The Catch-22 of Post-Conflict Aid

Cameron Noble

By definition, post-conflict aid aims to prevent further conflict and build peace in regions wracked by violence. However, if post-conflict aid is not managed properly, with sensitivity to conflict drivers, it can rekindle old conflicts and create new ones. This essay examines the issue based on the experience of post-conflict aid in Aceh (Indonesia) and draws upon the findings of the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming (MSR).[1]

There is much debate in the peacebuilding community about the merits and shortcomings of targeted individual aid to former combatants and conflict victims, as well as of the aid delivered to whole communities that include both former combatants and victims.[2] Both forms of aid can exacerbate existing tensions or create new ones, leading to further violence[3] rather than (or at least in parallel to) fulfilling its aims.

The essay examines examples of tensions and violence arising from post-conflict aid in Aceh and makes suggestions on how some of the tensions arising from post-conflict aid in Aceh could have been avoided.

Aid and conflict in Aceh

The signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in August 2005 marked the formal end of hostilities in Aceh after 29 years of intermittent conflict, which resulted in almost 30,000 deaths and cost an estimated USD 10.7 billion.[4] It also came after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 that killed 130,000 people in Indonesia, displaced over 500,000 people and destroyed massive amounts of infrastructure, predominantly in Aceh.[5] While the will of the Acehnese people, peace process frameworks, governance processes, and Government and donor assistance have enabled Aceh to avoid falling back into widespread violent conflict, post-conflict aid led to the reemergence of old tensions and the creation of new ones. These tensions continue today in Aceh’s new political landscape.

A variety of approaches to post-conflict aid were utilized in Aceh, including targeted assistance to individuals (former combatants, political prisoners and conflict victims), support for governance institutions and assistance to groups and communities. In total, cash and in-kind assistance (for both equipment and capacity building) valued at USD 365.6 million was provided. Moreover, USD 529.5 million of tsunami aid also supported the peace-process indirectly by channeling aid into areas affected by the conflict, including inland areas not directly impacted by the tsunami.[6]

Despite (but in some cases due to) the large amounts of aid in terms of dollar value that poured into Aceh, tensions arose, sometimes erupting in violence. Between 2005 and 2008 there were nearly 1,000 aid-related conflicts in Aceh, of which 33 incidents led to violence. Incidents of aid-related violence were highest in Aceh Utara, Bireuen and Pidie districts where the conflict was most intense. Moreover, the proportion of conflicts over post-conflict aid that turned violent (5 percent) was almost twice the proportion of conflicts that turned violent over tsunami-aid (2.7 percent). This was due to a number of factors, three of which will be examined in this essay.[7]

  • Difficulty in determining eligible recipients and unmet expectations
  • Poor planning of some aid programs
  • The involvement of former conflict protagonists in aid

Eligibility and unmet expectations

Over 29 years, the conflict negatively affected most of Aceh’s population in one way or another, making it difficult to clearly define who was a direct victim of the conflict. The Aceh Peace-Reintegration Board (BRA) defined conflict victims eligible for assistance as “next-of-kin of those killed in conflict; persons who lost a parent or spouse; next-of-kin of the missing; those whose houses were burned, destroyed, or severely damaged; internally displaced; mentally ill due to conflict; and those physically ill due to conflict”.[8] However, the Aceh Reintegration and Livelihood Surveys (ARLS) conducted by the World Bank across Aceh, which are representative of its population, indicated that 39 percent or 1.5 million people identified themselves as conflict victims. The most common forms of victimhood were displacement, mental illness, house damaged or destroyed, physical illness and family member kidnapped or detained.

As of 2008, 335,000 units[9] of conflict assistance had been distributed and another 130,000 were planned for conflict victims by the Government and donors. Through this, the BRA-KDP (Kecamatan Development Program[10]) program assisted over 230,000 people. The program used a community-based mechanism to identify conflict victims and decide what assistance would be most useful to them. Moreover, under BRA’s other conflict victim assistance, nearly 30,000 people received compensation for losing a family member in the conflict (diyat); over 16,000 households received housing assistance; nearly 17,000 orphans received educational allowances; and over 9,000 people received livelihood assistance.

