Data management: how we’re building capacities in a complex research project

Data management for an interdisciplinary research project, with multiple research partners, working on sensitive issues and in conflict-affected and fragile states is far from straightforward. I’m Data Manager for such a project: Drugs & (dis)order – with twelve partner organisations researching how illicit drug economies can transform into peacetime economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar.

This article outlines how we approach data management within the project, with an emphasis on building capacities for good data management. We hope this information will be useful for projects and organisations to develop their data management strategy. You may also wish to read our Data management guidance.

Identify priorities and challenges

Drugs & (dis)order seeks to generate robust evidence for use in policy and practice. Evidence is collected through interviews, life histories, focus group discussions, observations, photographs, surveys, compilation of existing data sources and press information and satellite imagery. Most research is carried out by local field researchers, with information elicited from key informants such as drug users, producers, farmers, traders and the public.

Needless to say, much of the research data collected is sensitive in nature. They may deal with illicit activities and include ‘stories’ or responses whereby people or organisations may be identifiable. That is certainly the case for life history interviews and photographs. Unwanted identity disclosure, or the data getting into the wrong hands, may put interviewees and researchers at risk.

An additional challenge stems from the fact that the customs and requirements for data protection, research ethics and the understanding of consent, vary in the three research countries. And are different from UK standards. Therefore, careful management and security of the research data generated in the project, from the moment they are ‘captured’, is important.

Finally, the project donor – UKRI-ESRC under the umbrella of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – has the expectation that the generated data will be managed and preserved for the long-term, and made available for future use.

Understand how data are managed

Strengthening capacity amongst partners and field researchers is one of the key pillars for GCRF projects. In Drugs & (dis)order we pay much attention to strengthening capacity for data management.

In practice, this means that as the project’s research data manager I work with our partners in Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and the UK on good data management practices.

Understanding current data management practices in each organisation is the first step. This starts with discussing which data they collect and use in their research activities, and understanding the different steps the data may take. Who collects the data? In what format? How are data brought back from the field to the office? What transformations take place and which people, other than the field researchers, may be involved in this?

For example, interviews may be audio-recorded on a digital recorder, or notes taken during an interview. Recorded interviews may be brought back to the office on the recorder, or copied onto a laptop. Interviews may then be transcribed in local languages and translated to English. The researchers may do this, or interviews may be sent to external transcribers and translators. Surveys can be captured on paper questionnaire forms, with responses later entered into a digital database. Or surveys may be captured directly in digital format via an online form.

Each data transfer or transformation that takes place, and each person involved in this data ‘pipeline’ can have an influence on the quality of the data, and will require certain data security measures.

Discussing all the steps in the research data process in detail helps to develop practical data management guidance. For example, how to store and transfer data on different devices to use unique codes as identifiers for interviewees, to anonymise data, to transcribe it, and so on. It also helps to identify the security measures that need to be put in place.

Security first

The safe and secure storage, transfer and handling of all collected research data has been a main priority for Drugs & (dis)order, especially since some of the local partners have a fairly basic IT infrastructure and no dedicated IT staff. Researchers may carry out all work on laptops, with no networked server available.

An audit was done of all the laptops (and PCs) used within the project for working with sensitive data. The audit recorded: their operating system, version and edition; the antivirus software used on the machine; and whether or not encryption is in place.

An encryption strategy was developed for laptops, whereby either the entire drive (disk) of the laptop was encrypted, or an encrypted ‘container’ was set up on the laptop in which sensitive files can be placed. Practical guidance for encryption was sent to all researchers, explaining which tools can be used and how encryption is implemented in practice.

Glasscubes was already used by the project as a collaborative workspace to share and exchange reports and information. Since it is an ISO27001 ( Information Security Management Systems) certified tool and has Cyber Essentials certification, it is now also used to share data files with colleagues on the project and to transfer data files between partners securely.

Hands-on data management

Visits to the partner organisations in Afghanistan and Myanmar helped to develop data management practices further.

Working directly with the researchers and staff members that handle and manage the data at different stages of the research process, I could observe how this is done in practice and where there may be scope for improvement.

It also means that the guidance can be put into practice for the specific data an organisation is working with, by the individuals responsible for data management, and for the software packages they are using. It is important to fit good data management around the software packages and tools people are used to working with.

