The Helmand Food Zone Fiasco

by Joel Hafvenstein on 8/26/2010 · 8 comments

Compared to other recent counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, the British “Food Zone” program in Helmand has received a pretty good press.  It’s been credited with facilitating the 2008-09 drop in poppy in Helmand and cited as a possible model for the rest of the country.  Sadly, when examined closely, there’s no compelling reason to think the Food Zone program was effective.  In fact, it turned into an embarrassing shambles which did a great deal of unreported damage.

In its substance, the Food Zone (FZ) was not too different from past “governor-led” counternarcotics efforts.  When I was working in Badakhshan in 2007-08, the US-funded Poppy Elimination Program (PEP) was doing much the same stuff.  The British helped Helmand’s Governor Mangal carry out (1) a public information campaign to let farmers know the government was serious about poppy this year; (2) distribution of subsidized wheat seed, fertilizer, and pesticides as a short-term sweetener; and finally, (3) targeted eradication of poppy fields.

As with many past efforts in Helmand, this wasn’t in itself an “alternative livelihoods” project; creating livelihoods that would be sustainable after the withdrawal of donor funding was not a primary concern.  Rather, the FZ was a short-term attempt to stanch the flood of drugs in Helmand and restore some credibility to the provincial government.  To maximize impact, it was focused on the areas with major irrigation works where farmers would have the most options for food crop cultivation (hence the program name).

Questionable Success

To the UK government’s credit, they brought in an independent evaluation team from Cranfield University to assess the FZ.  The Cranfield team found that within the targeted districts, the acreage under poppy cultivation dropped by 37 per cent, compared to an 8 per cent increase outside the zone.  That impressive divergence is at the root of all the excitement over the FZ’s impact.  The UN Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) cited it in their canonical annual report on drugs in Afghanistan; director Antonio Maria Costa began his September 2009 foreword by hailing the “successful introduction of food zones to promote licit farming.”

Oddly, the UNODC doesn’t contrast the Cranfield study to its own figures for poppy cultivation in Helmand in 2008-09.  Even accepting that the UN measures poppy cultivation by district, and the district boundaries don’t coincide perfectly with the “Food Zone” area (see map on p. 30), there is no way to slice and dice the UN figures and come up with the dramatic Cranfield contrast between FZ and non-FZ areas.  The UN’s map of the Food Zone includes the most densely populated bits of Garmser, Nawa, Nad Ali, Lashkargah, and Nahri Sarraj.  Poppy acreage in those five districts fell by 27.5%, according to UNODC, while in Helmand’s other eight districts, it fell by 27.8%.

If we roll all of Sangin and Musa Qala into the FZ (as I believe some FZ activities took place there), we get a drop of 36% inside the FZ and a drop of 20% outside.  Here we see some contrast, though still nothing like Cranfield levels.  But before hailing the FZ model as the reason for this divergence, we need to keep in mind that a major market correction was underway in 2009 – the year when poppy prices finally dwindled from their giddy post-Taliban ban heights to a mere 160% of their 1990s trend level.  All over the country, the terms of trade for other crops versus poppy have been improving, and farmers have been following the market into legal crops.  It’s hardly surprising that farmers in Helmand’s districts best suited to food cultivation were readier to switch out of opium than those in less fertile areas (like Nawzad, the only district in Helmand where poppy cultivation increased).  At the end of the day, Helmand still produced roughly 4,000 tons of opium in 2009, compared to global illicit demand estimated by the UNODC at 3,700 tons.  The market correction likely has further to go.

Whose cultivation numbers are more credible?  I haven’t seen the Cranfield study and can’t speak directly to their methodology.  With all respect to the Cranfield researchers, though, the UNODC is vastly better set up to do quantitative fieldwork in this area – especially when it comes to the figures for cultivation outside the FZ.  If the UN itself thinks the Cranfield numbers are more credible than its own, it would have been nice to see a note explaining why.

