Afghanistan: Alternative livelihoods - Substance or slogan?

Originally published


In recent years Afghanistan has attracted significant international attention as the world's largest producer of opium, with its production representing an estimated 50 percent of GDP. Views on how to eliminate opium production vary, but considerable emphasis has been given to the development of alternative livelihoods for opium farmers. However under current conditions in Afghanistan there are still strong incentives to cultivate opium poppy: it remains a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment for both farmers and traders. While most stand to gain something from its cultivation, it is the few that gain the most.

The elimination of opium production in Afghanistan is dependent on more than encouraging licit on-farm, off-farm and non-farm income opportunities. Critical to the realisation of counter narcotics objectives is the achievement of broader development goals, including establishment of those institutions required for formal governance, promotion of a strong civil society and strengthening of social protection mechanisms. The multisectoral nature of the task, targeted more at nation-building and reconstruction than solely drug control, points to the need for broad ownership of the drug control agenda by the full range of national, bilateral, multilateral and non-government development actors.

Given the extent of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the complexity of reasons for its cultivation, and comparative experience in other regions such as South-East Asia and Latin America, the model of "alternative development" based on discrete area-based projects is unlikely to contribute significantly to counter narcotics objectives. The emergence of an "alternative livelihoods" approach, which seeks to mainstream counter narcotics objectives into national development strategies and programmes, is an attempt to respond to the causes of opium poppy cultivation and to create links with the wider state-building agenda.

However there are already a number of dangers evident in the current alternative livelihoods response. The term itself, best understood as doing "development in a drugs environment", is profoundly unsatisfactory, and allows much to masquerade under the label. There are unrealistic expectations of how and when alternative livelihoods can be developed, and the concept remains a virtual one as the results of this approach are yet to be seen. The push by authorities for a sharp decline in opium-cultivated area is in danger of establishing a quid pro quo, with an expectation of funding for alternative livelihoods on the basis of achievements in decreasing opium poppy area. This puts the cart before the horse.

The establishment of alternative livelihoods as a pillar of the government's counter narcotics strategy confuses means and goals: it should be seen as the latter but it is increasingly becoming defined as a sector in itself that attracts its own funding, like eradication and interdiction. There is a tendency to badge programmes as alternative livelihoods, but these programmes are generally not implemented together in any given area -- consequently the synergies necessary for maximising development impact and addressing the multifunctional role that opium cultivation plays in rural livelihood strategies are not developed. Few of these programmes pay much attention to a full analysis of the drivers of opium poppy cultivation, and their proposed interventions are heavily biased towards areas of high potential for agricultural production where opium poppy cultivation is not as concentrated.

This paper seeks to clarify what is required to effectively pursue alternative livelihoods as a goal of the counter narcotics strategy. It argues for an approach in which conventional development interventions are viewed through a counter narcotics lens in order to establish how they might impact on the drivers of opium poppy cultivation, and how more effective targeting, timing and coordination with other programming might together make a serious impact on the levels of opium production.

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