With the data manager and researchers of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, I worked on implementing standardised data entry and standard coding for an Excel-based database of thousands of development projects and investments, as well as the use of formulas for analysis of the data.

With the Organization for Sustainable Development and Research in Afghanistan, I worked on the best ways to collect questionnaire and interview data in an anonymous way, using unique respondent and surveyor codes, and to remove and code sensitive information in the database where responses are submitted.

With Kachinland Research Centre (KRC) and  Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) in Myanmar, I worked on an optimal system for uniquely coding interviews carried out by multiple field researchers in different areas, and tracking the audio recordings, field notes, summaries, transcripts and translations of each interview through the use of these codes in file names and in data sheets that record the demographic and organisational information of each interview.

Country visits were also used to provide formal data management training to partner organisations, on topics such as organising data, file naming, version control, data storage and transfer, data anonymisation, quality control, documentation and metadata, transcription and tools and coding qualitative data.

Data management guidance

All the data management measures implemented by liaising with the partners are also written out into practical Data management guidance that will continue to develop as the project progresses.

In months to come the focus will shift to further requirements, such as selecting a tool to help organise, manage and tag digital images; investigating solutions for a repository system for partners to archive their data files; and developing capacity for coding qualitative data.

There is still time to make Colombia’s illicit crop substitution programme work

Colombia’s national illicit crop substitution programme (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) has been one of the main instruments in the battle to reduce illicit coca production, since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016. But the programme has been fraught with difficulties, in part due to non-compliance by the Government.

Yet a recent survey of coca farmers enrolled in the programme in Tumaco and Puerto Asís (two of Colombia’s largest coca producing municipalities) found that they are still largely committed to and optimistic about the programme. This tells us that there is still time to adjust the policy and make it work.

But this window of opportunity won’t last forever. Adjustments to the policy will need to: address government non-compliance; improve information flows between the state and participants; and importantly, include the opinions, perspectives and experiences of the coca farmers who have for too long been dismissed in these policy debates.

A survey of coca farmers was carried out by the Institute of Politics and International Relations at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund-project Drugs & (dis)order, and its key findings were:

Coca growing families are not criminals: it’s time to change the narrative

The most common narratives about coca farmers are that they are either desperately poor, with no option other than farming coca to survive, or that they are extremely rich narcotraffickers.

The survey results don’t fit these stereotypes. They show that the typical coca grower has an income just slightly above the average income of the dispersed rural sector, but in no way could be considered rich.

It is precisely this slight but sustained increase in income that incentivises farmers to grow coca. As one coca grower said, ‘coca is for us what a company’s salary is for you.’

And far from spending their income on flashy material goods, we found that coca producing families invest their money in four things: education for their children, land, cars and housing – the same as many Colombian families.

So, coca farmers do not spend their money as criminals. Nor do they live in the shadows like criminals. Coca growers are very active participants in the social life of their communities.

They’re also active in the country’s democracy. The survey found that 85% of respondents voted in the last presidential election. Participation in local elections was also high (national voting levels rarely exceed 50%).

Coca growers have poor access to public services and face higher risk of violence

However, despite living like other Colombian families in many respects, coca growing families are different in some fundamental ways.

First, they have significantly less access to public goods and services. The survey data shows us that less than 3% of respondents have formal access to drinking water, sewage, gas and internet. That is well below the average of rural Colombian households according to the National Agricultural Census.

Second, they have much higher exposure to violence. Overwhelmingly, the majority of coca producers who participated in the study said that coca was associated with increased violence in their region.

Government non-compliance with PNIS is a big issue, as is lack of information

When asked about PNIS, most survey respondents spoke positively about the treatment they had received from programme officials – both from the Crop substitution Directorate and the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.

However, when talking about the government’s fulfilment of their commitments, well let’s just say that the responses were not positive at all!

Government failure to comply was without doubt the biggest difficulty that participants had with the programme.

The survey also suggests that there is an information and communication problem when it comes to PNIS. Most of the respondents received information about the programme from social organisations, not state agencies.

Alarmingly, less than 20% of respondents actually have a copy of the signed contract between them and the government. A small proportion of those enrolled in the programme have documentation explaining the commitments of both parties.