[Update: A reliable source has informed me that Cranfield’s satellite data analysis is probably more credible than the UNODC figures.  Mea culpa!  However, see David Mansfield’s 2010 paper “Where have all the flowers gone?” for an analysis that accepts the Cranfield numbers but still questions the impact of the FZ program in a year when Helmandi farmers both inside and outside the Food Zone overwhelmingly chose to plant wheat).

Avoidable Errors

A flawed impact evaluation alone would hardly earn the label “fiasco”.  What really irks me about the Helmand FZ is that it’s been hailed as a shiny new model despite the fact that in fall 2009, its British implementers hastily procured vast quantities of low-quality wheat seed, distributed it against the advice of agricultural experts, undermined previous Western investment in long-term alternative livelihoods, sparked a corruption scandal, and let their contractor’s Afghan staff take the fall.  (What follows was reported to me by former colleagues in Helmand who worked closely with the FZ program).

As with so many other agricultural projects in Afghanistan, the disaster began with the clash between donor calendars and the agricultural calendar.  Donor bureaucracies are dishearteningly poor at coughing up money and expertise in time to meet nature’s implacable deadlines.  The result with most US-funded distributions in Afghanistan has been that the seed and fertilizer reaches farmers too late for planting.  If they’re lucky, they can save it for next year, or (if the wheat hasn’t already been treated with toxic fungicide) at least grind it into flour.

In the FZ’s case, while the money was available on time, the expertise was not.  The technical advisors hired to help with the project were stuck in Britain.  The PRT team on the ground in Helmand (civilian and military) went ahead with buying the wheat to make sure they made the deadline for distribution.  Because they weren’t development agriculturists, however, they made some critical mistakes – notably buying most of their wheat seed from local farmers.

You can see how this seemed like a good idea.  Why not try to benefit the farmers at every stage of the project, including buying the inputs from them?  But producing wheat for seed is a very different (and much more demanding) process than producing it for grain.  The wheat produced by most Helmandi farmers makes a nice hearty naan, but if you plant it, you can expect a poor yield.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put a lot of work into developing, certifying, and monitoring a network of improved-quality wheat seed producers in Afghanistan.  Most of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan are aware of this and insist that any wheat seed bought locally needs to come from FAO-certified suppliers.  Unfortunately, the inexperienced Helmand PRT team responsible for FZ did not make use of the FAO network.  They – or rather, the Afghan-staffed contractor agency operating under their instructions – instead bought thousands of tons of “seed” from local farmers outside the network.  Then, showing that the PRT team knew just enough to be dangerous, they screened the wheat to remove weed seeds and treated it with fungicide.

The resulting wheat seed was – in technical language – crap.  When the distribution started, it was also a major disruption to local markets.  A lot of previous US and UK money has gone into supporting agricultural input traders, particularly in Nad-i-Ali district, the heart of the biggest US-funded irrigation network.  These bazaar merchants were understandably peeved that their pricy commercial stocks of improved seed now had to compete with handouts that looked suspiciously like trash.  They sent samples of the Food Zone seed off for testing.  When the test results confirmed that the seed was far below the national standards for seed distribution, they started to raise an almighty stink, with the added voices of Nad-i-Ali elders.

The FAO privately informed the PRT that its seed was flawed, and that the only responsible recourse (since it had been dressed in toxic fungicide) was to destroy all the remaining stocks.  This didn’t happen.  Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture made an exception to its quality standards to allow the shoddy Helmand Food Zone seed to be distributed, and the PRT sent the seed to district officials for distribution.

The local political storm that had kicked off would not be stilled, however.  Governor Mangal launched a public investigation into the presumed “corruption”.  He arrested 90 Afghan staff who implemented the FZ program, under suspicion of selling high-quality seed, buying crap seed for the distribution, and pocketing the difference.  This is the kind of narrative that everyone in Afghanistan is primed to believe.  It’s all too often true.  If I hadn’t been informed by trusted colleagues that there never was any high-quality seed, I would have believed it myself.

