The Road to Muse, Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by SHAN.

A policy impasse

The global War on Drugs has not achieved its stated goal of a ‘drug-free world.’ In fact, there has been an increase in worldwide production and consumption of illegal drugs. Furthermore, the negative impacts of militarised counter-narcotics policies and programmes that focus on supply reduction in the global South have been widely documented.

It is difficult to credibly argue that the War on Drugs has been a success, though some note that the ‘war’ has goals which have very little to do with drugs – such as winning votes, stigmatising marginal communities, accessing resources or strengthening the power of dominant groups. More than ever, it seems that the War on Drugs is in fact a war on people, and in particular those who are on the margins.

In light of the widely acknowledged shortcomings and social costs of the War on Drugs, there have been growing calls for more human-centred drug policies that are aligned with broader efforts to promote wellbeing, including the SDGs.

There is increasing recognition of the need to frame drugs as a development and peacebuilding issue and a phenomenon inherent to human life – rather than a security or criminal issue linked to a powerful moralising discourse.

Drugs continue to be treated primarily as a supply side problem, pertaining to law enforcement agencies. At the same time many development and peacebuilding agencies remain reluctant to engage directly with the issue of drugs.

Yet there remain major barriers to more integrated, conflict-sensitive, and development-oriented policies towards drugs. First, the policy fields of drugs control and development are divided by different – if not opposing – goals, metrics of success, and policy instruments.

Standing on guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Policia Nacional de los colombianos.

Within the drugs control community, drugs continue to be treated primarily as a supply side problem, pertaining to law enforcement agencies. At the same time many development and peacebuilding agencies remain reluctant to engage directly with the issue of drugs.

Competing mandates and funding streams perpetuate knowledge silos and fragmented policies. These divisions are amplified by the different organisational cultures and approaches of drug and development agencies. The former tends to work through state-to-state partnerships and top-down modalities and programmes. The latter, at least rhetorically, stress more bottom up, participatory methodologies involving civil society and the private sector, as well as the state. 

On the ground, in countries affected by illicit economies and struggling to transition from war to peace, there is often a fundamental disconnect between the agencies working on/against drugs, and those working on development and peacebuilding or, for that matter, on human security and welfare. Whilst these labels and mandates carry significance for the agencies themselves, they make no sense for local communities and public officials attempting to grapple with the deeply interconnected challenges of violence, illicit economies, chronic poverty and community welfare. 

Second, there is major lacuna in understanding about how to reconcile drugs, peacebuilding and development policies in practice.  There is very little systematic evidence about ‘what works’ – though there is a great deal of evidence about what doesn’t work in relation to the war on drugs.

This is not only an issue of breaking down knowledge silos and disconnects between drug agencies and peacebuilding and development agencies. It is also about asking ‘difficult questions’ regarding the impacts of drugs and counter-narcotics policies on processes of development and war-to-peace transitions, and confronting the tough trade-offs that often exist between drug policy goals, poverty alleviation, and efforts to reduce levels of large-scale armed violence.  

The relationship between counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace and state building objectives are neither straightforward, nor necessarily complementary.

Indeed, the tensions and trade-offs between conventional counter-narcotics and the mounting push for conflict-sensitive and development-oriented approaches manifest themselves in multiple ways. For example, the criminalisation of farmers who grow coca or poppy clashes with the widely proclaimed Alternative Development (AD) principle of participatory engagement with those involved in illicit crop production. The push for rapid results based on number of hectares eradicated, undermines longer term efforts to support alternative livelihoods. Counter-narcotics policies linked to counterinsurgency objectives may undermine government legitimacy in borderland regions as well as destroy farmers’ livelihoods. 

Attacks on specific drug ‘kingpins’ can destabilise political settlements and make life less secure by generating new forms of contestation, or by splintering more or less coherent organisation of criminal activities into a chaotic competition around drug turfs. Research on Afghanistan and Myanmar shows that informal political arrangements (that can be at odds with drug control objectives) can be particularly important to stabilising violent conflict and state building in areas with longstanding drug economies and where the central government seeks to govern through – potentially uncooperative – regional elites.

These examples show that the relationship between counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace and state building objectives are neither straightforward, nor necessarily complementary.

We do not claim to be able to offer systematic evidence for how to address these tensions within the confines of this report. However, we do offer some signposting to direct policymakers and practitioners towards the kinds of issues and approaches that are important for addressing trade-offs and developing a clearer understanding of the uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of interventions.

Training Afghan farmers in modern farming techniques. Khaneshin, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: SAC Neil

A way forward

In light of this ‘policy impasse,’ new approaches are required to better understand and tackle illicit drug economies, especially in contexts of armed conflict and peacebuilding. Here we outline what we believe to be a way forward, and a set of departure points, for the Drugs & (dis)order project, that aim to address this policy impasse.

Engaging marginalised voices

Drugs are the subject of multiple and contested narratives but certain narratives, mainly those of the powerful associated with national elites and international donors, tend to dominate and drown out other more ‘marginal’ perspectives.

