Voces desde los territorios fronterizos 2020

Voces desde los territorios fronterizos 2020 es la publicación emblemática de Drogas y (des)orden, un proyecto de cuatro años de duración que busca generar nueva evidencia sobre cómo transformar las economías de las drogas ilícitas en economías de paz.

Su objetivo es dilucidar las experiencias y perspectivas que hemos escuchado en nuestro trabajo de campo a lo largo de siete regiones fronterizas afectadas por las drogas y el conflicto en Afganistán, Colombia y Myanmar.

Está destinado a un público amplio de investigadores, profesionales y tomadores de decisión en los sectores de la política de drogas, desarrollo y construcción de paz. Los testimonios de este informe aportan ideas valiosas sobre cómo las drogas ilícitas –y las políticas de drogas– afectan las dinámicas de violencia, paz, pobreza, desarrollo, inseguridad y resiliencia.


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Naming the elephant in the room to imagine better policy

Illicit economies are the elephant in the room when policies are formulated and programmes designed – especially in places experiencing violent conflict. What’s ignored is the actual reality of the illicit economy. It feeds people. It is part of people’s livelihoods, it is part of the income they generate. And when this is ignored it creates a huge misunderstanding about the political, social, cultural and economic realities of a country.

Orzala Nemat, Afghan activist and researcher, Fragility Forum, August 2020

In a field that sometimes feels like an ideological battleground, we need more open exchanges about that elephant in the room, especially among policymakers. Partnership-based political economy research like ours is an important part of that open exchange, contributing new knowledge about the day-to-day realities of illicit economies to overcome this misunderstanding.

For researchers like us, making a contribution to better policies for development and peacebuilding in borderlands with substantial illicit economies means engaging in conversations with policymakers and practitioners located across complex policy ecosystems. We are trying to use what we are learning to challenge assumptions and received wisdom, and to create practical alternatives to failed narratives.

Over the summer months of 2020, Drugs & (dis)order researchers began sharing findings with stakeholders in the development, drugs and peacebuilding policy fields. A range of online engagements – ranging from public spaces like the World Bank’s Fragility Forum to tailored private briefings for frontline policymakers in the borderlands where we work – allowed us to start and develop critical conversations.

Over the coming year we are holding a series of practical, virtual policy laboratories to share and explore new approaches to, and models of, policy and practice. These policy labs will build on the conversations we have started this summer about the realities of borderlands, and the reality of the dilemmas and trade-offs faced by policymakers. In this way, we hope to support a move beyond harmful and failed policies, towards war-to-peace transitions that pay attention to the elephant in the room.

This blog draws together some of the observations and perspectives of our researchers and diverse policy stakeholders (including Christian Aid, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the World Bank) that emerged during our online discussions this year. 

Flawed assumptions about development, peacebuilding and counter-narcotics

Drugs & (dis)order’s principal investigator Jonathan Goodhand argued that, ‘the assumption in the current policy package is that development, counter-narcotics and peacebuilding are mutually reinforcing and can be pursued simultaneously.’ Our research has shown numerous examples from Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar of this not holding true.  There are inevitable trade-offs which, although often rendered invisible in the background, are central to policy outcomes. We believe these need to be made explicit.

‘Countering drugs in the borderlands,’ Goodhand continued, ‘may undermine the foundations of borderland community livelihoods. Peacebuilding efforts that don’t take into account how elite bargains are bound up with illicit economies may undermine political settlements that provide a measure of stability. And development efforts that do not generate broader public goods and mitigate risks for the vulnerable will fail to provide viable alternatives to the drug economy.’

If we accept that dominant policy assumptions about the relationships between drugs, development and peacebuilding are flawed, and at odds with a growing evidence base, then the search for alternatives needs to be informed by an understanding of why these assumptions persist and an analysis of how they can be changed.  As Marina Caparini of SIPRI argued, ‘we need not just an evidence base for policies, but also to understand the politics of dominant narratives and the resulting policies of development and peacebuilding.’ Incentives are an important element that underpins these narratives.

Incentives and definitions driving mainstream narratives

In the eyes of Alexandre Marc, who has years of experience working for the World Bank in fragile and conflict-affected settings, development donors have incentive problems in contributing to war-to-peace transitions in borderland regions.

‘The question,’ he reflected, ‘is how you actually work, as donors, in these very complex situations in borderlands. This is a problem for a poverty-focused institution.’ For example, definitions of poverty in survey instruments in remote borderlands are often biased towards the monetary, obscuring the reality that poverty can also be measured in terms of lack of access to services, implying the impoverishment of whole regions.

More than this, actually implementing programmes in such areas not only means higher costs, but dealing with real difficulties in enforcing standards of procurement, and risking infrastructure like bridges or water sources being destroyed by armed clashes.

From a donor perspective, Marc continued, overcoming the bias against borderlands means being able to argue that ‘if you don’t deal with these regions, instability will remain, and that means you will not be able to reach the poor of the central, more densely populated regions.’ This pragmatic position, however, overlooks the role of the centre in creating instability. Our research shows that the instability of borderlands is often instigated by political elites at the centre.

