Experts on Alternative Development meet in Vienna

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

From 2-4 July I attended the “open-ended intergovernmental expert working group on international cooperation on the eradication of illicit drug crops and on alternative development” in Vienna as part of the Netherlands delegation. It was the third of the five working groups that will be organised, which are part of the UNGASS review process. These working groups are preparations for the high-level segment of the 52nd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which will take place in March 2009. 

As this was meant to be an ‘expert working group’ it was encouraging to see that some governments had indeed sent people with experience on Alternative Development (AD) to take part in the discussions, including NGOs representatives. From the EU side experts from the United Kingdom, Germany, France and The Netherlands took part in the meeting. Thailand and a number of Latin American countries – Bolivia and Peru - had also sent experts. One delegate estimated that in total there were around 10 people who actually dealt with AD or rural development in opium and coca growing areas as part of their day to day work. The US delegation included people from INL and ONDCP but not from USAID. However, the majority of the participants were diplomats. As a result the discussions about AD only focussed on the basic issues of AD and eradication.

On the first day the EU experts drafted a new text with the key points to be included in the conclusion of the working group, complementing the existing EU position on AD (CORDROGRUE 44 of 18 May 2006). These two texts were combined in one document as a new EU position on AD, and distributed as a conference room paper. The language of the new text was partly based upon a number of regional consultations that took place starting in 2007 with representatives from South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, organised by the European Commission, FAO, GTZ and UNODC.

It should also be mentioned that the discussion note prepared by UNODC for the meeting was a good starting point, and did reflect the discussions and lessons learned on AD and that have taken place over the years.  

‘Reasonable Consensus’

The meeting started with a discussion about the process and the status of the texts produced by the Working Group, which was unclear, as the two previous working groups (on money laundering and supply reduction) had followed different procedures. After a debate that could have been a scene from Month Python about the meaning of the term ‘consensus’, it was decided to work towards ‘reasonable consensus’ for statements (paragraphs) to be included in the conclusions of the working group. This meant it would be difficult for one country to stop a text from coming into the conclusion. Issues on which no consensus could be reached would be referred to the report, which would reflect the different opinions.

The first day saw some good discussions about the basic achievements of alternative development in the last decade. While some delegations merely gave country reports, many others tried to take a more general approach, and reflect on lessons learned. Like several others, I stressed the need for integrated approaches, and for the need to mainstream drug control objectives into the wider development agenda, and vice versa, for the drug control community to include development approaches into their plans and strategies. 

The second day started with a discussion on limitations and problems. Several factors were identified, including the fact that illicit drug crop cultivation is concentrated in areas where conflict, insecurity and vulnerability prevail. It was also mentioned that poor health, illiteracy and limited social and physical infrastructure reflect the low level of human development experienced by the population in these areas. These conditions constrain the implementation of programmes designed to reduce illicit drug crop cultivation and improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers.

I raised the issue that the continuing high cultivation levels have created pressure on policy makers and thereby on the drug control and development community to come up with quick fixes and one-size fits all solutions, instead of looking for long-term and sustainable policies to contribute to reduce cultivation levels of illicit opium and coca production. 

Furthermore, I said that the current drug control interventions have suffered from an unbalanced approach and are often poorly sequenced. There has been too much focus on law enforcement measures, including eradication and opium bans, and too little investment in Alternative Development. 

There was also concern from a number of delegates about the perception that opium poppy and coca farmers are relatively wealthy - which is a misconception - thereby justifying law enforcement as the main drug control instrument, instead of promoting governance, security and economic growth, which are core development goals.

Political Reality of AD

When it was time to discuss the conclusion on the final day of the meeting, the process transformed from an expert meeting into political reality, and negotiations about the working of paragraphs to be induced in the final document started. There was clearly not enough expertise among the participants left in the meeting that reflected the lessons learned over the last ten years – or the discussions that took place the two previous days - nor a clear strategic vision for alternative development in general.

Among the key points for the EU to keep in the conclusions was about the sequencing of interventions – e.g. ensure that eradication measures do not take place unless small-farmer households have adopted viable and sustainable livelihoods. Some countries, including the US, could not agree with this, and only wanted to ‘consider’ this. The US also was not willing to include a paragraph that was introduced by the EU on not making development assistance conditional on reductions in illicit drug crop cultivation. Due to lack of clarity of the process, the first paragraph was weakened and adopted in the conclusions, while the second one was referred to the report.

Considerable time was also spent on discussing a paragraph on cannabis. Language proposed by Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria was objected to by some countries, among others because it focussed on issues also being dealt with other working groups (demand reduction and supply reduction).  

Bolivia did not get any support on its suggestion that coca leaf should be taken out of the Conventions. Thailand and the EU made sure however that a paragraph stating that the values, traditions and customs of local communities and civil society should be taken into account by national policies and laws was adopted in the conclusions. There was a lot of discussion about the situation in Latin America, among others on the issue of spraying, which both Colombia and the US strongly objected to being even mentioned in either the conclusions or the report. There was also discussion about ‘preventative AD’ – meaning rural development in areas at risk of producing illicit crops.

The meeting ended on Friday at 21.00 – three hours later than scheduled, and without the help of translators who had left at 18.00 hours. By that time many delegates had also left the meeting – unfortunately also including some of the experts. Perhaps the main achievement for us was the new EU position paper on AD produced by the EU experts, complementing the earlier EU statement on AD. On the issue of sequencing the text is crystal clear: “Acknowledge that it is particularly essential to ensure that eradication is not undertaken until small farmer households have viable and sustainable livelihoods and interventions are properly sequenced.” This paper goes further than the conclusions of this working group and offers strategic direction for AD – as it was written by experts instead of negotiated by diplomats – and should be a good input for the intersessionals starting in the end of September.