Farmers are still optimistic: a unique opportunity that the government can’t ignore

Survey respondents mostly expressed commitment to, and optimism about, the policy. More than 85% said that they thought those enrolled in the programme would comply. And 90% said they did not know families who had replanted coca after enrolling in the programme. This is backed up by UNODC’s verification work. Just 14% of respondents said that they regret enrolling.

In spite of Government non-compliance and contradictory signals (last year president Duque said he would not enable more registrations due to a shortage of resources) more than 60% of respondents believe that the state will comply with what it agreed.

As the future of PNIS is being debated in Colombia, we hope that this study will be used by policymakers to inform their decisions. The voices, perspectives and experiences of coca farmers are sadly not listened to, and this is a mistake.

This blog is adapted from an article published by the author in El Espectador on 16 August 2019. The full survey results will be published shortly, and a link provided here.

Conflictos cocaleros en Colombia

These articles are currently only available in Spanish.

Cuatro artículos publicados en la revista Análisis Político (Vol. 32, Numero 97 (2019): Conflictos cocaleros en Colombia).

What you didn’t know about Mexico’s opium crisis

What links the recent deaths of America’s biggest rock stars Prince and Tom Petty, with an unprecedented economic crisis in rural Mexico? It’s probably not a question that many people have asked themselves. The answer is: a rise in the use of a synthetic opioid drug called fentanyl.

While this rise is having a devastating impact in the US and in rural poppy cultivating communities in Mexico, it could represent an unprecedented opportunity for the Mexican government to stop dependency on illegal crop cultivation in poor rural regions and to take back control from dangerous drug trafficking organisations.

In the US, the ‘fentanyl crisis’ is now killing more people than heroin

Fentanyl is around 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. For many years, it was used in US hospitals but rarely found on the streets. From around 2014, illicit pharmaceutical manufacturers in Asia began to use the dark web to advertise fentanyl to US dealers as a profitable addition, or alternative, to heroin – and one that could be cheaply and easily shipped to US cities in the post.

Because of its potency, fentanyl is now involved in 60% of US opioid deaths – including those of a host of high-profile celebrities. Synthetic opioid overdoses have risen from around 3,000 in 2013 to nearly 30,000 in 2017. Its use has become so prevalent that some quarters of the US press have rechristened the national opioid crisis, ‘the fentanyl crisis.’

Rising fentanyl use has led to a lesser-known crisis south of the US border too

As well as leaving a trail of dead consumers and fractured communities in the US, in Mexico, the rise in fentanyl use is destroying the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most marginalised communities that have long depended on the illicit opium poppy cultivation to supply the US heroin market.

Last year, during fieldwork in poppy-cultivating communities in Mexico (that were, until recently, the source of more than 90% of US heroin) we saw a decline in the value of the local opium crop of up to 80%.

When asked about the reason for this economic collapse, locals were adamant that the crisis was provoked by the gringos (people from the US) and a new synthetic drug. ‘They just don’t like heroin any more,’ they said.

Shocked by the scale and severity of this new crisis, we began to investigate the issue in more depth. And it soon became clear that the locals were right: the upsurge in the use of Asian fentanyl has caused US demand for Mexican heroin to fall sharply, which, in turn, massively depressed the price of raw opium in the Mexican countryside.

Our research shows that for the first time in history, illicit natural drugs have suddenly ceased to be profitable cash crops in Mexico.

Mexico’s main opium producing areas

Last year, Mexican
opium farmers saw a 63% decrease in earnings

Opium poppy cultivation has provided a lifeline to rural regions of Mexico since neoliberal reforms in the 1990s cut agricultural subsidiaries and reduced cross-border tariffs, driving down the price of locally-produced agricultural products.

In these borderland areas – which have some of the highest rates of poverty and social marginalisation in the country – opium production was all that sustained local economies, religious practices, and intra-community relations. It also stemmed out-migration to Mexican cities and the US.

By 2017, the value of the opium produced in these regions was around 19 billion pesos ($1 billion dollars). That is significantly more than the total value of Mexican beans (16 billion pesos, or $846 million dollars), wheat (13 billion pesos, or $687 million dollars), or cotton (12 billion pesos, or $636 million dollars).