Limited measures of success

Paul Quinn of Christian Aid reflected on the assumptions behind how success is measured in moving from war economies to peace economies, where ‘progress’ is defined as more hectares of illicit cropland eradicated, more kilograms of contraband interdicted, and more criminals prosecuted. He argued that what is needed is a shift from such narrow metrics, to broader metrics that give a picture of factors like access to public services, confidence in the state, or meaningful employment.

But what holds current metrics in place? Drugs & (dis)order’s Jasmine Bhatia discussed the way that current systems of data collection are siloed. World Bank Systematic Country Diagnostics, for example, make little mention of illicit economies, while the UNODC Illicit Crop Monitoring Surveys barely touch on employment, income distribution or market access. Inviting change in these systems may involve opening conversations between different actors to enable the complexity of illicit economies to be better reflected in measurement systems.

Basic principles to limit risk and harm

Displaced peasants in marginalised borderlands cultivate illicit crops to reduce livelihood risks – it gives them access to credit; they are assured there will always be buyers; and buyers often travel to remote areas to purchase their harvests, eliminating the significant costs and burdens of bringing crops over poor and dangerous roads to sell at market. Thus, opium or coca are relatively low-risk crops, produced in an incredibly high-risk environment. So, as Orzala Nemat argues, ‘substituting an alternative crop will never work unless the risk environment is transformed, which would involve a package of sequenced measures aiming at large-scale industrial change.’

Francisco Gutierrez Sanín, who leads Drugs & (dis)order’s Colombian research, went further whilst reflecting on illicit crop substitution policies in Colombia. He argued that ‘substitution policies should not duck serious distributional issues. These issues are not just about income and assets, but about harm and risk. Policies put prohibitive costs on the shoulders of the most vulnerable actors in the coca economy, the peasants.’

He continued that ‘policymakers need basic democratic and humanitarian principles – such as those in the Sustainable Development Goals and other instruments – according to which there is an upper threshold on the costs that can be imposed on vulnerable populations. What we are currently witnessing in Colombia are policies through which government places costs without bounds on certain populations.’

This, he argued, is sustainable neither for peace, nor democracy. It implies that effective policies to tackle illicit economies in war-to-peace transitions need to be firmly underpinned by principles that prioritise limiting risk and harm for those at the margins.

Imagining better policy

At Drugs & (dis)order, we see these conversations, and others like them, as an important part of imagining better policies for involving illicit economies in war-to-peace transitions.

At our policy labs we’re looking forward to collaborative learning and discussion between researchers and policymakers, looking from many different angles to seed new ideas and thinking. As our colleague Danseng Lawn of the Kachinland Research Centre observed, ‘one single approach will not solve the problem.’ 

Colombia: does peace still have a chance?

This article was first published by the Latin America Bureau on 30 October 2020. Read original article.

By Francisco Gutiérrez

Four years after a Peace Agreement that formally ended more than sixty years of internal conflict, there’s a new wave of violence in Colombia. More than 46 massacres so far this year, and intimidation and assassination of social leaders is getting worse. President Ivan Duque blames it all on illicit coca crops. The best way to protect the peace process, he says, is forced eradication of coca.

This does not match existing evidence in any sensible way. The resurgence of violence in Colombia is not a result of illicit coca cultivation, but a result of the Duque government’s many failures, including the failure to implement the illicit crop substitution programme that was set up under the 2016 peace agreement.

Designed to give smallholder farmers subsidies to swap illegal crops for alternatives, the crop substitution programme (known as PNIS) was an important part of the peace deal. It was also intended to combat years of social and political exclusion of coca farmers, and was supposed to be linked to regional development and infrastructure plans.

 An extract from Jessica: coca growing, stigmatization, violence and development in Colombia. Jessica is a social leader from Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, Colombia
An extract from Jessica: coca growing, stigmatization, violence and development in Colombia. Jessica is a social leader from Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, Colombia

Nearly 100,000 coca farming families signed up to the programme. But the subsequent failure of the PNIS has been well documented by, among others, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. There were huge delays, poor communication, and subsidies that never arrived. Regional development and infrastructure never materialised either. A farmer in Tumaco, Nariño, told us, ‘We eradicated [coca] and that was it. To this day, we haven’t received one single support payment. We planted cocoa instead, but that cocoa isn’t generating any income yet. Sometimes we eat two meals a day, sometimes just one.’

They finished off our food – the maize, the yucca, everything!

Farmer from Puerto Asis, Putumayo

Then, instead of the promised subsidies and infrastructure, the army showed up to destroy the coca crops – and any other crops in the vicinity. One farmer from Puerto Asís, Putumayo told us, ‘They would fumigate sometimes every 15 days in our village… they finished off our food – the maize, the yucca, everything! There was nothing left. We were left without food, the only thing we had left were a few corners of coca.’

And forced eradication isn’t just destroying livelihoods, it’s killing people. Our research documented 96 violent clashes between rural communities and state forces linked to forced eradication between 2016-2020. 42% of those reported incidents have been since March 2020, with deaths recorded in 6% of cases.

