5 times bigger than aid: important new research on drugs as a (missing) development issue

November 6, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

A couple of years ago I reported on an excellent meeting at Christian Aid on drugs as a development issue. They have poppyfarmercontinued that work and today published an important new paper by Eric Gutierrez, ‘Drugs and Illicit Practices: assessing their impact on development and governance’.

The paper argues that the illicit drug trade is a ‘major blind spot in development thinking’, and uses in-depth case studies from Afghanistan, Colombia, Mali and Tajikistan to explore the issues. Some highlights:

Scale: Even on its own terms, the ‘war on drugs’ clearly isn’t working – the international illicit drug trade is now worth an estimated $449bn to $674bn a year (UN figures), up to five times more than the global aid budget.

The problem: ‘Rather than recognise the fact that the illicit drugs trade is woven into the very fabric of many societies, the prevailing counternarcotics narrative and the core analysis of the UN law enforcement system treats it as a separable problem – something akin to a malignant tumour that can be isolated and surgically removed from a healthy body. Law enforcement is seen as the cure and its success is measured in metrics such as raids conducted, kilograms seized, convictions won.’

The report argues that part of the problem is that the development sector has opted out and left it to the law enforcement people. On the basis of the case studies, it develops a 2×2 ‘typology of drug economies’, with the axes determined by how much the drugs trade strengthens/weakens the state, and how much it strengthens/weakens the livelihoods of the poor. See diagram.Drug economy typology

‘With most of the world’s focus on quadrant 1, the three other quadrants, and what could be appropriate policy responses for each, have been largely ignored. Illicit drugs – like any other lucrative cash crop or natural resource for export – can actually be useful, in a perverse way, for both state-building and economic consolidation, as the case of Tajikistan demonstrates. Drugs production and trafficking can bring ‘alternative development’, even as it weakens governance structures, as shown in the Mali and Afghanistan case studies. Finally, the Colombia case study illustrates that, like any other profit-making enterprise, the illicit drugs trade can concentrate the benefits of growth in the hands of a few and thus increase inequality and perpetuate poverty.’

This typology is still a work in progress, but its initial conclusions are:

  • drugs and law enforcement‘The ability of poor households to cling to a lifeline for survival – such as illicit drug crop cultivation – seems to depend on agreements made with more powerful local actors advancing their own agendas.
  • It is land-poor households who end up opening up more land for cultivating illicit drug crops.
  • In places affected by conflict, clear distinctions need to be made between shadow, combat and coping economies.
  • The collusion and complicity of poor households in illicit activity needs to be understood in the context of constant insecurity and the sheer lack of protection.
  • Those engaged in illicit activity – from corrupt public officials to warlords and drug lords – may be despised as criminals and bad guys, but they can still win the vote and promote security and stability.
  • Even the most notorious can still enjoy some form of legitimacy. But legitimacy can be quickly lost too. In the end, legitimacy is ultimately shaped by rival institutions – clan, ethnic, national, or political and other group agendas.
  • Illicit activity and actors, often thought of as operating outside the state and the formal economy, are often inseparable from it. They are not necessarily anti-state and anti-development, and can be involved as well in wealth creation.

It is quite clear that debate is not simply about prohibition versus legalisation – in between these two positions is a wide range of thinking that does not necessarily support either. Instead, many of these views take a position that prohibition has failed or is failing, and that local contexts should be driving much of the policy’

The report sets out a whole range of issues that development agencies could/should take up if they want to respond to drugs as a development issue. These include recognizing the importance of protection and security for poor people; challenging the narrow focus ‘alternative development’ on crop substitution programmes, rather than wider rural development issues; the importance of land rights and land grabs; and the need to understand better the trade’s impact on women (it fesses up to a blind spot there).

Well worth reading – kudos to Christian Aid and its partners for pushing this work along.