Last year, however, Mexican opium farmers made only 5-7 billion pesos ($260-$364 million dollars), or even as little as 5 billion pesos ($260 million dollars). This is a decrease in earnings of as much as 63%.

This is causing serious secondary effects in municipalities where opium had been the main source of revenue for local people. Families are losing their sole source of income. And money flowing into the local economy has dried up almost completely.

Many former opium producers are left with no choice but to work for drug trafficking organisations

As the Trump administration makes it ever more difficult for people to seek new opportunities as migrant labourers in the US (an option that has long constituted a safety net for rural Mexicans), many former opium producers are instead fleeing to Mexican cities,  where uncontrolled rural-to-urban migration has long been tied to social breakdown and rising violence. Others are left with no choice but to work directly for Mexican drug trafficking organisations.

While the prognosis is bad, the current opium crisis may also provide an unprecedented opportunity

The opium crisis could be a chance to move poorer regions of rural Mexico away from their dependency on illegal crops, and, in so doing, wrest control of these areas from drug trafficking organisations.

Farmers now receiving pitiful returns from illicit opium production are more likely to turn to the safer rewards offered by two ideas that have been floating around for years: crop substitution programmes, and the legalisation and regulation of opium production for medical use.

Neither of these should be conceived of as ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Mexico’s capacity for opium production still greatly exceeds the country’s demand for legitimate medical use. And crop substitution programmes are often expensive and complicated by practical problems such as a lack of infrastructure.

But with sufficient political will, financial investment, and serious consultation with local communities on issues such as sustainability, market stability, transport, and soil-, altitude-, climate- and water-suitability, they could serve as important first steps in tying local farmers to licit international markets.

And in the process, loosening the grip of drug trafficking organisations on the country’s most marginalised drug producing regions that are geographically distant from the centres of power and have historically been neglected.

If successful, Mexico’s opium crisis could constitute a watershed in the government’s long-running efforts to integrate these regions into the country for good.

Nathaniel Morris is a research fellow at UCL, London, where he works on modern Mexican history, indigenous politics, and the Latin American drug trade (@morrisinmexico). This blog is based on research published by Noria, a Paris-based collective of academics, researchers and analysts, specialising in fieldwork-based investigations into internal conflicts, foreign policy and international migration. The research was carried out by Romain LeCour (@romainlecour), Nathaniel Morris and Benjamin T Smith (@benjamintsmith7).

A curious case of unusual economic transformation

This post was first published by Christian Aid on 10 July 2019. Read original article.

Countries seek to grow their economies so that livelihoods, incomes and welfare services are secure and sustainable. But for countries beset by poverty and conflict, achieving this can be difficult. Instead, they often face serious economic crises.

In such situations, these countries usually turn to the lenders of last resort – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the 1980s, these lenders prescribed a standard solution, a formula called structural adjustment. In exchange for loans to prevent a country’s economy from collapse, it would need to commit to stabilise, liberalise and privatise; focus on trade and production; and democratise.

However, there is a country that for various historical reasons did not ‘get the memo’. For the moment, let’s call it Country X. As its currency was demonetised, inflation was at 30{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} and bus fares tripled, the government declared martial law and enforced a bloody crackdown instead.

There wasn’t even a chance to ‘stabilise, liberalise and privatise’ because something much harsher was enforced: international economic sanctions. Country X was deprived of access to global markets, foreign direct investments, development aid and hard foreign currency as its economy teetered on the edge of collapse.

Yet, surprisingly, Country X did not go belly up, thanks largely to an unconventional route it adopted in desperation to tackle economic isolation and chronic conflict. Its military rulers tolerated a single cash crop to bring in revenues and revive the economy.

In a little over two decades, the economy was well enough that the military rulers called for elections, the first step needed to remove the painful sanctions and be considered again by the lenders of last resort. So where is Country X, and how did this happen?

Resource curse

Country X is a typical developing country with a ‘resource curse’. It has rich mineral areas, forests and fertile valleys but since independence these had become dangerous places where armed groups roamed, engaging in civil wars in which no side could win nor be defeated.

