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Problems with alternative development approaches

Does ‘alternative development’ eliminate illicit drug cultivation? This article shares six common challenges in supporting farmers to grow legal crops
Slipper orchids growing in a botanical garden.

Alternative development (AD) approaches aim to reduce and eliminate illicit drug cultivation by reducing the livelihood vulnerabilities that cause farmers to become involved in illegal economies, usually by supporting them to grow and market legal crops.

Although AD approaches have become more common, they remain a very small part of the overall funding commitment of drugs and development agencies and they are implemented alongside policies that continue to prioritise strict prohibition.

Challenges with alternative development approaches

A growing body of research on AD highlights a range of issues and challenges with the approach:

  • Dual target problem: Development-focused counter-narcotics interventions have dual goals: to reduce illicit crop production and to promote sustainable rural development. How should these goals be weighted? What are the key metrics of success? Which kinds of expertise should prevail – drugs or development specialists – in such programmes? For example, the success of AD programmes often continues to be measured against reduction in land used to cultivate drugs rather than measures of sustainable poverty reduction.
  • Underlying theories of change: Tensions between the dual goals of drugs and development can also be seen in the analytical frameworks that underpin projects. Different actors may work with significantly different theories of change and causality. For example drug specialists may place more emphasis on the ‘sticks’ of drug eradication whilst development actors prioritize the ‘carrots’ of development assistance.
  • Conditionality and sequencing: Major differences exist in approaches to conditionality. Some projects make development assistance conditional on the ‘voluntary’ reduction/eradication of illicit crop cultivation. Others emphasise participation, tying assistance not to drugs goals but to human development indicators. Many argue that reductions in drug crop cultivation need to follow, not precede, development interventions. You will see this clearly in the Colombia case study.
  • Collective action problems and implementation: Interventions often bring together a wide range of agencies with different mandates and ways of working. As you’ll see in Colombia, this increases the potential for multiple points of friction and implementation gaps.
  • Targeting and inclusion: AD programmes often focus on landowners. This can mean that they fail to benefit the landless or land poor, women, the young and minority groups. As you’ll see in the case of the Helmand Food Zone (Afghanistan), although licit crop production increased, it did not benefit many of the poorest and most marginal sections of society, who moved into frontier spaces and resumed poppy cultivation.
  • Hidden interests: AD has sometimes been used as a cover for other sets of interests and goals. In Afghanistan and Colombia, for example, the warm and persuasive language of ‘sustainable development’ has been used to mask counter-insurgency goals. In Myanmar, Chinese-supported opium substitution programmes have provided a cover for market-based development that has pushed vulnerable communities off the land.

Rare examples of success

There are few credible examples of sustainable transitions from illicit to licit livelihoods as a result of alternative development interventions. One frequently cited example is in Thailand, where the Thai royal family took the lead in successfully addressing opium cultivation in the northern highlands. This success was due to a configuration of factors that are difficult to replicate, which include:

  • legitimacy provided by the royal family
  • a relatively strong, developmentalist state, which treated AD as part of a wider project of nationalist integration and rural development
  • focus on community participation
  • guaranteed purchase of alternative produce at a minimum price
  • insistence on not imposing crop eradication as a prior condition for development assistance
  • long-term and predictable donor assistance.
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Drugs, Peace, and Development: Rethinking Policy

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