The coca farmers we spoke to tell us that when they ask why there are delays in receiving subsidies, they’re told there’s no money. So, it seems there are no funds to implement the programme, but plenty to resource forced eradication – which doesn’t come cheap. More than this, under pressure from the US, President Duque has not only pledged to ramp up forced eradication, but is looking for ways to bring back aerial fumigation, despite it having been suspended by Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 2015 due to environmental and health harms.

Last month, a court in Cauca in southwest Colombia ordered the army to stop forced eradication until they could prove that the voluntary crop substitution programme has failed. A national organisation that represents coca farmers is now working to get this order extended to the whole country.

If they succeed, this will mean a much-needed respite for the hundreds of thousands of peasants who are living in constant fear that their livelihoods will be destroyed by forced eradication, not to mention the violence that accompanies the process. ‘It’s not just Covid-19 that ends the lives of peasants’, said one community member in Cύcuta, Norte de Santander, ‘there’s another pandemic that is far worse. This is the forced and violent [action] by the army.’

A national suspension of forced eradication, however, could mean a real boost for the crop substitution programme and contribute to making peace a reality in Colombia.

Can PNIS work? Yes, there’s a real chance that it can. But it needs to be given a chance. The farmers are on board (in the words of a coca farmer in Puerto Asís ‘if there were other opportunities, no one would work with coca because it’s enslaving’). And the national suspension of forced eradication may be the incentive or leverage needed to get the government to give it a real go.

But illicit drugs aren’t just about policy, they’re about politics too – national and international. So, there’s an important role for international actors in this, especially those that invested a lot of money, time and expertise into supporting peace negotiations in Colombia, which were a really important part of that process.

The government claims it is implementing PNIS. The coca farmers claim it is not. We need independent arbiters to look at the evidence, and see what can be done to support the implementation of the peace agreement.

We need those countries that have supported peace in Colombia to follow up and support implementation, by speaking and listening not just to the government, but also to the Congress, NGOs, academics, and social movements. This could be crucial in turning the tide of violence.

Data management knowledge exchange

Data management for multi-country research projects is always a challenge – and more so when working in developing countries with different research practices, capabilities, legal and ethical frameworks, and sometimes limited infrastructure.

In June 2020, Drugs & (dis)order’s Data Manager Veerle Van Den Eynden coordinated a data management knowledge exchange for projects funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) GROW programme.

We were joined by 50 people, representing 28 projects. All participating projects are led by UK institutions working in multi-country partnerships, with the majority working in five or more developing countries.

This document is a round-up of the main challenges, solutions and resources shared by participants, in the hope that it will be useful for other and future research projects. You can also watch the workshop recording.

The fragmentation and development of global drug control regime complex

The international drug control system represents an area of common, albeit contested, governance within the multilateral system. First absorbed under the League of Nations and then transferred wholesale to the new United Nations Organization in 1946, it represents one clear area of multilateral, national and local convergence from at least 1909 through to the present era.

Around 2012, something unforeseen happened. In a system long-viewed as the hegemonic product of the US ‘war on drugs’ and characterised by the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ model of UN decision making, the system began to visibly fragment. Although changes beneath the superstructure of the global ‘regime’ had been apparent and well documented, for the first time both policymakers and policy takers within the system began to allow debates, and potentially monumental policy changes, which shook its core foundations and sense of uniformity and coherence.

This paper seeks to explain this process of fragmentation and suggest a changed analytical framework for discussing trends and outcomes within the drug control system and its interaction with other areas of global governance. It adopts the terminology of ‘regime complex’ from the field of environmental studies and utilises it to demonstrate both the changed structural underpinnings of the system, the likelihood of survival and broad continuity in many areas, alongside the ambivalent possibilities this brings in terms of policy innovation and human rights risk.

Rethinking trends and stakeholders in international drug policy

The aim of this global stakeholder analysis is to examine the recent changes in international drug policy and the implications of these changes for shifting alignments and coalitions of stakeholders.

This document assumes a core adherence to fundamental principles of public health and human rights as outlined in official UN, EU and member-state positions, and those advocated by leading civil society organisations in the field of human rights, public health and drugs. Further, it draws on the public health baseline assessments on drug policy and access to controlled medicines in two Lancet Commissions’ reports. In so doing it argues the centrality and indivisibility of sustainable development, public health, human rights and harm-reduction-oriented drug policies in all local national, regional and international contexts. It also expands the scope of the traditional definition of ‘harm reduction’ to incorporate a recognition of the application to the supply side of the lessons and successes of harm-reduction principles on the demand side.

Catapults, pickups and tankers

This paper looks at cross-border production and trade in Nimroz, and how it shapes the political economy of this Afghanistan borderland province.

Nimroz is sometimes dismissed as a barren desert area with limited agricultural land and a relatively small population. However, over the last two decades the province has transformed into one of Afghanistan’s main international trading hubs. The economic and strategic significance of the province is increased by the scale of illicit trade in the tri-border area and population links with Pakistan and Iran.