Much of the conflict was in the rugged, mountainous northeast, which historically was the poorest and most marginalised area because it couldn’t develop intensive agriculture, lacked water and had poor infrastructure for bringing harvests to markets before they spoiled.

But two crops were suited for the terrain and remoteness of this region – tea and a crop we’ll call Crop Z for now: a low-volume, long-lasting and high-value agricultural product. These gave highland communities the cash they needed to buy not only food, but also modern consumer goods – from cooking oil and sugar to pots and pans.

However, when the conflicts ignited, tea diminished in importance because it needed lots of land to grow. Crop Z, on the other hand, could be grown just about on any hillside, over a much shorter period, and with considerably less maintenance.

As the conflicts dragged on, armed groups were the only ones who had the means to move Crop Z to border crossings and the markets beyond. They got a 20–30{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} commission for every kilo they delivered to buyers at the border.

Curiously, while there was intense fighting over territory and political causes, very little actual violence was triggered by the trading of Crop Z itself.

The evolution of Crop Z

Over time, the armed traders thought of ways to make deliveries less burdensome. By processing raw Crop Z into semi-processed product No.1, volume was reduced by 90{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}. As such, they invested in backyard processing, which also meant giving jobs to hired hands, mostly refugees displaced by the conflict.

Additional processing led to product No.2. As the processing expanded, the added profits shifted to the local producers and primary traders.

Still the wars raged, and so did Crop Z cultivation and processing, allowing a lifeline to poor households unable to escape the conflict.

It then turned out that the armed traders could produce Crop Z’s finished product themselves – like selling flour, rather than just wheat. And so, with the profits they were making, they invested further in processing and refining, and started making products No. 3 and No. 4.

As the enterprise expanded, tools and equipment, like electricity generators and water pumps, proliferated. Roads were maintained. Loans were made available to growers who were too poor to qualify for credit through normal channels. Soon, more migrants looking for work turned up.

As cash flowed in, the new-found purchasing power sustained demand for food and other products that made lowland economies more viable. A ‘trickle-up’ effect emerged. Most importantly, the violence calmed down and ceasefires were agreed.

Revealing Country X and Crop Z

According to one study, by 1995 Crop Z was pumping more than half a billion US dollars each year into the economy, an amount bigger than the government’s tax revenues. Over the next two decades, banks and various companies sprouted, capitalised by Crop Z profits. One ex-militia leader and Crop Z trader, who died in July 2013 as a tycoon, had obituaries written about him in major publications around the world.

The Economist called him ‘a pillar of the economy.’

… and a ‘heroin king‘.

That’s because Country X is Myanmar, and Crop Z is opium. Products No.1 and 2 are the morphine base and heroin base, respectively, while products No.3 and No.4 are brown and white heroin.

Illicit crops and development – challenging the narrative

I am not suggesting that illicit crops are a solution. Crop Z could be another crop, like bananas or sugar, and have the same impact – as long as its production distributes income, provides credit, pays for public services and re-invests profits back into the local economy. So, what I am explaining is the difference between structural adjustment and structural economic transformation – and pondering what we can learn from this.

Myanmar did not ‘stabilise, liberalise and privatise’, and achieved some economic transformation by following a different route. Its story shows that illicit economies, while often sustained by violence and coercion, can also be a source of order and contribute to income and employment growth, especially in conflict-affected areas.

This challenges the dominant narrative that drug economies are only a law enforcement problem, with no developmental impacts, implying that we need to think hard about policy and practice around illicit economies. This seems to be the lesson that can be taken away from this curious case study.

For more on challenging the narrative on illicit crops and development, read our new report Peace, illicit drugs and the SDGs: a development gap.

How the war on drugs criminalises the poorest in human society

This post was first published on the Huffington Post on 11 July 2019. Read original article.

When some of the world’s poorest people are denied basic rights such as land, access to credit and social protection, it is no surprise they turn to cultivating illicit crops in order to survive, but it’s a mistake when they are criminalised.

According to the latest estimates, the global value of the illicit drug market could be between $300 and $600billion a year. Globally, opium production has doubled since the turn of the century. The UN has emphasised that the production of opium and manufacture of cocaine today are ‘at the highest levels ever recorded’.