As a result, we’ve seen news stories critical of the latest Food Zone episode (like this one from the formidable Jean MacKenzie) which rightly point out how poorly-monitored, large-scale aid projects foster corruption, losing allies for the government and its Western partners.  That’s all true in general.  It’s reason enough to be wary of large-scale distribution of agricultural inputs in war zones – reason enough to be sceptical that a Food Zone “model” is the right one for counternarcotics in Afghanistan.

But the whole truth in the case of the Food Zone is even worse: the PRT team’s avoidable error, and their refusal to own up to it, resulted in the mass punishment of innocent Afghans, some of whom have only recently been released.  It needlessly undercut the long-term investment by the UN and Western governments in Helmand’s legal agricultural markets.  And it fed the narrative of corruption that has seen ever more Afghans giving up hope in the reconstruction of their country.

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John August 26, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Joel is opium poppy cultivation legal in Afghanistan? When you say “opium production” do you mean opium gum? What agency quantified the Helmand opium production of “roughly 4,000 tons” 2009?

Joel Hafvenstein August 27, 2010 at 3:19 am

Hi John — the cultivation of opium poppy and sale of opium in any form is currently illegal in Afghanistan. Yes, “production” in tons refers to opium gum. The UN Office on Drugs & Crime produces an annual opium survey with a small mountain of data on the Afghan narco-economy. In the 2009 survey (linked to above), they estimate that Helmand province produced 4,085 tons of opium — see p. 30.

Jean MacKenzie August 27, 2010 at 5:58 am

Thanks, Joel, for this. It helps set the record straight. I do have some reservations about the contractor involved — I won’t mention any names — and I’m not at all sure that some of the Afghans involved were not, in fact, playing around with the money. It would be surprising if they weren’t. And we’ll have to see what the poppy picture looks like next year, if prices of wheat and opium begin to change again.
I loved your book, by the way!

Joel Hafvenstein August 27, 2010 at 8:37 am

Warmest thanks, Jean. I don’t defend the contractor or its Afghan staff against all charges — I wasn’t there on the ground for this one. I’d also be surprised if there hadn’t been some fiddling. As you’ve documented elsewhere, one of the problems with huge-scale aid projects is the near inevitability of corruption. (Any readers who are quick to shrug that off as the price of winning hearts and minds should think again about what we’re really trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. The benefits of a wheat and fertilizer handout last for a single season. The perception that your well-connected neighbors and rulers are getting rich through corruption will continue to erode faith in the post-Taliban order for years to come).

In this case, I’m just arguing that the main accusation (of swapping out improved wheat for bad) was based on the mistaken idea that there was good wheat in the first place.

Love your journalism, by the way — hope you took “formidable” above as a high compliment.

