Monday, October 22, 2007

Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan V: Is Opium Poppy Cultivation Related to Poverty?

This is the fifth of a series of posts in which I analyze the main aspects of counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan, in response to the recently published U.S. Counter-Narcotics Strategy for Afghanistan and the UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007.

The previous installments were: Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan (First Installment): Defining the Problem; Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan II: The Value Chain, The Corruption Chain; Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan III: The False Promise of Crop Eradication; and Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan IV: Beyond Interdiction. I also presented a general memorandum on counter-narcotics strategy: Points on Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan: A Critique and a Proposal.

As argued in the previous installments, the U.S. (which funds most counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan) has invested a disproportionate amount of resources in eradication of the opium poppy crop, which contributes only about 20 percent of the value of the opiate industry in Afghanistan. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, characterized last year's eradication effort as "a farce." The result of failed eradication programs has been the migration of cultivation, its concentration in insecure areas, an increase in the value of the opium economy, and closer links among farmers, traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban. The opium economy in Afghanistan has spread and become more integrated not in spite of, but because of counter-narcotics efforts.

In the new U.S. Counter Narcotics Strategy, of the five immediate priorities, three are for eradication: make eradication a counter narcotics priority; encourage (i.e. pressure) the Afghan government to set eradication goals, and; encourage (i.e. pressure) the government of Afghanistan to use non–negotiated eradication (mechanical eradication and spraying). The two other goals are improving the fund for rewarding provinces that are “good performers” (with lower cultivation being the only measure of performance) and an improved public information strategy, an area where this administration has proved itself uniquely inept. While the report contains sections on alternative livelihoods and interdiction, neither is listed among the immediate priorities.

Fallacies for Failure

Most people assume that Afghan farmers turn to poppy cultivation because of poverty. And they are right. Of course it is not just the poverty and insecurity of individuals that lead to cultivation: it is the poverty and insecurity of the entire country, which have destroyed infrastructure, gutted the state and justice system, ruined the security institutions, and isolated both each village and the entire country from licit markets. The country is tied for last place in the world in all indicators of human development, such as infant mortality, child mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, and life expectancy.

Poverty and insecurity are not the same, but poor people are more vulnerable to insecurity, which restricts their opportunities and helps keep them poor. Research by scholars such as Colombia's Francisco Thoumi shows that the production of agricultural raw materials for illegal narcotics tends to be concentrated in countries that have a comparative advantage in the production of illegality and insecurity and, within those countries, in communities that are the most isolated and marginalized within the state.

The predominant role of poverty, insecurity, and marginality in poppy cultivation argues strongly for making development, security, and political and social integration the top priorities in countering the narcotics economy in Afghanistan. Perhaps that is why the U.S. government and UNODC, both of which have strong commitments to an enforcement rather than developmental approach to narcotics production and use, have tried to deny the obvious link of poverty to narcotics production through elementary statistical errors and a false distinction between poverty and insecurity.

The UNODC Opium Poppy Survey 2007 asserts:
First, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty – quite the opposite. Hilmand, Kandahar and three other opium-producing provinces in the south are the richest and most fertile, in the past the breadbasket of the nation and a main source of earnings. They have now opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale (5,744 tons), while the much poorer northern region is abandoning the poppy crops.

Second, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is now closely linked to insurgency. The Taliban today control vast swathes of land in Hilmand, Kandahar and along [and across, though UNODC does not say so] the Pakistani border. By preventing national authorities and international agencies from working, insurgents have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and vegetable fields into poppy fields.
In both public and private discussions, U.S. counter-narcotics officials unfailingly refer to these statements as evidence that narcotics production is due to the greed of rich farmers working with terrorists to produce poison for profit, rather than the vulnerability of the poor. This is a principal justification for the priority they give to eradication.

The statement that "opium cultivation is no longer associated with poverty -- quite the opposite" is an attempt to use a statistical fallacy to promote a failed policy. This statement is an example of the ecological fallacy, defined by Wikipedia as:
A widely recognized error in the interpretation of statistical data, whereby inferences about the nature of individuals are based solely upon aggregate statistics collected for the group to which those individuals belong. This fallacy assumes that all members of a group exhibit characteristics of the group at large.
Wikipedia provides an example that perfectly duplicates the fallacy committed by UNODC:
Imagine two communities, Chiptown and Pittsville. Within each community there is a divide between the rich and poor, the rich living in gated communities on the hills and the poor living adjacent to the industrial districts that pump carcinogens into their backyards. In both communities, the poor people have a cancer incidence that is many times that of the wealthy people. In Chiptown, where the dominant industry is high-tech computer manufacturing, the overall salaries are higher for both rich and poor people, but the carcinogens spewed into the environment are particularly nasty, giving cancer to nearly all those exposed (almost entirely poor people). Prof. Newbie comes along and decides to examine the risk factors for cancer. He looks up the cancer rates and median incomes of these two towns on the CDC and U.S. Census webpages. He finds, to everyone's surprise, that the cancer incidence is higher in the wealthier community, Chiptown. He concludes that higher income is a risk factor for cancer. In fact, we know that exactly the opposite is true: In the wealthier community of Chiptown, being poor is especially dangerous to one's health.
Substitute insecurity for carcinogens, poppy cultivation for cancer, and Helmand for Chiptown, and you have the UNODC argument, described by the most commonly used source on the intenet as a "widely recognized error." I taught it to first-year graduate students at Yale in 1982.