By any measure, this is a failure of decades of counter narcotic policy. Responses to drugs have varied, from those that seek alternative development, harm reduction to the extreme measures of the ‘war on drugs’.

The two pillars of the ‘war on drugs’ – the eradication of illicit crops and the militarisation of the fight against drug gangs – have both been a disaster.

Crop eradication has led to deforestation and people losing their homes, while doing little to reduce cultivation levels. Aerial fumigation – the spraying of carcinogenic chemicals on illicit crops – has damaged people’s health and their environment. And the use of the military in law enforcement operations has led to egregious human rights abuses.

There have been an estimated 27,000 extrajudicial killings in the Philippines related to President Duterte’s war on drugs. In 33 jurisdictions globally, drugs users are executed. In Colombia in 2017 and 2018, 47 members of a peasant farmers’ movement – which gives cultivators of illicit crops a voice – their activism in promoting more humane public policies on illicit crops.

The continuing militarisation of the ‘war on drugs’ has translated into a sustained and often devastating attack on human rights from displacement of land, access to health and livelihoods, to killings.

Some of the principal victims of this ‘war and drugs’ are the poor communities that live on the margins and the borderlands of countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. These are neglected and marginalised areas where violence, fragility and displacement are rife. Communities in these regions lack access to the bare essentials and are struggling to build peace after decades of war. It is perhaps no accident that in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, illicit drug cultivation has continued to grow even after the signing of ceasefires and peace agreements.

While these communities face violence and coercion, they are not simply victims. They have agency and are often forced to find unorthodox ways to survive. Often they turn to illicit drug economies because it might their only solution. These economies can provide them with an income, employment and protection amid violence, insecurity and poverty.

Efforts to move away from the militarised approach inherent in the ‘war on drugs’ are welcome. However, to date, the evidence base to support such reforms remains weak. There is a prevailing tendency in practice to view illicit crop economies primarily through a narrow law enforcement lens.

A much more comprehensive development and peacebuilding approach is needed. Firstly, we need to recognise that people need to survive, and if this means cultivating illicit crops, this is what they will do in the absence of state support, lack of access to credit, lack of access to land and the absence of social protection. They should not be treated as criminals for trying to survive.

The Sustainable Development Goals, the globally agreed framework to create a better world, provide a unique mandate for addressing this blind spot of dealing with the issue drugs. The failure to date to fully understand the wider role of drug economies has real-life consequences for ordinary people – in different ways for men and women.

Secondly, states need to recognise the true impact of illicit economies and their role in development and peacebuilding when addressing the SDGs. This would encourage a radical shift away from the counterproductive policies that have historically defined their relationship to illicit drug economies.

Thirdly, if the aim of counter-narcotics policy is to reduce people’s reliance on illicit crops and create peaceful transitions from armed conflict, the criteria of success should not be metrics like ‘reduction in hectares cultivated’ or ‘kilograms of drugs seized’. They should be measures of economic development, access to public services, poverty reduction, respect for human rights, levels of human security, confidence in the state, and access to meaningful employment.

Finally, rather than seeing illicit economies as problems to be solved by law enforcement operations, peace agreements need to deliver more than an end to fighting, they need to comprehensively address the marginalisation and exclusion of those in borderlands and provide people with secure land tenure, access to public services, and alternative economic opportunities to address the factors that attract poor subsistence farmers to illicit activities in the first place.

Solutions to transforming economies of war to economies of peace have to include people in marginalised territories and solutions should be built by those that understand the problem best.

Karol Balfe leads peacebuilding work at Christian Aid, a partner in the Drugs and (dis)order research project funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Peace, illicit drugs and the SDGs: A development gap

The two strategic pillars of the ‘war on drugs’ – that is the eradication of illicit crops and the militarisation of the fight against drug gangs – have both been a disaster. The fragile consensus surrounding the ‘war on drugs’ is falling apart.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an opportunity to develop new, contextually attuned approaches to counter-narcotics and peacebuilding – based on solid research and applying a gender lens.

This policy paper provides recommendations for a new approach to transforming illicit drug economies, in order to support sustainable transitions that achieve the targets and ambition of the SDGs.

Read policy paper.

