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Are Illicit Drugs a Development Issue and If So, What Should We Do about It?

Duncan Green's picture

I spent last Wednesday morning taking drugs seriously. OK that’s the last of the lame do/take drug jokes. What I actually did was have a coffee with Danny Kushlick and Martin Powell of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and then attend a Christian Aid seminar on drugs and development. Both conversations addressed the same questions: are drugs becoming an un-ignorable development issue and if so, what should we (INGOs, aid agencies etc) do about it?

The answer to the first question is pretty obviously ‘yes’. In the rich countries the ‘war on drugs’ is getting nowhere, stymied (among other reasons) by the basic laws of supply and demand – any success in the war reduces supply, so prices rise, so supply recovers. In the producer countries, the vast sums involved ($330bn a year, by one estimate) poison politics. And increasingly, the divide between producer and consumer countries is being eroded, as drugs spill over into the slums and alleyways of the developing world – including West Africa, where transhipment and consumption are becoming major issues. Everyone gets dirty, trust is destroyed, communities turn bad. As Christian Aid’s Paul Valentin said, ‘the drugs trade cuts across everything we do – inequality, tax havens, access to services, HIV. Over half the countries we are working in are directly affected.’

And it is likely to grow in prominence: Fiscal pressures in the North will draw attention to the vast waste of money involved in criminalizing drug users and then having to pay Hilton-like amounts to keep them rotting in jail. Arguing that the drug trade is wrecking their countries, a number of Latin American governments, led by a weird combination of Uruguay (centre left) and Guatemala (ex-military president) have successfully challenged the US in getting the normally supine Organization of American States to issue a report last week that some saw as ‘the beginning of the end for blanket prohibition’. They have helped persuade the UN to bring forward to 2016 its General Assembly Special Session on reviewing global drug policy.

OK, but in development policy world, Cinderella issues seem to outnumber the real ones, and if I raise this one with the poor souls who have to try and set priorities for a large NGO like Oxfam, then (in the words of my colleague Ian Bray), ‘eyeballs will roll’. I can hear them now: Yet another topic. What do you want us to stop doing? Spreading ourselves too thin. Tough choices. What do we know about drugs policy? Etc etc.

So let’s look at this as a change process. Where are we on the journey from denial to ‘drugs policy at the heart of all we do’? Taking Matt Andrews’ book as a starting point (as I seem to do a lot at the moment), a shift of this sort takes place in 5 stages, with potential roles for outsiders at each stage

  • Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
  • Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics
  • Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
  • Diffusion: a new consensus emerges
  • Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved.

It seems to be that the deinstitutionalization of current drugs policy is well under way (see this UN paper or World Bank report) – we can foresee a point where almost everyone accepts that it isn’t working, and it’s costing a fortune. Looked at in this way, it is probably more important for those wishing to have an impact to stop bashing the current policies, and to move on to the next stages – searching for alternatives and building a new consensus.

That’s certainly what Transform is doing, making the case for a humane system of regulation (cf pharmaceuticals) as a sensible position between the polarized lunacies of the status quo and ‘legalize everything man’. But the problem here is the huge spread of ideologies in the reform camp, from libertarian stoners to security nuts, making it very hard for any new consensus to emerge beyond ‘this ain’t working’.

But then I got to thinking about what other former eyeball-rolling issues have moved into the mainstream in recent years, and hit on climate change. Ten years ago, global warming was definitely in the ‘groan, ignore, reject’ camp within development circles. Now it is very mainstream indeed. Oxfam does a shedload of work on the ground in terms of climate change adaptation – not sure what the equivalent on drugs would be – protection committees in Tijuana?

A more relevant comparison is with influencing the wider debate, where I think NGOs have gone in two broad directions on climate change: one has been to ‘bear witness’, showing from our experience on the ground that climate change is about people, not just polar bears. I think we’ve had real impact there and coincidentally, it fits with another of Matt Andrews’ findings that outsiders are better off sticking to problem definition than trying to propose solutions.

The other area has been to engage more directly in policy debates, and there, to be honest, I’m less convinced we’ve had much impact. Partly this is because the climate change policy response as a whole is badly becalmed. But also because, however smart the people involved, I don’t think that plays to our strengths in terms of legitimacy.

But what if we do want to go beyond repeating ad nauseam ‘drugs are a development issue’ (and rest assured, we will immediately be grilled on what we think about legalization etc)? Paul Valentin, Christian Aid’s International Director, thought it might play a convenor/broker role in getting faith institutions to think about this (an inter-faith dialogue on drugs, development and social justice anyone?). Another option is at least to include organized crime explicitly as part of our context and power analysis work. But should we go further, perhaps making the UNGASS 2016 the focal point of a global campaign?

So let’s have a vote – not because it (or I) will have any influence on Oxfam policy, but because I want to know what you think, (and also because I want a new poll so I am not reminded every day how badly I was mashed by Claire Melamed on post-2015). Do you think INGOs should a) avoid drugs as a campaign issue, b) engage in a limited ‘bearing witness mode’ on drugs and development or c) get stuck in as a major campaign. And remember, more work on drugs means less work on other stuff.

One final comment: there is some good advocacy work going on in this area. See for example the Count the Costs initiative, which has a useful briefing on drugs and development. That kind of thing needs funders, and the Open Society Foundation and George Soros deserve a lot of credit for a lot of it. It is vital to have this kind of outlier support, not least because of the tendency for development organizations to indulge in herd behaviour. When we finally get interested in some new issue, it can save years if some smaller, more nimble outfits have been able to find the funding to develop the thinking around it before the larger organizations lumber into town.

Update: Final result of poll: ‘Big campaign’ wins by a landslide- 63%; ‘bearing witness’ second with 30%; only  7% say don’t go there (125 votes after 3 days)
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This post first appeard on From Poverty to Power


Photo Credit: JBLM PAO (on Flickr)
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