Participants in illicit drug economies (producers, transporters or consumers) across the global South tend to be poorly represented – or not represented at all – in global and national policy debates on drugs, development and peacebuilding. And yet, they are amongst those most affected by the global War on Drugs.

Policies that purport to address drugs, support development and build peace, can only do so if they are more attuned to how drugs shape livelihoods and power structures in borderland regions, and the uneven distribution of risks and opportunities for those who engage in illegal drug economies.

Hence, we believe there is a need to listen and learn from, in a much more serious and sustained way, the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions.

A borderlands lens

Illicit drug economies typically flourish in borderlands. These transnational regions are zones where drugs and armed conflict commonly intertwine and where the legitimacy of central governments is often heavily contested. As a result, they are politically sensitive spaces which are frequently seen as a law and order problem by national elites.

We are critical of the tendency amongst policymakers to view borderlands as marginal, disconnected and ungoverned zones that need to be pacified, incorporated and developed.  This state-centric perspective, which views borderlands as passive receptors of state policies and initiatives, misses the role that the margins play in constituting power at the centre. Indeed, far from being left behind or disconnected, we see borderlands often as places of ingenuity, innovation and transformation.

The Drugs & (dis)order project considers borderlands as a critical (and often overlooked) vantage point to better understand processes of state formation and development. This approach explores how borderland regions can play an important role in shaping what happens in national and global centres.

In doing so, we set out to show how the dynamics of borderland regions – including illicit drug production – are less a consequence of their lack of political and economic integration, than a function of the way these integrative processes are imposed, resisted, and brokered by multiple sets of actors, interests and relations operating across local, national, cross-border and global scales.

Challenging the exceptionality of drugs

There is a tendency amongst drug agencies to treat illicit drugs as though they are exceptional. This drugs fetishism imbues drugs with inherent attributes that automatically engender crime, violent conflict and state fragility.

The fetishism surrounding drugs is also reflected in the tendency to analyse drug-producing regions only through the lens of drugs. And to narrowly fixate on drug metrics, overlooking the broader socio-economic and political dynamics of which the drug trade is but a part.

In terms of research methods, this has often meant asking narrow and direct questions on drugs, rather than exploring local livelihoods and power structures, and how drugs interact with them.

In terms of analysis, it has meant that the reasons why people engage in the drug economy are often reduced to simplistic profit motives. Meanwhile, shifts in drug economies (such as changing levels of production) are often directly attributed to drug policy interventions, rather than to broader political and economic shifts.

The Drugs & (dis)order project seeks to challenge such fetishism and the idea of a fixed relationship between drugs, armed conflict and state fragility. For example, we ask what makes illicit drug economies violent (or not)? And we question the assumption that eradicating drugs will necessarily end violence in the borderland regions we study.

Rethinking the relationship between drugs, development and violence

This fetishizing of drugs means that drug economies are viewed as operating outside of conventional development processes, which are usually defined in terms of state-building, economic growth, poverty reduction, and reducing levels of armed violence.

The framing of drugs as residual to, or undermining of, development processes has encouraged a set of policy narratives that assume greater state presence and economic development – and the subsequent integration of drug-producing regions into national political structures and global markets – will automatically work to dismantle illegal drug economies and enable transition to peace.

Our project challenges these assumptions. Instead, we draw upon an emerging body of research that reveals how drug production has at times been linked with periods of state expansion as well as state breakdown, efforts to stabilise armed conflict as well as financing war economies, and has contributed to forms of welfare provision and economic growth, as well being a function of economic marginalisation.

Through integrating research on drugs, development and war-to-peace transitions, we aim to better understand how drug economies shape – and are shaped by – wider processes of political and economic change, rather than assuming that drugs will be displaced by these processes.

Recognising dilemmas and trade-offs

New approaches must start by recognising that policymakers and individuals in drug affected environments face tough trade-offs.

Households face trade-offs when deciding whether to engage in illicit economies. As illustrated in this report, coca-producing communities in Colombia have obtained significant socio-economic advances, but at the cost of enduring endemic violence. In Myanmar, opium cultivation has long been an essential component to the livelihoods of some of the country’s poorest communities. Yet, rising levels of harmful drug use are now generating new challenges for families and communities.

Governments too confront complex dilemmas when choosing between what are often contradictory policy goals in the areas of counter-narcotics, pro-poor development, peace- and state-building. For example, a government may satisfy demands for tangible short-term counter-narcotics ‘achievements’, but these actions may disrupt local economies, destabilise local power structures, or renew competition between armed organisations involved in the drug trade.

Conversely, informal arrangements surrounding the drug trade (such as protection, impunity or access to the legal economy) may be an important foundation for ceasefires and political settlements between governments and opposition groups, which in turn allow for a reduction in violent conflict and enable the state to establish a stronger presence in contested areas 

Hence, the narrative of ‘win-win’ solutions is frequently disingenuous, dishonest and even counter-productive. Serious research and honest policy dialogues have to start with recognition of such dilemmas and trade-offs, as well as the context that determines or influences them and their distributional consequences.