What Can be Done About Conflict in South Asia?

From End Poverty in South Asia – A blog to promote dialog on development in South Asia

SUBMITTED BY EJAZ GHANI, CO-AUTHORS: LAKSHMI IYER ON THU, 03/04/2010

What can be done to reduce conflict in poor regions? A speech given by Indian Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh on Internal Security and Law and Order in 2005, sums up the story of conflict and development: “…development, or rather the lack of it, often has a critical bearing, as do exploitation and iniquitous socio-political circumstances. Inadequate employment opportunities, lack of access to resources, under developed agriculture, artificially depressed wages, geographical isolation, lack of effective land reforms may all impinge significantly on the growth of extremism…Whatever be the cause, it’s difficult to deny that extremism has huge societal costs. Investments are unlikely to fructify, employment is not likely to grow and educational facilities may be impaired. Direct costs would include higher costs of infrastructure creation as contractors build “extortions” into their estimates, consumers may be hurt due to erratic supplies and artificial levies. In all, the society at large and people at large suffer. Delivery systems are often the first casualty. Schools do not run, dispensaries do not open and PDS shops remain closed.”

Reducing conflict and violence is a prerequisite to political stability, which, in turn, is the prerequisite for implementing pro growth policies. Even in a best-case scenario, the presence of low-level conflict constrains the policies governments can implement to promote growth. Policy makers in South Asia have tried various policies to reduce conflict.

Additional to bolstering resources for security forces and conducting negotiations with insurgency groups, economic solutions can be extremely effective in reducing conflict, whereby the government expands welfare programs and reduces poverty in the conflict-affected areas to undercut the support for the insurgency. This approach is consistent with economic backwardness as a cause of conflict. This approach has been tried in some conflicts in South Asia, but it has failed because of poor choices of economic policies and poor implementation in conflict regions.

Policy choices and their implementation are critical in preventing an escalation of conflict and in post-conflict reconstruction. Economic policies should be geared not just to maximize growth, but also to address the distributional or political factors that led to the conflict. Policy choices must be structured to reduce real or perceived inequities. Aid agencies should work through the existing government institutions, be pragmatic in order to create jobs quickly, and in most cases, work on short-term economic goals first and address medium-term and longer-term efficiency considerations later. This approach calls for humanitarian treatment of conflict-affected people, closure of refugee camps, and reintegration of refugees within society.

Many of the internal conflicts in South Asia have cross-border dimensions. The Taliban in Afghanistan obtain significant support from Pakistan’s border areas. The Maoists in Nepal formed close links with the Maoist movements in India. Many separatist groups in India’s northeastern states have training camps and cells in neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka have traditionally enjoyed support from the Tamil Diaspora in India and other countries. In such a context, regional cross-border cooperation is an essential part of any counterinsurgency strategy. Considerable potential exists for regional cooperation in reducing conflict, but this has been an underutilized strategy in combating terrorism in South Asia.

South Asian governments have taken a variety of different approaches to counter terrorism. Reviewing these approaches in the South Asian and global context, it appears that the armed forces or local militias have not been especially effective in combating terrorism. Strengthening police forces or conducting negotiations to induce insurgents to join the political mainstream appear to be more effective approaches. Social welfare programs rather than just economic incentives hoping to revive growth can be useful complements to this political accommodation approach. Regional cooperation initiatives, which have been underutilized so far, are likely to be important in countering terrorism going forward. The challenge is to balance these different approaches toward countering conflict, as well as the optimal economic policies to be adopted in post-conflict environments.