Where Are the Alternative Livelihoods?

by Joshua Foust on 3/11/2008

I’m currently trudging my way through Joel Hafvenstein’s Opium Season, a memoir of his year trying to run a USAID-funded alternative livelihood program in Lashkar Gah, Helmand. I fear his experience is symbolic of many aid projects in Afghanistan: namely possessing little more than a willingness to go and live there for a time. In Hafvenstein’s case, he was tossed into the brush with no experience running anything, and had to learn in a dangerous and extraordinarily difficult environment how to work within the corrupt Afghan government, how to administer a multi-million dollar aid program, and so on (the alternate case is what I call “the aid tourists,” namely those aid workers who flit about from crisis to crisis, collecting tons of tax-free income and running the same incompetent and ineffective “development” programs that haven’t worked anywhere else).

Over at Passport, Blake Hounshell notices that there are “essentially none” of the AL programs one normally finds amidst counternarcotics campaigns in South America. Well, that is according to Afghan Ambassador Sayed Jawad. When I met him, Mr. Jawad came across as an honest and pragmatic man (in stark contrast to some of the other diplomat I’ve met around the DC, most of whom were insufferably stuffy and elitist), so I can only assume he was summarizing the highly ineffective nature of the current batch of AL programs in place in Afghanistan. Because they do exist… They just don’t really do anything. Two years ago, when opium production was still on its precipitous climb, Relief Web noted that the unique conditions in Afghanistan made the “one size fits all” approach to development counterproductive:

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.

The report is worth reading in full (pdf).

Anyway, USAID has a helpful little page devoted to all of its AL programs, from fruit orchards to paying the indigent by the day to manually dredge out all the irrigation canals that decayed under decades of warfare.

Alas, and this is probably what Ambassador Jawad meant, they amount to very little in the way of meaningful alternatives to poppy. As Rubin argued last October:

The [U.S. Counternarcotics] Strategy avoids the most elemental error: confusing alternative livelihoods with “crop substitution,” as expressed in the common question, “what other crop can they grow?” Consistent with the flawed oversimplifed view of “poverty” in the UNODC report, this question assumes that the sole non-criminal beneficiaries of the opium economy are “farmers” (presumably cultivating their own land with mostly family labor); that the main reason “farmers” grow poppy is to increase their income; and that there are no economic functions of the drug economy outside of cultivation.

All of these assumptions are wrong. Opium is not a crop but an industry. The ludicrous statement made by UNODC and echoed by the U.S. that “only” 14 percent (a mere one seventh!) of the Afghan population is directly involved in opium cultivation, ignores the facts, also documented by UNODC and the World Bank, that “cultivation” generates only 20% of the value of the opiates produced in Afghanistan; that a very large number of people are directly involved in the sectors of the opium economy other than cultivation; and that many people gain their livelihoods from activities generated indirectly by demand created by the opium economy in, for instance, construction and trade.

He goes on to note that in Nangarhar Province, which saw a dramatic drop almost to zero in opium production between 2004 and 2005, not just farmers but everyone was badly hit by the drop in income. Hence, in 2007, there was an absolutely insane 285% increase in cultivation. That is because opium cultivation is not a simple economic transaction: it is a bedrock foundation for a local economy, driving everything from credit markets (such as they exist) to land purchases, to food loans, and so on.

So when Hounshell points out that there is no loan system in place for Afghan farmers, he’s hitting a larger problem than perhaps he realizes: it isn’t just the opium that needs to be addressed. An effective counternarcotics campaign (of which there are precious few to study) is a systematic development issue, not a focus on a single crop or a single sector of the economy or society (lending credence to my argument that the best thing to do about poppy is nothing). So long as both the UNODC and the U.S. continue to be so limited in how they address the issue, there will never be substantive progress toward weaning the countryside off poppy.

Update: Péter Marton links to what looks like an amazing documentary about the opium traffickers. It contains the key warning: “if you destroy this industry, quite obviously you destroy the national economy.” Again: the problem is far deeper than most people, including seemingly policymakers in the U.S., realize.

Thinking About Alternative Livelihoods
Eradicate Eradication
The Follies of Legalization
A Keen Critique

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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