This gap between the formally recognized number of conflict victims and the individuals’ self-identification led to dissatisfaction and divisions in the community. According to the ARLS survey of citizens, in the third quarter of 2008 tensions over inequitable distribution of assistance was the greatest source of tension in communities (43%), above tensions between ethnic groups (3%), former combatants and villagers (4%), and rich and poor (22%).

Another factor that led to unmet expectations was the inequitable distribution of post-conflict assistance due to poor coordination and challenges in identifying legitimate recipients. For example, the ARLS showed that 40 percent of former combatants and 80 percent of civilian conflict-victims received no assistance, while 23 percent of former combatants received two or more forms of assistance. Many actual former combatants who received no assistance felt ostracized from the peace process and resented the Government and former rebels such as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka – GAM), which they were once part of.

There was also tension between tsunami and conflict victims over expectations of assistance. While there was an overlap between the two groups, conflict victims in central and northeast Aceh received less tsunami aid. Tsunami assistance was fifteen times larger than that provided as post-conflict aid at USD 5.9 billion versus USD 365.6 million. However, although over a much longer period, the cost of the conflict (USD 10.7 billion) due to damage to infrastructure and losses in production was almost twice as high as the tsunami’s cost (USD 6.1 billion).[11] After years of suffering from the conflict, victims in some parts of Aceh felt they were missing out on the aid pouring in and the business opportunities this presented in the form of new NGOs and construction companies.

Poor planning

A number of post-conflict-aid programs that were poorly planned caused tensions to rise in Aceh. An example of this was BRA’s call for proposals for group livelihood projects for self-nominated groups of conflict victims, to be funded at USD 1,000 per person. BRA received over 68,000 proposals and the program was cancelled due to limited funds, lack of capacity to process the proposals, and the unavailability of sufficient business training facilities in Aceh to help groups create and manage sustainable business models. BRA simply didn’t expect to receive so many proposals. This led to deep resentment and widespread anger as some people had paid agents and consultants to draft proposals for them.

BRA then channeled Government post-conflict assistance with funding and technical support from the World Bank (through KDP), which supported community-led development projects and was already active in Aceh with a more general community development focus. While this was successful with USD 21.7 million in funds disbursed to 1,724 villages, resulting in a decrease in the poverty rate by 11 percent and doubling of land use in project villages, BRA terminated the BRA-KDP program after just one round of funding. This was due to mismatches between the Government’s needs and KDP’s methodology. The Government insisted on having the details of the conflict-victim beneficiaries. However, KDP decentralized beneficiary selection and decisions on fund use to the community itself. The withdrawal of the program led to resentment in some communities who had been told that they would receive funding in future rounds.

This was indicative of the Government’s reluctance to work with international organizations in large-scale projects. National and local ownership and control of the peace process was important, but failing to draw more on the expertise of the international community was a missed opportunity. There were also reports that because KDP bypassed much of the Government and conflict-era organizations (discussed below), there was less opportunity for graft.

Involvement of conflict protagonists in aid

The involvement of three organizations representing different conflict protagonists in the identification of aid recipients strengthened their political base, promoted political instability, and perpetuated conflict-era identities.[12] This was not the goal of the peace process, which was to move away from conflict-era structures and identities toward democratic institutions and civilian identities.

The Aceh Transitional Committee (KPA) was formed by GAM soon after the Helsinki MoU signing. Its aim was to transform GAM’s military wing into a civil organization and represent the needs of former combatants and GAM supporters. KPA was responsible for identifying former combatants and non-combatant GAM members for the Government and for at least one major donor-supported program.[13]

The Defenders of the Homeland (PETA) was an umbrella grouping representing 11 anti-separatist groups that opposed GAM and were supported by the Indonesian army during the conflict. The Government provided individual assistance to 6,500 PETA members through the Office of National Unity and Community Protection (Kesbanglinmas). The Communication Forum of Sons of the Nation (FORKAB) was formed after the MoU by former GAM combatants and supporters who underwent ‘re-education’ by the Indonesian Government and abandoned the GAM cause. It was essentially established to get conflict assistance and it later became a political lobby group. After signing the MoU, FORKAB successfully managed to advocate for post-conflict assistance to over 3,200 of its members.

