UN Guiding Principles on Alternative Development: Opportunity Lost

Alternative development programs are intended to reduce the cultivation of coca and poppy plants used to manufacture cocaine and heroin, respectively. When done badly, apparently well-meaning programs to substitute crops can destroy local economies, devastate communities and ruin lives. However, experience has shown that an “alternative livelihoods” approach to improve the overall quality of life and income of poor farmers can be more effective and humane.

It is for this reason, that the International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development approved last week at an international meeting in Lima, Peru represents a lost opportunity to promote equitable economic development in some of the world’s poorest regions. 

The document is intended to serve as a guiding framework for designing and implementing alternative development strategies and programs. Yet the final document on the Guiding Principles bears little resemblance to an earlier November 2011 draft that was put together in Thailand by a group of more than 100 governmental and non-governmental experts. While some good language is maintained on human rights and the role of civil society, among other issues, the Guiding Principles have strayed far from the original purpose of encouraging development ministries and agencies to invest their resources in areas where coca and poppy crops are grown. 

In November 2011 I was invited by the Thai government to take part in an international delegation to develop a draft set of UN International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development. Our work began with a five-day journey along the Thai-Burma border to visit the Thai “Royal Project,” which has research stations and development projects in five Northern provinces of the country. Thailand is the only country in the world to have eliminated the production of a crop used to manufacture illicit drugs, in this case poppy. The secret to its success, as we witnessed, is a sustained, long-term economic development and nation building program that has strong government, and royal family, backing.

At the end of the week, delegation members began the process of drafting the declaration that was to have been approved at the Lima meeting. The Guiding Principles were never intended to be binding, but rather, according to the document drafted in Thailand, are intended to “assist … in the design, formulation, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of effective alternative development programs and strategies with the ultimate goal of securing sustainable alternative livelihoods for affected farmers and communities.”

The work done in Thailand was intended to move toward “mainstreaming” alternative development into national, regional, and local development initiatives. In other words, alternative development should be seen not only as a complement to law enforcement, but rather as a necessary component of economic development targeting some of the world’s poorest people. The document was written with an eye toward reaching out to those government agencies involved in all aspects of development, provision of basic services, and promotion of the rule of law.

The draft of the Guiding Principles adopted in November 2011 built upon the practical experience of several decades of work promoting alternative development, which led to a new understanding of the importance of holistic policies. What is often referred to as an “alternative livelihoods” approach is based on improving the welfare of poor farmers via comprehensive development strategies that include improving local governance and citizen security, combined with voluntary reductions in the cultivation of crops deviated to the illicit market. Proper sequencing is crucial to success; viable economic livelihoods must be secured before significant crop reductions can be achieved. In the past, alternative development programs included the growth of products in regions without roads, so they could never be sold at markets. In others, they instigated price collapses negating any potential benefits to farmers and communities. Still other failures included promoting industries that would take years to become profitable. 

Some of these well-meaning programs has disastrous impacts on communities, as children were removed from schools to contribute to household incomes, emergency food aid was rushed to stave off crises or other disastrous impacts. 

As with all UN documents, the negotiations in Thailand over the draft document were arduous and many compromises were made. Nonetheless, the final product marked a major advance in the international communities’ understanding of the most effective means of promoting alternative development. That was due in large part to the fact that those involved in the process were experts, either government officials or those from civil society, with a deep knowledge of the issues.

Yet the International Guiding Principles adopted in Lima once again place alternative development as “complementary” to “law enforcement and illicit crop elimination,” rather than as the primary means of creating conditions that allow for improved livelihoods and the reduction of coca and poppy crops. Of particular concern, the document states that alternative development efforts should be carried out “in full conformity with the three drug conventions,” rather than the UN Millennium Development Goals. Most disturbingly, and in stark contrast to the tone of the discussions in Thailand, the document adopted in Lima underscores the role of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) “as the United Nations organs with prime responsibility for drug control matters.” That simply misses the point and away from the experts most competent to deal with development. It is the UN Development Program that should be called into action here, along with other development organizations, certainly not the diplomatically-stifled CND or the INCB, the over-exuberant defender of the international drug control conventions.

In anticipation of the Lima meeting, country missions in Vienna (where the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs is based) began reviewing the draft declaration. According to some reports, the draft declaration became a political football as those negotiations proceeded, with some countries allegedly suggesting language that would actually be a step backwards, though they met resistance by others. This no doubt stems in part from fear of policy change on the part of certain governments, such as the United States and Russia, in the face of increasing calls for drug policy reform. 

The revised document does address the issue of proper sequencing, albeit in less detail than in the original draft. However, it eliminates a crucial related point that governments agreed to in Thailand: “Development assistance should not be conditional on reductions in illicit cultivation.” The document adopted in Lima also eliminates the importance of taking “due account of the traditional licit uses of crops where there is historic evidence of such use,” which the Bolivian government succeeded in having adopted during the Thailand meeting. Certain diplomats in Vienna, it seems, simply could not tolerate such language.

They were able to prevail because the process was designed to prevent serious debate on the issues. Peruvian authorities made clear that any points not agreed to by diplomats in Vienna prior to the Lima meeting would simply be eliminated from the final document. Carmen Macias, the head of Peru’s anti-drug agency DEVIDA, stated to the Peruvian press that the meeting consisted of “long days of hard work and learning.” In fact, like so many other such events, government officials sat through four panels of speakers with no chance for meaningful discussion. In short, the hardest work was put towards stifling any debate. 

As pointed out by my colleague, Pien Metaal, the next opportunity for debate will take place at the CND meeting in March 2013, when the International Guiding Principles will be presented for approval. Having observed numerous CND meetings I can easily predict that while some debate will no doubt take place, the final product will be reduced to the least common denominator since all outcomes are determined by “consensus” (code for unanimity).

However, those countries that remain the stanch defenders of the existing international drug control regime—fearful that any changes threaten to bring it down—will be hard pressed to divert the growing calls for serious consideration of drug policy reforms. At the same time as the Lima Alternative Development meeting, the Ibero-American summit was taking place in Cadiz, Spain. Echoing a previous statement from the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, the governments gathered in Cadiz reiterated in their official declaration that a UN General Assembly Special Session should be held by no later than 2015 to evaluate the advances and failures of present policies. Despite what happened in the run-up to and at the Lima meeting, stifling the debate will likely be increasingly difficult. 

A group of experts from Asia, Latin America and Europe, convened by the Observatory of Crops Declared Illicit (OCDI) based in Valencia, Spain, has produced a declaration on the International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development that can be read here

This blog is based on a two-part commentary initially published by the Washington Office on Latin America.

2 Comments

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This is a convincing critique of the UN effort at advancing alternative development. There are several issues that can be taken up for severe myopia and criticism. I shall take up one.

While it is necessary that “Development assistance should not be conditional on reductions in illicit cultivation.” there is an another vital point missed in all discussions it seems. That Governments of those areas to be targetted for the so called Alternative Development should also ensure that opium is supplied to the cultivators who are dependent on it.

There are several points of view in the UN document on AD that are myopic and reflect the undue caution of repressive countries alone.

While it is true that “Development assistance should not be conditional on reductions in illicit cultivation.” there is an another point that has been overlooked. Many of the cultivators, e.g. of opium, are dependent on what they produce. For such cultivators Governments will have to ensure that opium is supplied to them. And then they could also be treated. In some of India's North Eastern areas traditional opium cultivation has increased despite a slew of advanced agricultural projects and a rash of all round development. Had they been given opium officially most would have given up cultivation. So, I have been told by them. Now their well educated soms and daughters have made it a commercial enterprise.

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