Illicit economies, shadowy realms, and survival at the margins

May 16, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Eric Gutierrez, Senior Adviser on Tackling Violence and Building Peace at Christian Aid

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, poor landless farmers in the most conflict-affected areas of southern Afghanistan started migrating in increasing numbers to the relatively more insecure rocky desert areas. With the help of loans worth a few thousand dollars (typically provided by drug traffickers), they built their huts, prepared the land, and used percussion drills to sink tube wells of up to 100 meters deep to draw water out for growing opium poppy. After harvest, the loans were paid off, not in cash, but in high-value, low-volume, and non-perishable opium gum, collected very conveniently from right at their doorsteps by creditors. The opium plant itself (stalk, leaves, roots) was left on the ground to regenerate the sandy soil.

By 2013, an incredible transformation had taken place – an additional 300,000 hectares of agricultural land was created, supporting over 1.2 million people in southwestern Afghanistan alone. David Mansfield, the researcher who documented the transformation, and compressed it using satellite imagery and aerial mapping into a 2.5-minute video, challenged donors and development agencies: “show me a development project that has been this successful”.

Similar patterns – of poor peasants displaced by poverty and conflict taking a huge gamble to find their luck in more insecure areas to pursue illicit livelihoods – are found elsewhere. Field research (still to be published) in eastern Congo by Fraser Murray, a refugee and migration scholar, found that up to 73% of the 4.49 million internally-displaced people in that troubled region of warlords and ethnic militias choose to live outside the protection offered by the sprawling refugee camps administered by the UN and humanitarian agencies.

The live-out refugees typically engage in what another researcher called ‘guerrilla agriculture’, illegally planting food crops in nearby national parks reserved for wildlife. Some smuggle second-hand clothes and other small consumer items across the border with Uganda. Others, like the Twa people (forest-based hunter-gatherers) pushed out of the park, resort to poaching. In Shabunda, households set up illegal makeshift mines to extract coltan, a high-value mineral used in the manufacture of mobile phones.

Like Mansfield, Murray is sceptical of the actual aims of development agencies. He asks why 80% of humanitarian and development aid is spent inside the camps, when the majority of those who need it live outside. He points out that development actors misunderstand or have yet to seriously engage with the agency of people living at the margins.

These examples show the dynamics of survival in many of the world’s most dangerous places. “Dangerous places” is actually a technical label adopted by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), to describe locations found in a total of 110 countries – 46 of which figure among the top 25% in terms of the highest violent death rates, and 78 of which are sources of 40% of the world’s refugees and internally-displaced persons. Hence, ‘dangerous places’ are typically those locations where state institutions do not or barely operate; where public services have gone missing or where infrastructure has been destroyed; or where insurance companies, banks, and firms don’t do business. In many cases, these are places too risky for humanitarian or development agency staff to even visit.

Yet as the examples reveal, people in these places somehow survive even without state protection or development aid. Life continues, albeit precariously and with many serious trade-offs. People living in dangerous places make choices and build relationships with ‘unusual actors’ to enable economic transactions and some form of order to survive. They spontaneously find ways to help themselves, typically by relying on informal, including illicit, economic activities, to tide them over. They are consequently stigmatised as criminals, and therefore regarded as outside the purview of official development. Whatever the problems are, these are typically seen as matters for law enforcement, and not for development or humanitarian agencies, to resolve.

The survival of poor communities engaged in illicit economic activities, almost without help and support from development agencies, makes the UN slogan of ‘Leave No One Behind’ look like empty rhetoric. The puzzle is – why are development agencies effectively defaulting on reaching poor people stigmatised as criminals? Why is there indecision on addressing the tough questions on illicit economies?

Over the last few years, a critical mass of research is starting to put illicit economies on the agenda of development agencies. Christian Aid published case studies on drugs and illicit practices, and on dangerous places in the Sahel. In June 2017, delegates from academia, policy, and the development sector attended a workshop at the University of Glasgow. And in April 2018, a Colloquium on the Development Implications of Illicit Economies was held at SOAS, University of London.

Debates on definitions appear to be one reason for the failure to focus on illicit economies. For example, Melissa Tullis of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) explains there still exists no official definition of “illicit financial flows”, making it extremely difficult for governments to agree on how to monitor the phenomenon. It was also for these reasons that ‘illicit financial flows’ almost did not make it into the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – it ended up in Goal 16, target 4.

Another gap is the lack of a model or theory for an in-depth understanding of the elusive, ever-changing details of illicit economies, explains professor Alfred W. McCoy, author of the classic The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972).  

McCoy suggests that there exists an invisible incubator for forms of illicit trades (illicit drugs, arms trafficking, human smuggling, illegal migration, etc.).  He called this the ‘covert netherworld’, a shadowy realm and recurring clandestine domain beneath the surface of political life. Illicit economies persist because they have become the economic foundation of that shadowy realm that shapes, compromises, and corrupts conventional politics and political culture at the highest levels. Citing experiences in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, McCoy argued for the need to examine the deeper meaning of the character of illicit commodities and the implications of their phenomenal proliferation and persistence.

If indeed illicit economies are getting on the agenda, the next step now is how to bring this up in the portfolio of development agencies. Further longer-term collaboration between academia, policy, and development communities would hopefully develop sooner rather than later towards tackling the challenges of illicit economies, shadowy realms, and survival at the margins.