures to start with," Felter said.

He noted that governments and aid organizations need to be discreet in how they identify aid projects and their locations, and how they disburse the aid itself. More research on this issue needs to be done, Felter said.

"One lesson is not to give insurgents too long a lead time to plan attacks," he said.

Unfortunately, as the researchers noted, poverty and violence are often linked: "The estimated one-and-a-half billion people living in conflict-affected countries are substantially more likely to be undernourished, less likely to have access to clean water and education, and face higher rates of childhood mortality."

Continued progress – in the form of international aid – is urged toward eradicating poverty. "To help achieve this, governments and multilateral donor organizations are increasingly directing development aid to conflict-affected countries worldwide," Felter and his co-authors pointed out.

Felter, also a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in 2012 following a career as a Special Forces and foreign area officer. He has conducted foreign internal defense and security assistance missions across East and Southeast Asia and has participated in combat deployments to Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010-11, he commanded the International Security and Assistance Force Counter Insurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan.

"I saw this dynamic (insurgent attacks on aid projects) firsthand in Afghanistan and Iraq. This research paper confirms it," Felter said.

He devoted much of his Stanford doctoral dissertation and his work at CISAC and Hoover to build what he hopes will be the largest and most detailed micro-conflict database – the Empirical Studies of Conflict – ever assembled.

Felter said there is only so much that the military can do to win over people in areas ravaged by war and conflict.

"The military can 'lease' hearts and minds by creating a safe environment for aid projects," he said, "but ultimately it's up to the government to win them over."