Alternative development: an introduction

An introduction for the 2003 UNGASS mid-term review
Transnational Institute (TNI)
March 2003

Alternative Development programmes, aimed at encouraging peasants to switch from growing illicit drugs-related crops, play an important role in UN drug control strategies. The record of success, however, is a questionable one. Decades of efforts to reduce global drug supply using a combination of developmental and repressive means, managed to shift production from one country to another, but have failed in terms of global impact.

In 1961, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs prohibited planting crops having no medical or scientific purpose, fixing a period of 15 years for opium and 25 years for coca as deadlines for their ultimate extinction. Those targets were clearly not met. In 1998, ignoring decades of lack of success in addressing the issue of illicit crops, the UN set the year 2008 as yet another deadline by which to eliminate coca and opium. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS), Alternative Development was identified as a key instrument to be used in fulfilling this objective. It became an integral part of the anti-drugs strategy in combination with eradication and law enforcement.

In recent years, international drug policy discourse reveals an increasing acceptance of the alleged need to integrate Alternative Development concepts into a comprehensive "three-pronged strategy of eradication, interdiction and alternative development." At the UNGASS, the marriage of eradication and Alternative Development was maintained throughout the preparations and the final documents. The Political Declaration calls for strong support for alternative development, but also for an emphasis on "the need for eradication programmes and law enforcement measures to counter illicit cultivation." Moreover, it welcomes a global approach to the elimination of illicit crops and commits member states to working closely with the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) "to develop strategies with a view to eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by 2008."

The Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development approved by UNGASS is a typical consensus document. It defines alternative development as "a process to prevent and eliminate the illicit cultivation of plants containing narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances through specifically designed rural development measures in the context of sustained national economic growth and sustainable development efforts in countries taking action against drugs, recognizing the particular socio-cultural characteristics of the target communities and groups, within the framework of a comprehensive and permanent solution to the problem of illicit drugs." Additionally it mentions the aim "to promote lawful and sustainable socio-economic options for these communities and population groups that have resorted to illicit cultivation as their only viable means of obtaining a livelihood, contributing in an integrated way to the eradication of poverty."

The Action Plan however also stresses that Alternative Development alone is not enough: "Balanced approaches are likely to result in more efficient strategies and successful outcomes" and "National drug crop reduction and elimination strategies should include comprehensive measures such as programmes in alternative development, law enforcement and eradication." The terms 'balanced approach' and 'comprehensive measures' are the euphemisms used for what is commonly referred to as the 'carrot and stick' approach. According to Dorothe Buddenberg, the UNDCP Alternative Development expert who moderated the negotiations about the Action Plan: "The balanced approach, originally a term developed to denote a balance between supply and demand reduction measures, has been used here to denote a balance between repressive law enforcement approaches and more liberal development oriented approaches."

The language of the Action Plan thus legitimises the use of force to reduce coca and opium poppy cultivation. It does, however, specify criteria under which Alternative Development should be complemented by forced eradication: "When there is organised criminal involvement in illicit drug crop cultivation" and "In areas where viable alternative sources of income already exist."The Action Plan also includes a warning about possible incompatibility: "In areas where alternative development programmes have not yet created viable alternative income opportunities, the application of forced eradication might endanger the success of alternative development programmes."

Ever since UNGASS, the language of policy documents has been filled with phrases describing Alternative Development as "one of the components within the comprehensive framework of the global drug control strategy,"and "in support of comprehensive crop control strategies." Among the list of 'ideal conditions' for alternative development appears the phrase "consistently applied disincentives through law enforcement and eradication."The assumption of compatibility between Alternative Development and forced eradication is rarely questioned and mixing developmental and repressive instruments in the field is explicitly promoted.

In Alternative Development and Eradication: A Failed Balance TNI argues to rethink the strategy. Delinking alternative development from the threat of forced eradication and law enforcement and guaranteeing peasants the support required for a sustainable alternative future. Furthermore, TNI urges the application of Harm Reduction as the basis for a rational and pragmatic drug policy. This concept has been applied successfully in many countries, especially in Europe, but till now only on the consumption side of the story. It is high time that Harm Reduction principles be applied to the production side of the equation.

A significant policy debate took place at the high-level international Feldafing conference to evaluate 25 years of Alternative Development and to draw conclusions for its future, convened by the German government and the UNDCP in January 2002. The compatibility between different drug control measures was a key issue on the agenda, not least because of the German experiences of their Colombian development projects being destroyed by US eradication spray planes. The final declaration of the conference stated: "Alternative Development should neither be made conditional on prior elimination of drug crop cultivation nor should a reduction be enforced until licit components of livelihood strategies have been sufficiently strengthened." This represents an important shift away from the crude ‘carrot and stick’ approach to peasant producers, which has so undermined alternative development efforts to date.

The Feldafing conclusions were brought to the attention of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2002 which included a full day Thematic Debate on Alternative Development. The CND adopted a resolution (45/14) on "The role of alternative development in drug control and development cooperation". The resolution calls on States to "respect the balance and necessary effective coordination of law enforcement and interdiction measures, eradication efforts and alternative development" .The UNGASS Action Plan language that stressed the need to 'complement' developmental with repressive measures thus became adjusted to the need to coordinate well the one with the other, in recognition of the fact that ill-coordinated mixing may well lead to counterproductive results.

The 'progress achieved and obstacles encountered' in the implementation of the Action Plan will be reviewed in April 2003, along with the other outcomes of the 1998 UNGASS. The March CND resolution already recognizes that "despite great efforts undertaken by many Member States to implement the Action Plan and despite the measures taken to reduce or eliminate illicit drug crops, the world supply of and demand for illicit drugs have remained at almost the same levels" . It also "Reiterates the necessity to reduce the demand for narcotic and psychotropic substances in order to achieve the sustained reduction and elimination of illicit crops".  

Given the disappointing results so far and the problems encountered in mixing developmental and repressive measures, the CND resolution calls for "a rigorous and comprehensive thematic evaluation, within available voluntary resources, for determining best practices in alternative development by assessing the impact of alternative development on both human development indicators and drug control objectives and by addressing the key development issues of poverty reduction, gender, environmental sustainability and conflict resolution". The German and British delegations have been the main promoters behind this call for an in-depth evaluation and referred to the need for a comparative review looking at the results of different Alternative Development approaches as applied by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and UNDCP.