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What is a policy trilemma?

What are the trade-offs between the goals of a drug-free world, peace and development? Read this article to learn about this ‘policy trilemma'.

The contradiction between the policy goals of a drug-free world, the promotion of peace and sustainable development has become more salient due to important shifts in international policies on both drugs and development.

There is now policy consensus around the need for fundamental reforms of global drug policies. This is reflected in calls to align and integrate drug policies with development and peacebuilding objectives, as captured in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To understand the significant tensions and trade-offs that emerge when these three fields of policy become entangled with one another in drugs-affected borderland regions we use the concept of a policy trilemma.

What is a trilemma?

A trilemma or ‘impossible trinity’ occurs when policy makers are required to navigate three conflicting challenges, and where it is impossible to address all three challenges at the same time.

In a trilemma situation, competing policy goals cannot be pursued simultaneously without compromises. It may be possible to address two out of the three challenges, but in so doing it becomes harder to address the third challenge.

The trilemma is a useful framework and tool for highlighting the tensions and trade-offs, in this case between the three policy goals of reducing drugs, peacebuilding and inclusive economic development. For example:

  • Efforts to promote development and peacebuilding find it difficult to tackle drugs in contexts where people’s livelihoods depend on cultivating drugs, and where deals around the drug trade are an important part of informal peace deals.
  • Efforts to build peace while simultaneously dismantling the drug trade are likely to undermine local economies and exacerbate poverty. Drugs support local livelihoods, they sustain trade networks and they generate money that is then invested in the local economy. Efforts to prioritise tackling drugs at the same time as peacebuilding can limit the scope for pro-poor development and cause worsening poverty.
  • Efforts to tackle drugs and promote inclusive economic development may create instability and worsen the risk of armed conflict. Pursuing pro-poor economic development alongside counternarcotics policies can be very destabilising, because it is likely to involve challenging elite control of the economy and confronting deep-seated economic inequality. At the same time, it can generate new livelihood insecurities for poor households who rely on illicit drug cultivation and who cannot find a foothold in the legal economy.

Learn more about the policy trilemma by watching the video.

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Drugs, Peace, and Development: Rethinking Policy

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