RScott August 27, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Hi Joel,
My biased view often stated but rarely heeded is that if you cannot carefully field monitor your project on a regular daily basis, you must not expect your project to be implemented as you have planned it…large or small projects. Assuming that some of the un- or poorly monitored implementing staff did get involved, it would not be a first in Helmand. In 98-99 the Taliban government people in Helmand informed me that a local-staffed US contractor with no monitoring that I saw, was buying relatively low cost wheat off the local market for an FAO wheat seed project, cleaning it up and distributing it to the farmers as top quality high yielding wheat seed, and billing for top quality seed. Sound familiar? (I was organizing work crews at the time to de-silt problem sections of the Boghra Canal with INL funding.)
I thought that it was generally agreed (unofficially) that the key reasons for the reduction in opium poppy last year was the growing very high price of wheat thanks to the drought in the north and the low price for opium thanks to consistent over production in Helmand?
On the governor’s “investigation”, this would be for the foreigners benefit, not the locals. On these kind of things, the information on what is going on or has happened is rapidly spread as rumor, and the rumors are generally accurate. There are no secrets for long. And this is why, apparently, the present governor is so popular among the foreigners…he says the right things…but in the long run nothing much has changed.
On failed eradication, it has been done at the wrong time…just before harvest when the farmers, their share croppers and farm labor have so much invested in the crop that is about to be taken out. A high value illegal crop just before harvest is an easy target for bribes, which happened regularly. If they would eradicate just after planting/germination when the farmers could replant with wheat or fallow until early planting of cotton or peanuts, it would not be open for pay offs and more farmer friendly. And the fields can be easily identified at that time.
Finally, rather than a single and frequently erratic action, like FZ, AIP construction, etc., why dont they/we try a broad scope integrated development/reconstruction program that meets the needs of the farmers. Do the obvious. To date in Helmand, this has not happened. Even help with the cotton industry that the farmers have been requesting since 1997 at least has been ignored, apparently for political reasons. A cash crop that the farmers have been cultivating since the mid-60s, with an established and functioning (not this year) cotton gin and an international market, heightened this year with the flooding of the Pakistan cotton belt. One of the obvious. A bit too rambling.
Dick Scott (see:

Joel Hafvenstein August 28, 2010 at 4:56 am

Hi Dick — thanks for your insights, and I wish your dictum on monitoring was universally heeded.

Regarding the reason for the drop in poppy cultivation, I think many analysts of the narco-economy (led by UNODC) focus so closely on year-on-year results that they underplay the more important decadal trend. The average opium price in the late 1990s was steady at $30 per kg. The Taliban ban sent it up by more than 10 times, and it’s been descending ever since. The years when opium cultivation spread to the whole country, sweeping all other crops before it, were years of unsustainably high prices. The prices are reverting toward the old level only slowly, in part (if UNODC’s estimates of global demand are accurate) because lots of people have been stockpiling opium on a huge scale — likely because they want to be ready to profit from another supply disruption, as the traffickers did after the Taliban ban.

But there has been no successful counternarcotics policy, the price of opium has come back down, and the market has started shrinking and concentrating in the area with the greatest comparative advantage (Helmand-Kandahar). Helmand may still be overproducing slightly relative to global demand, and there’s no sign of stockpiles being unwound yet, so prices will likely fall further (though of course this year’s poppy blight may pause the process). I would argue that the decadal fall in opium price is more important than wheat price volatility in explaining cultivation patterns.

As for the broad scope integrated development program — amen! Security makes that a hell of a challenge, of course. ALP-S didn’t fail solely because of programming decisions. But long-term ag development is what we need to be trying — anything else is a mistake, both politically and developmentally.

Homira August 29, 2010 at 10:35 am

Excellent work you guys.

RScott August 29, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Yes, Joel, The key element to the equation that resulted in the reduction in opium poppy cultivation was the drop in the price of opium. These are double cropping cash cropping farmers that respond quickly to changes in the markets. The rising wheat prices helped to re-direct crop cultivation for the fall planting season. Other alternatives included leaving land fallow for the early planting season for cotton and peanuts…also important crops in the minds of central Helmand farmers. But with virtually no support or funding for the cotton gin, that established market became unreliable. And with the increased violence on the roads to Herat and Pakistan via Miranshah, (the usual no-customs route) it is not clear what has happened to the peanut cultivation among the main producers in a section of Nad-i-Ali. These farmers consider opium poppy an evil crop, especially as more and more of their young people are becoming addicted. But it remains a profitable crop with a reliable market and an informal credit system, all important to cash crop farmers, and elements with which we have been unable to compete over the past 9 years or so, in support of the regions traditional cash crops which the farmers continue to cultivate. We continue to propose and experiment with “innovative” approaches like trying to get these cash field-crop farmers to switch to fruit trees and vineyards, and a fodder crop industry rather than, first, supporting what the farmers are already doing but need help with. In terms of policy, why not start with the obvious? We did not and it may be too late.

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