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Marginal development: states, markets and violence in drug-affected borderlands

26 November 2019│5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

In many parts of the world, frontier and borderland regions are sites of state fragility and entrenched war economies, often fuelled by illicit drugs. The borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar have experienced many decades of armed conflict and have emerged as global leaders in the production and trafficking of heroin and cocaine.

These drugs-intensified borderlands are frequently represented as either lagging regions left behind by wider development processes, or dangerous hot spots and ungoverned zones that export public bads in the forms of terrorism, illicit good and wider insecurity.

These borderland pathologies are attributed to a failure to integrate; transforming war economies and sustainable war to peace transitions is perceived to lie in the expansion of markets and state institutions.

Yet this ‘diffusionist narrative’ fails to capture the essential characteristics and dynamics of change in state margins; these are regions of intense interconnectivity linked into national and global circuits of commodities, capital and investment.

War economies and peace economies, centres and margins, are linked to one another in complex and co-dependent relations. Metropolitan centres, nationally and globally, may become shaped by, or indeed dependant on, processes of resource extraction, conflict and development in the margins. Rather than simply being reflective of power relations at the centre, these marginal spaces can become critical sites of experimentation and innovations that are often constitutive of new political and economic orders.

Key to understanding these connections are the dynamics of intermediation or brokerage that bring together and entangle the licit and the illicit, state and non-state, hubs and peripheries.

We aim to challenge how conflict, development and state building are conceptualised and responded to, by zooming in on the political economy of the margins – from the cocaine-producing Amazon frontier region of Colombia, to the poppy fields of the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, to the methamphetamine labs on the Myanmar-China border.

We explore how the violence, poverty and illegal drug economies present in these regions are not a function of the marginalisation of spaces left behind by development but have become deeply embedded within processes of state formation and capitalist expansion. Starting from the margins, we argue, offers a privileged vantage point for offering new insights into development processes.

We draw upon research produced as part of a four-year Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) project led by SOAS, University of London, entitled ‘Drugs & (dis)order: building peacetime economies in the aftermath of war’, which is generating new evidence on how to transform illicit drug economies into peace economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar.


Jonathan Goodhand is Professor of Conflict and Development Studies in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS. He is also a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. His research focuses on the political economy of conflict and post-war transitions, with a particular focus on South and Central Asia. In recent years, he has led several research projects focusing on the role of borderland regions in transitions into and out of large scale armed conflict. He is the Principal Investigator of the GCRF Drugs and (Dis)order project.

Jasmine Bhatia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS. Her research interests include civil wars, insurgent movements, and sub-national political settlements in violent contexts. She received her doctorate in Politics in 2018 from Oxford University, which involved several rounds of mixed-methods fieldwork in Afghanistan. Prior to joining academia, Jasmine worked for the United Nations and on several UK government-sponsored international development projects, primarily in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Patrick Meehan is a postdoctoral research fellow at SOAS, University of London and a Co-Investigator on the GCRF Drugs and (Dis)order project, in which he co-leads the Myanmar research team. His research explores the political economy of violence, conflict and development, and engages specifically with the relationship between illicit economies and processes of state-building and peace-building in borderland and frontier regions with a primary focus on Myanmar’s borderlands with China.

Francisco Gutierrez Sanin is a sociologist and anthropologist, and Director of the Observatory on Land Restitution. His research background relates to political systems, power and conflict. He has researched the Colombian conflict extensively and contributed to several academic and non-academic journals on this topic. Research interests include: armed conflict, insurgent and counterinsurgent organisation, agrarian conflicts and property rights, patterns of violence, clientelism and brokerage, political parties and methodology. His role in this GCRF project is to lead the Colombia research and contribute on the methodology for comparative research.

All welcome, no need to reserve but arrive early to be sure of a seat.


26 November 2019
5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Event Category:


Russel Square: College Buildings, Djam Lecture Theatre
London, United Kingdom