The decision to give the responsibility of identifying aid recipients to these organisations enabled them to bind former combatants and supporters with the lure of receiving assistance, maintain conflict-era command structures, and collect funds for political campaigns. For example, once GAM’s political party, Partai Aceh, was formed, the KPA leadership forbade its members to vote for other parties. In the lead up to elections, KPA members/Partai Aceh supporters engaged in politically-driven threats and intimidation against opponents. It also engaged in strong arm tactics to win lucrative construction contracts, which were numerous in the post-tsunami reconstruction phase. PETA and FORKAB members were the foot soldiers in a failed but divisive political campaign to split Aceh into three provinces. Part of the assistance provided to PETA and FORKAB members was also reportedly used to support political campaigns.

Rather than individually-targeted aid delivered through conflict-era structures, more use of community-delivered aid, which has the flexibility to support individual former combatants and conflict victims, would have been a better option in Aceh. In the short term, political pressure to work through conflict-era institutions is often high, but the long-term effects must also be considered. Some individual assistance may have been necessary, but it could have been less, with more aid delivered through community-based programs that could have assisted individuals, including former combatants and victims as necessary.

Even within communities, the process can be high jacked by elites and conflict protagonists. However, with proper program management including conflict resolution mechanisms, these problems can be reduced. Delivering through community-based mechanisms also contributes to reconciliation and the revitalization of agriculture and small industries. It also allows communities to decide who is eligible for post-conflict aid, thereby solving the first issue identified in this essay. In societies where there is tension between former combatants and communities, this may not work. However, in Aceh many combatants never ventured far from their villages and if they did, they were generally welcomed back.

The BRA-KDP program was a successful program that was forced to close due to aid regulations. Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grass Roots Human Security Projects scheme was another example of a community-based aid program that allowed some assistance to individuals while supporting whole communities through projects prioritized and implemented locally with the support of local NGOs. These types of programs should have been the main means of delivery to conflict-affected communities, conflict victims and former combatants.


The management of post-conflict aid requires two key capacities working in tandem, to avoid the recurrence of post-conflict violence.

Post-conflict aid needs to be implemented according to a policy of conflict sensitivity in order to ensure that the consequences of the actions and policies of aid programs are well understood, including the design of aid programs, so that they support peace building and prevent the recurrence of violence. This requires a thorough analysis of conflict actors, and exploring different scenarios that may emerge through the implementation of one or a combination of aid delivery mechanisms.

Robust conflict resolution mechanisms are also needed to handle tensions arising from the political and security environment common in post-conflict societies, including those arising from post-conflict aid.

Considering these capacities in light of the peace process management in Aceh, some key lessons can be drawn that will resonate across many post-conflict environments.

  • The agency charged with managing a peace process must be sufficiently capacitated and supported

BRA was tasked with identifying conflict victims and working with KPA and FORKAB to identify former combatants eligible for assistance. However, as explored in a previous essay published by this author in Theory in Practice, BRA had limited capacity, support and authority to carry out its role properly. Given the large amount of financial aid, further support to BRA was needed, including for conflict and aid analysis and identification of conflict victims and former combatants, in order to counter the influence of the conflict actors/groups facilitating the identification of aid recipients.

  •  If capacity is not available, cooperation with international actors with that capacity is necessary

The Indonesian Government was reluctant to closely work on large-scale projects with international organizations such as the World Bank and UNDP, who had the capacity and experience to support the management of the peace process. There is a fine balance between national/regional ownership and engagement with international actors, and more could have been made of the experience and expertise available to the provincial Government in Aceh. This support could have been in the form of capacity building or taking the lead in areas where BRA had gaps. This could still have been done under the direction of BRA so as to keep ownership and control of the peace process. A third party to the conflict could have also been a buffer between protagonists, more able to play a neutral role, and be less subject to political pressures.

  •  Community-based post-conflict aid can address issues of eligibility, unmet expectations, and strengthening of conflict-era groups

In Aceh, three issues, namely eligibility, unmet expectations and the strengthening of conflict-era groups that caused tension and violence, could have been lessened through a community-based approach to post-conflict aid. Eligibility could have been more objectively decided by communities based on their own understanding of vulnerability. Expectations could have been managed by village leaders, as final decisions on who would receive what type of assistance would rest with the community members themselves. Lastly, rather than supporting conflict structures that still continue to this day in the political realm, community structures more interested in working on issues that matter to most people in Aceh, such as employment, empowerment and good governance, could have been strengthened.

