Afghanistan

Breaking the dependency of opium in Afghanistan

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Twenty-six year-old Madelene Carlsson of Sweden is a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) working in Afghanistan since August 2004. She is in charge of a two-year initiative that aims to establish a database on counter narcotics projects at the Counter Narcotics Ministry (CNM). With support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) this initiative is building the capacity of the CNM and enabling it to carry out its work in a more effective and powerful way. For Madelene, however, her placement is not just about creating databases.

After graduating in Political Sciences at Vaexjoe University in Sweden, I worked as an intern and on a consultancy at UNV headquarters in Bonn, Germany, assisting the Communications Unit in promoting UNV and volunteerism. This was mainly done through the development and enhancement of websites on the UNV programme, as well as volunteerism in general. After some time I moved to Lebanon, where I studied at the American University of Beirut and participated in volunteers' activities during the Beirut International Marathon and International Volunteer Day, 5 December. Moreover, I met professionals who had been living and working in Afghanistan. When I learned that UNODC was looking for a UNV Drugs and Crime officer to manage a database, I didn't hesitate to apply.

During the past 20 years, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has steadily increased. The most recent figures show that the area under poppy cultivation rose by close to two-thirds between 2003 and 2004. Opium poppy is now cultivated in all provinces of Afghanistan and today more families than ever are involved in opium poppy cultivation. The international community has recognized this danger and, as a result, assistance to Afghanistan in the area of counter narcotics is increasing.

UNODC Afghanistan works in the areas of law enforcement, demand reduction, criminal justice and crime prevention, alternative livelihoods, and Capacity Building. In addition, UNODC produces the annual Afghanistan Opium Survey (http://www.unodc.org/afg/en/reports_surveys.html).

At a professional level, my main difficulty is gathering information from the different key players. The sharing of information in this field is particularly difficult. However, a database will be an essential tool to the Afghan government, UN agencies, donors and civil society organizations working to support development in this country.

Beyond the regular part of my job, there has been an unexpected and pleasant addition. When I arrived, I was expecting to spend most of my time in front of a computer, working on the database. Yet, I have had the opportunity to travel to remote areas in Badakhshan, as well as to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. My missions to these places included extensive consultation with farmers and local institutions and organizations, listening to what they have to say and explaining what UNODC is doing. I have become involved in many different areas of counter narcotics, such as alternative livelihoods, which makes my assignment here dynamic and interesting. Getting to go to the provinces has been amazing, the country is so beautiful and people so hospitable, welcoming and friendly.

After more than two decades of war, the depth of poverty in Afghanistan is reflected consistently in all human development indicators. The majority of the population is living below the UN-defined poverty line - 56 percent. The level of malnutrition is one of the highest in the world at 70 percent. The percentage of Afghans with access to a sufficient water source is the lowest in the world - 13 percent. Whereas a poppy crop can sustain a family for a year, the same amount of cultivation of wheat can only sustain a family for one to two months. For most farmers it is a simple question of survival.

Afghanistan continues to need more international assistance to break the dependency of poppy cultivation and help to recover from the effects of conflict, and I hope it will receive it. In the meantime, I feel privileged for being here, and proud of being part of this great international effort.

February 2005