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Development and drug-affected borderlands

Is more development the antidote to drug economies? Read this article to discover why the answer is no.
Afghanistan poppy fields with mountains in background.

The relationship between illicit drug cultivation and development is complex and sometimes contradictory.

Development does not always lead to progressive change. Development processes can sometimes have long-lasting detrimental consequences, generating marginality and exclusion within and between countries. Likewise the pursuit of a drug free world, even through ‘softer’ alternative development approaches, can impose huge costs on rural communities in drug producing countries, given the current development paradigm. This means that:

  • illicit crop cultivation is not simply due to a development deficit
  • the antidote to drug economies is not necessarily ‘more development’
  • illicit drug economies are unlikely to be transformed simply by improving alternative development interventions.

Understanding the relationship between drugs and development requires thinking about the distributional effects of development and illicit economies both in social and spatial terms.

Drugs and borderlands

In mainstream development narratives, borderlands are frequently portrayed as backward, marginalised places that are disconnected and have yet to receive the benefits of development. According to this narrative, because of their remoteness and histories of ‘unruliness’ they have a comparative advantage in illegality. Consequently they become centres for illicit economies that flourish in the absence of state regulation or modernisation efforts.

But research calls into question this simplistic policy imaginary of the margins, as well as the policy responses to such regions, for three reasons:

  1. Borderlands are anything but disconnected. Illicit drug economies exemplify the fact that borderlands are transnational zones, linked into regional and international markets, exploiting their position at interfaces between different markets and regulatory systems. Borderlands are places of improvisation and innovation. Far from being ‘left behind’ they are often at the forefront of processes of technological and economic change.
  2. Development is not absent in borderlands. Rather than being marginal, they are zones that often act sites of experimentation and incubators of rapid change. Money accumulated through the drugs trade in the borderlands of Nimruz (western Afghanistan) finds its way into the banks and real estate markets of Kabul, Islamabad and Dubai fuelling development across the region. Money is also invested within the borderlands, in frontier boom towns like Zaranj.
  3. Development projects and counternarcotics policies often fail in borderlands. Such projects and policies frequently fail to achieve their stated goals of bringing stability, prosperity or poverty reduction to the margins. They may inadvertently increase the marginality of borderland populations – who often come from minority communities – reinforcing the precarity and exclusion that animate and drive illicit economies. Far from creating a virtuous circle, such interventions frequently reinforce a vicious circle of dispossession, violence, uneven development and illicit activity.

Mainstream development narratives misrepresent frontier zones in significant ways. They create a set of justifications for interventions that fail to either address illicit economies or bring about development outcomes that benefit borderland populations.

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Drugs, Peace, and Development: Rethinking Policy

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