Peacebuilding is a complex process of which post-conflict aid forms only one part. Despite the best of intentions, if conflict emerging from aid programs is not managed and conflict-sensitivity is not used, post-conflict aid can fuel further violence. In Aceh, although tensions arose and small-scale violence broke out over aid-related issues, to date it has not been enough to push Aceh back in to large scale conflict. However, challenges remain. For example, conflict era groups such as GAM, through Partai Aceh, continue to exist and election-related violence is rife. There are still former combatants and conflict victims who have not received assistance and struggle in poverty while former conflict era leaders have grown rich and politically powerful.

If BRA had had more capacity and authority, if the expertise of international organizations had been leveraged, and if more post-conflict aid was delivered through communities, then arguably Aceh’s peace would not be so fragile.


[1] The Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR) was a major research project carried out between May 2008 and December 2009 by a team of national and international researchers in Aceh. The MSR was supported by the World Bank, UNDP, USAID-Serasi, AusAID, the Embassy of the Netherlands and DFID. The National Agency for Development Planning (Bappenas), Desk Aceh within the Coordinating Ministry for Security, Politics and Law, and the Aceh Peace-Reintegration Board (BRA) provided valuable feedback and guidance throughout the process. The MSR provided a framework and an analytical basis for future policies and programs, primarily for the Government but also for donors, to consolidate sustainable peace and development in Aceh.

[2]Aid to individual former combatants and/or conflict victims can facilitate their reintegration to  society by paying debts, acquiring new work skills or education, treating physical and mental illnesses, reacquiring assets including housing, establishing new or resurrecting former businesses, and returning to their homes. It allows former combatants to trade their weapons as a means of income and security, for a life as productive members of society. Aid to conflict-affected communities can be used to rebuild infrastructure, resuscitate community industries, assist particularly vulnerable members of the community, reestablish or improve services, and build local governance structures.  At the national or state/provincial level, aid can improve governance institutions, strengthen service delivery, stabilize the security sector, and build capacity.

[3]The idea that aid in conflicted societies is not neutral and can cause harm or strengthen capacities for peace first came to popular attention in development circles in Anderson, M. (1999), Do No Harm: How Aid can Support Peace – or War. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

[4] World Bank & UNDP (2009), Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR), World Bank, Jakarta: p2.

[5] The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 26 December 2004 resulted in damage and loss valued at USD 6.1 billion. 120,000 houses were destroyed and 3,000 km of road, 2,000 school buildings, over 100 health centers, and about 60,000 hectares of agricultural land was damaged or destroyed.

[6] World Bank & UNDP (2009): p68.

[7] World Bank & UNDP (2009): p102.

[8] International Crisis Group (2006), ‘Aceh: Now for the Hard Part’, Crisis Group Asia Briefing No.48. Jakarta/Brussels: International Crisis Group.

[9] A unit of assistance is defined as a provision of one type of aid to a single person. For example this may be assistance in the form of cash transfer, agricultural tools or vocational training to an individual. In a single project, if ten people are provided assistance as individuals, then the number of units is ten. On the other hand, if assistance is provided for a whole community, such as shared infrastructure construction, then the number of people who benefit directly from the project is the number of units.

[10] KDP was a program of the national Government of Indonesia, implemented by the Ministry of Home Affairs – Community Development Office- aimed at alleviating poverty, strengthening local Government and community institutions, and improving local governance. It furnished block grants directly to poor communities and empowered villagers to determine how they wanted to use the funds—whether for building roads, bridges, schools, or health clinics. Communities chose, planned, implemented, and maintained projects on their own, supervised by village volunteers, sub-district committees and verification teams, and specially trained facilitators. It was supported by the World Bank. Majeed (2014), Services for the People, by the People: Indonesia’s Program for Community Empowerment, 1998-2006. Princeton University.

[11] World Bank & UNDP (2009): p36 & p68.

[12] The involvement of these groups in aid-recipient selection was not stipulated in the MoU.

[13] The International Organization for Migration’s Information, Counselling and Referral Service (ICRS) was funded by the Government of Japan. It provided assistance to 3,044 ex-combatants and 1,911 former political prisoners.  The program cost USD 8.6 million. GAM/KPA regional offices identified recipients and presented them to IOM.

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