Illicit drugs and tough trade-offs in war-to-peace transitions

Millions of marginalised people rely on illicit drug economies – often deeply intertwined with armed conflicts – for their survival. But Agenda 2030, particularly Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, makes no mention of illicit drug economies.

It is clear that the war on drugs has not worked, and it is increasingly recognised that a new, development-based approach to tackling illicit economies is needed. But at present, the evidence base to inform such policies is weak.

This report presents evidence on why illicit drugs are a development issue and why they matter for peacebuilding, before discussing the problem with current approaches, and the implications for drugs, peacebuilding and development policy.

Read Eric Gutierrez ‘s related blog Illegality, violence and fragility: do they breed each other?

Three strategies to transform approaches to illicit drug economies

This article was first published by Devex on 3 March 2020. Read original article.

By 2030, 46% of the world’s poorest will live in fragile and conflict-affected states. And many of today’s armed conflicts are fueled by illicit drug economies in borderland regions. Sadly, this week’s Fragility Forum 2020, organized by the World Bank, was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and “its impact on people and health.”

However, while policymakers and practitioners won’t be meeting in person to exchange knowledge on engaging in fragile and conflict environments, there remains an urgent need for development leaders to rethink their approaches to illicit drugs.

Drawing on our experience working to transform illicit drug economies into sustainable peace economies in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Myanmar, we propose three ways to move toward a transformative approach to addressing illicit drug economies in the aftermath of war and conflict.

1. Place a stronger focus on borderlands

Illicit economies and state fragility are often centered in borderland regions, which have a weak state presence and easy access to lucrative foreign markets. And it’s often assumed that once the guns fall silent, unruly borderland regions will leave illegality behind and become investment hubs for licit activities.

But in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Myanmar — three of the world’s biggest drug cultivators — production has continued to grow after the signing of cease-fire and peace agreements.

To promote sustainable war-to-peace transitions, development and peace-building actors need to move away from state-centered frameworks to support transformational change in these borderland regions.

This requires major shifts in dominant approaches to understanding and intervening in drug-affected borderlands.

Interveners need to adopt regional approaches to policy and programming; invest in data collection, monitoring, and evaluation that capture subnational and transnational processes; address the institutional silos that prevent more integrated approaches between drugs, development, and peace building; and develop mechanisms to consult with and listen to the voices of borderland communities.

2. Integrate drugs and development issues

Illicit economies cannot be tackled through a primary focus on the law and criminality, linked to short-term metrics of success such as interdiction figures, eradicating illicit crops, or stronger border regulation.

These interventions have perverse effects and have led to major costs in terms of development, conflict, and human security for borderland populations. At the same time, development agencies tend to treat drugs as a taboo subject, which is too sensitive for them to tackle.

There is a need for illicit drug economies to be treated as a long-term development issue. We need to address the structural conditions that create marginality, fragility, exclusion, and the consequent reliance of borderland communities on illicit economies.

Policies need to be more holistic and integrated and must be focused on tackling exclusion and spatial inequalities through integrated programs that address governance, security, rights, and inclusive development.

One example of what this might look like in practice is the integrated rural development programs implemented by the Thai government in the country’s opium-cultivating northern borderlands. These interventions contributed to the sharp decline of drug production in the 1990s, while at the same time supporting the broader development of the region.

It also means tackling the external drivers of exclusion linked to the ways that states and markets function in borderland regions and the role of external interveners.

new policy brief makes the case for including illicit drugs in the 2030 Agenda, arguing that despite millions of poor and marginalized people relying on illicit drug economies for their survival, the 2030 Agenda — and particularly Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions — makes no mention of the illicit drug economies that are so often deeply intertwined with armed conflict.

3. Explicitly recognize and address the trade-offs

Illicit economies involve trade-offs at all levels. Our research in Colombia, for example, shows how coca farmers are able to see modest income increases that allow them to send children to school or invest in more land, but this comes at the price of risk and increased violence. Governments, too, confront complex dilemmas and trade-offs between short-term counternarcotic “achievements” and longer-term pro-poor development.

Notwithstanding the need for more integrated, holistic approaches, it does not follow that “all good things come together.” All interventions have distributional effects, and the costs, benefits, and trade-offs must be considered and made explicit in the design and implementation of interventions.

Ultimately, there is no simple, short-term solution to the problem of protracted illicit drug economies and no win-win solutions. The World Bank and other development actors that would be meeting today in Washington to discuss fragile states must grasp the nettle of illicit drugs. Counternarcotic policy dialogues must simultaneously support development and peace-building goals.

This starts with recognizing the tough-trade-offs. In many contexts, it may be more about managing and mitigating the effects of illicit economies and building the resilience of borderland communities. There is a need to invest in approaches that address the underlying causes of marginality and exclusion. And postwar peace dividends must reach down to borderland communities — otherwise, there will be no sustainable pathway out of conflict.

