SPP Prof. Julia Buxton Highlights the Great Disconnect Between Drugs and Development

November 5, 2014

Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Public Policy (SPP), outlined key conclusions from her forthcoming report on the relationship between drugs and development in a stimulating faculty research presentation on Thursday, October 16. “Drugs are a development issue,” emphasized Buxton, “and this needs to be recognized by development actors.” The report, Drugs and Development: The Great Disconnect, will be published by Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University as part of a portfolio of work that is being prepared ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016.

Buxton analyzed United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) alternative development (AD) projects. Since UN endorsement in 1998, these projects have become a counter to traditional law enforcement strategies of drug crop eradication and drug interdiction. She highlighted multiple UNODC failings that have resulted in a 36% increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, an increase that is even more shocking given the more than $7.5 billion that has been spent in counter narcotics efforts. Some of the examples of failed efforts include the use of generic AD approaches across regions and communities, a lack of pre- and post-project monitoring and evaluation, a dearth of development experts on staff, the absence of development and human security metrics (with AD projects evaluated only on the basis of short-term drug supply reduction targets), and, most crucially, the failure of AD to target the poorest of the poor and identify motivations for engagement in drug crop cultivation. Ultimately, “Alternative development is unworkable within the framework of drug criminalization, a focus on the sources of drugs, and ongoing militarized enforcement,” asserted Buxton, all of which serves to drive up the price of illicit drugs and the incentives to participate in supply.   

Citing “profound institutional sclerosis” in the UNODC, Buxton asked how alternative development can be successful if the end goal is drug prohibition. “The more the UNODC is involved in alternative development, the more it risks doing more harm than good,” she argued. According to Buxton, drug policy and also the drug policy reform lobby pay too much attention to raw narcotics (opium poppy and coca leaf) rather than synthetics such as MDMA and amphetamines manufactured in the Global North. This underlines the bias in the international drug control model and the risk of further problematic interventions that exacerbate rather than alleviate poverty and insecurity in drug crop cultivating regions.

Ultimately it is development and not law and order factors that enable drug crop cultivation. As such, Buxton concluded, drug crop cultivation should be the concern of the development community and NGOs. Unfortunately, development actors often treat drugs as a taboo subject preferring that they be handled within the portfolio of law enforcement. This works against the achievement of development objectives, with counter narcotics responses generating violence while distorting security priorities and democratic systems. 

Watch Buxton discuss her latest research on drugs as a development issue here.

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