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Insights for policy making

Read this article for six key insights into making more humane policies to tackle drugs, development and conflict.
Afghan police and security forces walk through a grape field during a counternarcotics raid.

Research in the borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar provides six key insights for policy makers to devise more humane and contextualised ways to tackle drugs, development and peacebuilding challenges.

These insights are informed by the use of the trilemma framework.

1. Policies to eradicate drugs in the Global South hinder development and peacebuilding

Coercive drug policies undermine efforts to achieve development and peace:

  • crop eradication destroys livelihoods and immiserates the poor who depend on growing drug crops to survive
  • militarised responses to drugs unleash new cycles of violence and destabilise fragile political settlements
  • these policies increase the profitability of the drug trade by inflating prices, with profits captured by those further up the drug chain.

Policy makers should stop supporting such approaches and instead focus on initiatives that decriminalise and destigmatise small-scale producers. This does not mean ‘forgetting about drugs’, but rather that tensions can be softened by focusing on harm reduction and violence reduction, rather than forced eradication.

2. Development generates pathways into – as well as out of – poverty and drugs

Making drugs a ‘development issue’ will not automatically lead to pro-poor outcomes.

  • Poor people who cultivate drugs have not necessarily been left behind by development. Development can itself generate insecurity and poverty that pushes people on the margins into a reliance on illicit drug economies.
  • Interventions intended to stimulate economic growth can create new forms of livelihood insecurity. Efforts to increase more efficient food production may marginalise smallholder farmers, and attempts to integrate poor regions into the world economy can lead to economic shocks for farmers.

Policy makers, rather than assuming ‘all good things come together’, need to acknowledge and manage these trade-offs explicitly and honestly.

3. Borderland blindness has policy consequences

Borderlands have a special and significant nature. This is seldom recognised by development professionals based in capital cities and working through national planning and budgeting processes.

Existing forms of resilience, coping strategies, social energy and conflict mitigation strategies in borderland regions often go unacknowledged.

Policy makers need to be proactive in addressing these knowledge gaps by supporting researchers and civil society organisations working in the borderlands. They must work to support existing forms of agency and to avoid the risk of unwittingly weakening them.

4. Prioritise harm reduction for the most vulnerable

Harm reduction volunteer vest in Myanmar

The trilemma framework highlights the tough choices and trade-offs that must be made by policy makers. Those choices must be made in a way that minimises harm to the most vulnerable:

  • trade-offs between policy goals are unavoidable and policy makers must be explicit about compromises
  • in addressing trade-offs, policy makers should explicitly prioritise the interests of the poorest and most marginalised
  • priority should be given to policies that improve health outcomes, reduce violence and secure the livelihoods of the poorest, even if this means pulling back on policies that aim to reduce drug supply.

5. Amplify marginalised voices

Participants in illicit drug economies tend to be poorly represented in global and national policy debates on drugs, development and peacebuilding. Yet they are the ones who have to shoulder most of the costs of drug policies.

To ensure that decisions on trilemma trade-offs do not exacerbate the insecurities faced by poor and marginalised populations, it is essential to amplify their voice and agency:

  • support drug farmers to organise politically, for example through social movements that advocate for their rights and interests, and make it harder for these to be ignored
  • defend the rights of those who cultivate or use drugs when they are violated by drug policies
  • use participatory and learning-focused approaches to ensure that decision-making can work more to the advantage of the poor and marginalised, particularly women, who are involved in illicit economies
  • support existing coping and resilience strategies.

6. Change the metrics of drug policy success

Drug policy success is typically measured in terms of areas of drug crops eradicated, kilograms of drugs seized or drug traffickers killed or captured. These indicators say nothing about whether these policy ‘successes’ have strengthened transitions from war to peace or promoted inclusive development. They tell us nothing about the sustainability of the ‘success’ achieved, and nothing about any damage done in achieving it.

Effective and inclusive drug policies requires changes to both metrics and timeframes:

  • Develop more appropriate indicators of success. These could include improvements in access to public services, violence and poverty reduction, respect for human rights (especially for people who cultivate and use drugs), levels of human security, confidence in the state and access to meaningful employment.
  • Include indicators of participation. Focus on the extent to which policy making processes are participatory, to ensure that interventions reflect the needs and priorities of local populations.
  • Extend timeframes. Drug, development and peacebuilding goals need to be measured over periods that extend well beyond short-term project cycles.

Taking the trilemma seriously does not mean giving up on change – quite the opposite.

Rather, changing time frames, sequencing and criteria of ‘success’ can make the trilemma easier to handle. It may be possible to pursue all three goals – shrinking the drug trade, inclusive economic growth and sustainable peace – if they are not approached simultaneously, but in a sequenced and gradual way over a long time period.

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Drugs, Peace, and Development: Rethinking Policy

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