Illegality, violence and fragility: do they breed each other?

This article was first published by Christian Aid on 26 February 2020. Read original article.

In the study of conflict and peacebuilding, one apparently straightforward assumption is often made: that illegality, violence and fragility breed each other. This seems to make sense, especially in countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, which are not only among the world’s most violent places, but also the world’s top producers of two illegal crops – opium and coca.

But it does not always hold true. This week, a planned panel at the World Bank’s Fragility Forum, convened by Christian Aid and the Drugs & (dis)order research project, intended to share evidence from the borderlands of Afghanistan and Colombia. The panel was sadly cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but the evidence still stands to question an assumption that is at the heart of both peacebuilding and counter-narcotics policy.

Illegal crops, violence and fragility in Afghanistan and Colombia: numbers and questions

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2017, Afghanistan produced 87% of the world’s opium and heroin. Its conflict is the world’s most lethal. In the first half of 2019, Afghanistan had almost 14,000 battle-related deaths, outnumbering the combined death toll in Syria and Yemen.

At least seventy percent of the total area under coca bush cultivation in the world is found in Colombia. Colombia’s conflict has been brutal, causing 218,000 deaths over the last 50 years, and internally displacing over 5.7 million people by 2013. Only Syria surpasses Colombia for its number of internally-displaced people.

It is no wonder that areas in both countries where drugs and violence abound have been associated with lawlessness and the absence of local order; of being unruly, disorderly, even less civilised. Yet what cannot be denied is that – despite such disorder and violence – people somehow manage to survive and carry on with life in these dangerous areas.

The questions that need to be examined, therefore, are: what explains the resilience of people coping and surviving in these areas? What structures, norms and adaptations have they used? How should the relationships (or lack of them) between marginalised communities on one hand, and state institutions and markets on the other, be understood? And what should we make of the inevitable relationships that emerge between criminals, rebels and ordinary people under such conditions?

Outcomes from research into these questions appear as counter-intuitive and ironic.

Successful development, more opium cultivation?

A case study commissioned by Christian Aid in 2015 shows that it was fairly successful development project, not violent conflict, that forced the migration of the land-poor out of the Food Zone in Helmand Province.

In their report, David Mansfield and Paul Fishstein showed how the US, UK and Afghan government-led Food Zone initiative delivered better productivity, higher incomes and improved food security for participating farmers. But the consequence of this ‘success’ was that poorer farmhands and sharecroppers were no longer needed by the small land-owning farmers of Helmand. Poorer households not only lost their livelihoods but could also not access government support because they did not qualify as owners of registered property. Left with no choice, they moved to the desert areas north of the Boghra canal where, with generous loans from opium traders, they opened more land to opium cultivation – the most viable crop to grow under such conditions.

Illegal crop revives economy

In Colombia, a key coca-growing area is the southern province of Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador and Peru. Putumayo is characterised by its poor infrastructure, a largely agrarian economy and the high level of activity by the largest rebel group in the conflict, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Though the people of Putumayo – many of them displaced by conflict and agricultural commercialisation from other areas – are typically stigmatized as ‘migrants without roots’ and therefore ‘uncivilized’ and ‘disorderly’, they found ways to survive through growing coca. According to Maria-Clara Torres, who has studied the historical roots of coca cultivation, illegal coca growing accelerated the use of money in ‘peripheral’ and ‘out-of-the-way’ Putumayo. It brought more cash and created small ‘boom’ towns where hotels were set up, transportation expanded, and demand for food crops as well as goods like cars, chainsaws, outboard motors, electricity generators and firearms increased.

Alongside, migrants from across the country streamed and migrated into Putumayo in search of livelihood opportunities or seasonal work on coca farms. Over time, a local financial system consolidated as more and more inviduals deposited their cash in banks. In other words, a moribund and collapsing local economy was revived by an illegal crop.

Inequality, marginalisation and exclusion are the real problems

What these studies show is that the fundamental problems to be solved in the conflict-affected areas of Afghanistan and Colombia are not illicit crop growing or criminality, but marginalisation, exclusion and inequalities – especially the lack of access to land.

The dominant notion that fragility, violence and illegality breed each other not only stigmatises the survivors of these phenomena, but also obscures attention and development aid from being focused on the structures and adaptations for coping and survival amidst violence and conflict.

The failure to see the agency of local people leads to a failure to see the dilemmas faced by those whose only way get protection, land and access to credit is by growing illicit crops.

This blog draws on an Open Access article by Eric Gutierrez, The Paradox of Illicit Economies: Survival, Resilience, and the Limits of Development and Drug Policy Orthodoxy published in Globalizations in February 2020.

To learn more, read a report by Ross Eventon and Eric Gutierrez, Illicit drugs and tough trade-offs in war-to-peace transitions.