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Drugs, conflict and development

Read this article to learn about common assumptions about the relationships between drugs, conflict and development, and how they drive policy.
Soldiers with guns walking through an opium poppy field in Afghanistan.
© SSG Kaily Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Drugs, conflict and development are closely related in ways that can sometimes be surprising.

The borderland regions of Colombia, Myanmar and Afghanistan are major producers of illicit drugs. These regions play an important role in global drugs markets. They are also home to long-running armed conflicts. And they are regions of chronic poverty, where many households struggle to feed themselves, let alone afford better health, education and living standards.

Are drugs to blame for the problems facing borderlands?

Drugs, violence and poverty are often viewed by policy makers as closely connected in destructive ways:

  • Drugs as a fuel for armed conflict

Revenues from the drugs trade are believed to provide the tax base for insurgent groups. Where armed groups are involved in the drug trade, it is assumed that peace will be more difficult to achieve as they would need to give up their illegal activities. The opportunity cost of peace would therefore be very high for rebel groups involved in drug production.

  • Drug economies as contributing to poverty and underdevelopment

Drug economies are viewed as a symptom of underdevelopment, flourishing in places yet to be integrated into states and markets and excluded from development efforts. Drug economies, it is assumed, generate ‘poverty traps’ as people, land and resources are diverted away from the formal economy. As a result, marginalised people become dependent on illegal activities, exposing them to violence and insecurity.

Mutually reinforcing policy goals?

In recent years a policy consensus has emerged around the need to see drugs as a development and peacebuilding issue. Tackling illegal drug economies, peacebuilding and poverty alleviation are seen as mutually reinforcing policy goals:

  • Policies to stamp out drugs (for example by eradicating drug crops and arresting drug traffickers) are viewed as ways to reduce armed conflict and promote peace, by dismantling the war economies that drive conflicts.
  • Counternarcotics policies are also framed as helping poor people to move out of criminalised, violent, exploitative and marginalised activities. Likewise, it is assumed that development policies designed to support the formal economy will provide more secure and prosperous livelihoods, reducing people’s reliance on drug economies.

Underlying these policies is the idea that ‘all good things can come together’: that the goals of tackling drugs, building peace and overcoming poverty can all be pursued simultaneously and will all reinforce each other.

A more complex relationship

However, as you will see in this course, the assumption that policies aiming to tackle drugs, build peace and alleviate poverty are mutually reinforcing is deeply inaccurate. Instead, we can see a much more complex relationship between drugs, conflict and development.

  • In Myanmar, drugs financed armed conflict for many decades. In the late 1980s and 1990s, informal deals around the drug trade were an important part of ceasefire agreements between the central government and armed ethnic organisations. After ceasefire agreements and in the context of declining levels of armed conflict, drug cultivation increased. The stability created by the ceasefires also enabled new forms of investment and development in Myanmar’s borderlands, especially more intense mining, logging and agriculture. But these development processes drove new forms of dispossession and poverty that forced more households to rely on opium cultivation to stave off destitution. Investment and development in Myanmar’s borderlands led to more, not less, drugs.
  • In Colombia, coca cultivation is the mainstay of the local economy in many borderland regions. Coca incomes have allowed marginalised populations to send their children to school or university and to access healthcare. The coca economy has also enabled communities to self-provision basic infrastructure and services (such as roads or solar panels for electricity generation) that the state is not providing. So, forced eradication of coca impoverishes borderland inhabitants, often leading to protests and, in turn, human rights violations by government forces and then further resentment towards the state. In this way, a policy that was supposed to strengthen the state and reduce violence ended up doing the opposite.
  • In Afghanistan, attempts by foreign donors to promote rural development inadvertently contributed to a vast expansion in the country’s opium production. The Helmand Valley Development projects of the 1950s–1970s integrated farmers into global markets and instigated a shift from subsistence livelihoods towards a cash economy. When prices for wheat and cotton fell, many farmers turned to a different cash crop: opium. Efforts to ban opium in Afghanistan in the years since the US-led invasion in 2001 were highly destabilising both for the Afghan government and for local populations. Attempts to implement opium bans increased tensions between the central government and provincial leaders, and undermined support and legitimacy for the Afghan government. In contrast, deals around the drug economy cemented political coalitions and helped to create a degree of order and stability in regions where the central government’s authority was weak. Revenues from the drug trade also provided the investment capital that allowed borderland towns to grow rapidly with minimal state investment.

Policy makers need to think more critically about the tensions and trade-offs between the different policy goals of a drug-free world, peacebuilding and development. This means learning to better manage, sequence and soften these trade-offs, so that the most vulnerable bear the least costs, and so policies are more humane and equitable.

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Drugs, Peace, and Development: Rethinking Policy

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