While the lessons of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 are still up for debate, a group of researchers from a collection of US universities have gained insight into the kinds of aid spending that help reduce violence in conflict zones.

In their paper titled “Modest, Secure and Informed: Successful Development in Conflict Zones,” the researchers compared different types of development spending in Iraq to the levels of violence in the areas where the aid was dispersed.

Put simply: Development aid is “most violence reducing when it is small, secure and informed by experts.”

The paper is the result of comparative analysis of attacks on US military personnel and local civilians in distinct regions of the country from February 2004 through December 2009.

“Imagine an environment in which insurgents ambush military patrols, or set improvised explosive devices (IED) to attack them. Preparations for these actions are likely to be observed by noncombatant community members who could report the insurgents to government forces,” the paper states. “Those reports strongly complement government attacks on insurgents…raising the government’s chances of controlling the territory.”

Community members are more likely to make these reports if they are invested in the efforts of their government in combating the insurgency. This community investment includes taking part in and trusting the efforts of their government in dealing with and distributing development assistance and foreign aid.

According the data analyzed in this paper, “development is most violence-reducing when it is small, secure and informed by experts.” The most effective development should also have strings attached, with contingencies for continued aid set on benchmarks including reduced violence.

The paper’s conclusions draw a stark contrast between development aid that is effective and the kind most often used. Many governments involved in providing aid are stuck in a “bigger is better” approach, with vast sums of money given, varying degrees of accountability and plenty of middle men in between.

Small projects are “more likely to be violence reducing, perhaps they are better informed or because they are conditional,” the study indicates.

Check out the study here.