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Drugs and Illicit Practices: Assessing their Impact on Development and Governance

The illicit drugs trade is now so powerful that it is virtually shaping the economies, governance and social fabric of entire nations, says a new report commissioned by Christian Aid.

The huge profits to be made have rendered some of those involved in the production, shipment and sale of illicit drugs largely immune from prosecution, able to expand and to distribute rewards to those they favour across national boundaries.

The report, Drugs and Illicit Practices, assessing their impact on development and governance, examines four countries where an increasingly active drugs trade has begun to affect development.

The countries are Afghanistan, which produces opium, and Colombia, where cocaine is manufactured, together with two major transit points for narcotics, Mali, from where cocaine from South America is moved north into Western Europe, and Tajikistan, through which heroin passes en route to more lucrative markets in Russia, and Eastern and Western Europe.

The report shows how in each case, key state functions have effectively been subverted by the scale of the trade, citing instances where drug networks have become providers of much-needed jobs and investment, drug barons have been elected to government office and criminal syndicates serve as shadow sub-contractors of state security.

The report has been produced by Christian Aid to broaden the debate on drugs policies worldwide prior to a special session of the United Nations General Assembly early next year to discuss the global drugs problem. It is a collection of case studies published in the names of its independent authors, with the views expressed not necessarily endorsed by Christian Aid.

Eric Gutierrez, Christian Aid’s Senior Adviser Accountable Governance, said today: “All development agencies are today confronted in numerous countries where they work with the impact the profits from drugs have on the lives of the people. It is clear that the old strategies such as the war on drugs are simply not working.

“This new report suggests that the commerce in illicit drugs can no longer be treated as something apart, akin to a malignant tumour that can be isolated and surgically removed from a healthy body.

“The ‘tumour’ has become an almost necessary part of the body whole, rendering conventional treatments ineffective. Removal could cause certain organs to fail.

“New cures need to be considered. Dealing with illicit drugs cannot solely be a matter for law enforcement.  The drugs trade is a reality in many countries where development agencies work. We need to be involved in finding solutions that work.

“The options that development agencies could consider are not limited to prohibition or legalisation,” added Mr Gutierrez.

“Bolivia has championed a ‘yes to coca, no to cocaine’ option. Portugal has been successful in reducing both drug abuse and drug-related crime by treating drug possession for personal use an administrative offence, rather than a criminal felony. The Czech Republic follows an approach whereby public health bodies, social services, and local communities are involved, not just the police, in dealing with drug issues.”

Among the report’s findings is that many poor households have come to rely on opium poppy or coca growing not only as their sole source of income, but often their only way of finding some form of protection from violence. In addition, poor households living outside the reach of governments would prefer to be complicit with the drug lords they know, rather than expose themselves to lawlessness from other criminals they don’t. The case study on Afghanistan, updated from an original report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, shows how the well-intentioned Food Zone initiative – where farmers are weaned away from opium poppy and subsidised to grow food crops in well-irrigated fields instead – inadvertently made things worse. The programme triggered the mass migration of land-poor households out of the Food Zone and into the desert, where they opened more fields for opium poppy cultivation.

The case study on Colombia shows how drug traffickers took advantage of the franchise sold by the Autodefensas Unidades de Colombia or AUC, the country’s federation of counter-guerrilla paramilitary groups which gave the buyer the right to use the AUC name, insignias, and official ranks and titles. The buyers could avoid criminal charges and extradition on drug charges to the US, because they could claim that their drug-trafficking was a form of fund-raising for a political cause. The case study on Mali offers insights into how the commerce in cocaine corrupted governance institutions to a point where local communities found it difficult to distinguish whether state agents were behaving like criminals, or criminals were behaving like the state.

And the case study on Tajikistan investigates the paradox of how the heroin trade – usually regarded as a sign of state weakness, a source of conflict and violence, and a cause of corruption and bad governance – has arguably become a source of stability. When state institutions were too weak to impose and maintain order, compromises were developed with organised criminal organisations to maintain order in areas where they were in effective control.

Read full report at

By Craig Zelizer, First published on



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