Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.

Our stories are fragmented, discordant (or polyphonic) and sometimes contradictory. They do not lend themselves to clear, generalisable policy implications and lessons. And they do not necessarily reveal much that is new to local people who usually know a great deal about the issues around drugs.

But drawing on Tsing’s ideas about the art of noticing and the art of listening these narratives do provide some questions, provocations and pointers for policy makers (and researchers) regarding how to think about and respond to borderland drug economies and how to engage with communities on the margins.

We suggest that life histories are not simply tales, they are narratives that can help motivate public action and influence policy. They provide, potentially, a vehicle for empowering marginalised voices, encouraging greater empathy, and opening up conversations on challenging and sensitive issues, as touched on below. The case studies reveal in concrete and compelling ways how people’s lives have been affected by war and illicit economies, as well as external efforts to address them.

There is a need to be more open as to what constitutes ‘data’ and ‘evidence’; rather than lionising quantitative knowledge as being rigorous and scientific, and dismissing qualitative data as anecdotal, there is a need to work more seriously with situated knowledge as evidence. This also means that drugs and development policy makers need to place a high premium on, and indeed reward, deep regional expertise within their organisations.

The ‘contextualising disciplines’ – such as history and anthropology – are critical to developing understandings about how illicit economies manifest themselves and become deeply embedded in particular settings, how they change over time, the role of individuals and collectivities within these political economies, and the ways that policies and interventions affect these processes in particular contexts and moments. This knowledge can help ensure that policies, aiming to support more inclusive war to peace transitions, work with the grain of borderland societies. Efforts to develop more humane and rights-based drugs policies, can only be effective if they are based on a fine-grained understanding of the embeddedness of illicit economies in particular contexts.

Whilst the power of mixing of methods is widely recognised in the social sciences, this has been less commonly applied, in a systematic way, to the study of illicit economies. We have tried – though incompletely – to adopt a mixed methods approach in our project, so as to develop a better understanding of drug economies, the actors within them, as well as their wider structural dimensions, and the role of policy.

Researchers, as well as developing more complex and contextualised analysis of illicit economies, need to build more cogent and persuasive stories that challenge mainstream accounts; better evidence is only part of the battle – it is about changing hearts as well as minds – and the role of life stories is key in drawing policymakers into the lifeworlds of borderland populations, to generate both empathy and understanding.

Of course it would be naïve to think that ‘more empathy’ is the key to changing policy – the political economy of policy making means that financial, institutional and political interests will always be preeminent, but it is also clear that individual narratives ‘talk’ to policymakers and wider audiences in more compelling ways than dry and disembodied data. By focusing on particular lives and contexts, we can see how different kinds of policies come together, and intersect at particular moments – from the perspective of borderland communities, on the receiving end of these interventions, the bureaucratic divisions between policies and interventions related to drugs, development or peacebuilding are irrelevant. These institutional siloes dissolve when they hit the ground and shape people’s lives for better or for worse.

Policymakers need to develop a more contextualised and integrated understanding of the world they are attempting to change. And they should be encouraged by researchers to pluralise the evidence that they draw upon, and relatedly the people they talk to and interact with. Otherwise, they will continue to suffer from ‘borderland blindness’ – a bias towards the national order of things and a worldview filtered through the eyes of national level elites.

If there is a common story to emerge from our borderland life histories it is the story of constant improvisation, ingenuity and social energy – people do make history – collectively – though not in contexts of their own choosing, and the history they are making — drawing on James Scott – tends to remain outside of the archives. Where we depart from Scott is the idea that people in the borderlands wish to remain ‘ungoverned’, beyond the state and thus ‘out of the archives’. The voices from the borderlands tell a different story from Scott’s – in which people complain about state absence, neglect or repression. Far from wanting less state, borderland dwellers ask for another kind of state based on a different kind of social contract. As Carmen’s experience shows, those living on the margins often want to be more legible to enable them to collectively make claims on the state and assert their rights.

Borderland communities across the three countries have exercised collective agency – often at great personal cost and with varied effects – to change their situations. These accounts challenge lazy stereotypes that frontier societies are atomised, and that participants in drug economies are free-floating individuals responding solely to price incentives.

Our project has challenged these stereotypes and to the extent possible engaged with, and supported different forms of borderland agency, often by initiating and building upon conversations that have emerged from our research. These conversations may provide a starting point and some clues about how to move towards more humane drug policies in conflictaffected borderlands.

In Colombia for example, our partners have worked with some of the social leaders whose life histories are shared in this report, and with their constituencies. This has involved using information generated from our research to support their legal claims in relation to their rights under the illicit crop substitution element of the 2016 peace accord. We have also developed ongoing conversations with coca farmers, pickers and processers about the health harms linked to processing and fumigation.

In contrast to Colombia, where recourse to a judiciary within a democratic state structure is an option, in Myanmar and Afghanistan this kind of work – using research to support a rights-based political engagement – has been far more challenging, and the spaces for explicitly political forms of engagement and claim making are much more limited. Notwithstanding these constraints, in Myanmar our engagement has relied on developing and deepening longstanding relationships with our research partners in civil society, leading to the research – including life history comics in Shan and Jingphaw – contributing to their ongoing engagement work with local youth groups, drug treatment centres and local authorities. It has also involved, since the coup, engaging with migrant youth across the border in Thailand on drug issues.

We have found that this kind of collaborative, extended engagement work can help marginalised voices – for example women, ethnic minorities, drug users – to be heard in local forums; such voices have been marginalised, not only in wider policy debates, but within the borderlands themselves. In Afghanistan, at the time of writing, high levels of conflict and the humanitarian crisis in borderland regions have radically closed down the space for any form of political agency amongst borderland populations. Therefore, the onus has shifted onto our international researchers to assert agency in ways that are not currently open to our partners – including promoting a grounded understanding of the role of illicit economies at the current juncture, so as to inform unfolding policies particularly in relation to the UK government.

Our experience suggests that grounded and more humane drug policies can only emerge by opening up and pluralising the spaces for such conversations. This means viewing participation less as a prescribed input into a project than as an extended process that aims to support the political agency and voice of borderland individuals and groups. Key to that political agency is the need to (re)constitute state-society relations and inter-dependencies – participation within ‘boutique’ projects will fail to address the wider structural constraints that keep people marginal.

This is not simply about extending the footprint of the state and rolling out development efforts, as an alternative to drugs, into the margins. These efforts, as we have seen, have often been associated with more exclusion and conflict, not less. There is a need to reset the terms of the conversation, and as a starting point this means recognising and promoting an understanding of violence as one of the most important constraints on the agency and voice of borderland communities – this reinforces the need for stabilisation and development policies that focus on violence reduction and management, a key message from both ‘Voices from the borderlands’ reports.

In conclusion, life histories do not, of course, provide easy answers or policy prescriptions to the challenge of addressing illicit drugs and building a sustainable peacetime economy; instead, they encourage a mind set and approach amongst both policy makers and researchers that is more contextualised and human centred.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Why life stories?

Challenges and unique benefits of using life stories in research and policy engagement