07 February 2013

The Drugs (policies) Don't Work: Can Development Help?

This week IDS is hosting a workshop on Global (illicit) Drugs Policy and Development.

It is one of those areas that IDS loves doing research on: a key driver undermining development (especially in West Africa, parts of Latin America and South and Southeast Asia), one that most traditional development agencies ignore, and one that brings different disciplines to the table.

One small indicator of the lack of interaction is that a Google search under "illicit drug and international development" yields no results.

We know drug use is bad for development: poor health (drug use is the fastest rising risk factor in the new global burden of disease estimates); conflict, violence, trafficking and other violations of rights to name a few.

But it turns out that attempts to control the supply of and demand for illicit drugs are also very bad for development, violating rights, generating conflict and many other unintended consequences. This is because these efforts are policing/security/punishment led on the demand side and on the supply side are about destruction of crops and external ideas about generating alternative livelihoods which have lots of unintended impacts. There is a nice summary of the state of the field here.

Can a better balance between a development and a security perspective help? I would think development has a lot to offer.

  • On incentives, the work on horizontal inequalities (the work pioneered by Frances Stewart on inequalities across identity based groups) gives us insights into greed and grievance; and work linking bad governance in the rich countries (around arms control and illicit financial flows) with bad governance in the south should have some broader lessons for drug policy
  • On context, the development community's work on (a) locating de facto authority in ungoverned spaces, (b) promoting voices from the margins and (c) realising rights in difficult contexts can surely help.
  • On policies, our work on the following should have lessons that read across:  (a) health systems and social protection-how they can work better for those at the margins of society and (b) infrastructure--how to make groups less remote spatially and (c) gender based violence--how to change community norms as to what is acceptable via social movements.

There is not much research in this area, but two things seem clear to people who work in this area: (1) the current illicit drug policies are not working well for development and (2) the drug policy and development communities do not get enough opportunities to work together.

My IDS colleague Markus Schultze-Kraft deserves a lot of credit for attempting to bridge these two worlds and the Open Society Foundations should also be recognised as being a leader in this rather unfashionable but critical field.

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