This paper was published by Christian Aid, a partner in the Drugs and (dis)order research project funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Illicit drugs and peace: why the borderlands matter

It has become a truism amongst policymakers that transitions from war to peace involve a shift from illicit to licit activities. Once the guns fall silent, unruly borderland regions no longer have a comparative advantage in illegality and violence, and should become investment hubs for productive and licit activities.

But in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – three of the world’s biggest drug cultivators – production has continued to grow following the signing of ceasefire and peace agreements.

Illicit drug economies flourish in the borderland regions – where there’s weaker state presence and easy-access to lucrative foreign markets. And home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities, borderlands often become marginalised hotspots of persistent conflict and poverty, even after ‘peace.’

While the borderlands lie at the margins of the country, we believe that they are central to the processes that generate war and peace. And what happens in the borderlands is fundamentally shaping and reshaping the centre.

Here are a few of the issues and perspectives emerging from our early research on building peacetime economies in the aftermath of war that demonstrate the importance of borderlands, and that we hope to develop and explore over the next three years.

The borderlands have been neglected in policy debates

Historically, the borderlands have been characterised as ‘unruly’ regions where the population seeks to evade or resist the central state – see for example James Scott’s ‘The art of not being governed.’ These regions are represented as background and problematic areas that are frequently marginalised or left out of the debates about drug policy reform and peace transitions. There is a dominant narrative that views the extension of the central state’s footprint into ‘unruly borderlands’ as a pacifying and developmental dynamic. But the reality is far more complex.

Take for example the Colombian department of Putumayo on the Ecuador border. Government drug substitution programmes are actually impoverishing families for whom coca has been central to the local economy for decades. There are barriers to enter new legal economies, such as licenses to grow particular cash crops, or lack of infrastructure to get goods to markets. People are trapped in coca production – there simply aren’t viable alternatives.

In fact, what’s emerging from our research is that there is nothing inherently rebellious or anti-state about the borderlands. They do want the state to govern them, but they want a stake in negotiating the terms of that governance.

The borderlands have demonstrated remarkable creativity and adaptability

The borderlands are often seen as lagging behind the rest of the country. But this is far from true.

Borderlands have demonstrated remarkable creativity and adaptability in surviving, and sometimes thriving, in risk and uncertainty – especially those involved in drug economies.

In Afghanistan, communities in frontier zones such as the Shegnan and Ishkashim districts of Badahkshan turned to the drug economy in the 1990s as a means to cope with political disorder after the collapse of the Soviet-backed Communist government. These marginal territories transformed into important opium cultivation and trafficking hubs, shaping political dynamics both within and beyond the province.

In fact, across Afghanistan’s diverse border regions, we see many examples of experimentation, adaptability and the transfer of know how, technology, improved seeds and credit instruments, all related to the dynamics of the opium economy.

Borderland drug economies can be a form of resistance to exclusionary development processes

The fact that illicit drug production in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar has continued to grow following the signing of ceasefire and peace agreements – and in spite of large infusions of donor funding and government development programmes – suggests a far more complex and context specific relationship between illicit economies, development and transitions from war to peace than commonly thought.

Take for example, the eastern borderlands of Myanmar, Shan State. The region has a long history of poppy production and armed conflict. In recent years, ceasefires between the government and ethnic armed organisations have paved the way for new licit economies – such as logging, mining, agriculture, road and dam building and increased cross-border trade with China and Thailand.

However, the inequalities underpinning these new economies have pushed some people back into illicit activities. For example, processes of violent dispossession, including land grabs, leave many poor rural communities with few economic options beyond cultivating opium or migrating across the country’s borders.

In some respects, poppy cultivation is a form of resistance to exclusionary development processes. Also, where opium bans were enforced under the ceasefires, rural populations experienced severe food shortages and worsening poverty.

‘Drugs and (dis)order: building peacetime economies in the aftermath of war’ seeks to better understand the historical context and political economy that has shaped the emergence of illicit drug economies, their persistence during wartime and how they have affected and been affected by transitions out of large-scale violence. The project intends to shine a light on the role of the borderlands as critical vectors of change in the transition of war economies, and to amplify the voices and perspectives of borderland populations that have ignored and marginalised in debates on drugs, development and post war transition.