Are Helmand Farmers Rich and Greedy?

Besides the gross methodological error, UNODC's assertion is based on a definition of poverty as household income alone, a notoriously inadequate measure, especially in rural areas. David Mansfield, probably the world's leading field researcher on narcotics in Afghanistan, comments in a private communication previewing a report he is co-authoring with Adam Pain for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit:
The claims of the relative wealth of farmers in the south is not supported by the available data. In fact statistics produced by the Central Statistics Office of Afghanistan in 2004 summarising household data and collected in the National Risk Vulnerability Assessment ranks Helmand 6th, Kandahar 15th, Uruzgan 32nd and Zabul 33rd of the 34 provinces in terms of social and economic well being. This compares to rankings for the seven northern provinces of Jawjan, Balkh, Samangan, Baghlan, Bamian, Frayab and Sari Pul of 1st, 9th, 13th, 11th, 18th, 25th and 31st, respectively.

Moreover, in 2005, Helmand province reported some of the worst school enrollment rates for 6-13 year olds and one of the highest illiteracy rates of any other province other than Zabul and Paktya. Given the intensity of the conflict in the south it seems rather unlikely that these indicators have significantly changed over the last two years -- quite the contrary. The assertion that the population of the southern provinces are not poor seems to be derived from the fact that households in the southern provincesreported average higher annual incomes (US$ 3,316 for poppy growing and US$ 2,480 for non poppy growing) to UNODC surveyors than those in the north (US$ 2,690 for poppy growing and US$ 1,851 for non poppy growing) or centre (US$ 1,897 for poppy growing and US$1,487 for non poppy growing. To put these figures in perspective a "greedy" opium-producing household in the south would have a daily income of $9 per day in contrast to a poor but virtuous household in the north with a daily income of $5 per day. Given the difference in the average number of household members per household, with an average of 9 persons per household in Helmand and 7 persons in Balkh,this would represent a per capita income of $1 and $0.70 per capita respectively. Leaving aside the issues of income inequalities within provinces and the well known methodological difficulties associated with collecting data on household income and its reliability in developing countries,the focus on income as a measure of poverty represents a severely limited understanding of the nature and measurement of poverty, particularly under conditions of chronic insecurity.
Mansfield observes that development experts define poverty multidimensionally, not solely in terms of income, which is why they favor indicators such as the Human Development Index. He concludes:
Given the prevailing levels of insecurity, and other poor health and welfare indicators, some opium poppy growing households may indeed be relatively income wealthy but most will experience the wider dimensions of poverty. These may be even greater in the south where the intensity of the conflict will disrupt labour and agricultural markets, preclude access to health and, education; and where the threat of physical violence from both state and non-state actors is at its most overt.
In a much needed corrective to the false impression conveyed by the UNODC report, World Bank Afghanistan economist William Byrd also stated:
Dependence on opium cultivation is very much associated with poverty.

Those who are actually cultivating opium on a sharecropping basis or who have very small plots of land tend not to be very rich. We have to be careful to distinguish who is cultivating the land and who owns it. Not surprisingly, it is the landowners who get most of the returns on opium at the farm level, while drug traders and their sponsors reap the lion’s share overall.
Current reporting from Helmand by RFE/RL confirms the link of poverty (including insecurity) to narcotics production. One farmer in Helmand, repeating what so many have told interviewers, told RFE/RL:
"I am 20,000 rupees [$350] in debt and I cannot earn even 50 rupees [$1] a day, so I have to plant poppies -- because I am anxious," he explains. "I know that it is a bad thing and the Holy Prophet Muhammad says that 'all intoxicants are forbidden.' But we need it [to survive] and so it is fine to plant it in a situation like ours."
RFE/RL reports what I have found to be the predominant Afghan view:
Tribal leader Ali Shah Mazlumyar argues that there is a simple way to rid Helmand of poppy cultivation. "If 1/100th of the antidrug aid dollars were spent on helping poor farmers [through alternative-crops schemes], the situation would be much different -- if the government could buy their crops en masse and then sell them cheaply [on the open market]," he says. "This would be an enormous help and might solve the problem [of poppy cultivation] without the use of guns, artillery, and tanks."
World Bank economist Byrd agees with Mazlumyar (whose name means "friend of the oppressed"). In the interview cited above, Byrd said that rural development programs will be critical to create alternative livelihoods for poor farmers. “The country also needs to develop labor intensive agriculture exports of high-value added which really will be the alternative to opium. But it has to be recognized that this will take time.”

To recognize that "this will take time" would mean planning for a transition from the drug economy to a fully licit economy. This is a massive macro-economic development task, not a law enforcement task to be supplemented with some economic incentives and sanctions. The next post, a critique of "alternative livelihoods," will outline the components of that task.


Yankee Doodle said...

A very interesting article.

Anonymous said...

Along this line of thinking, Oliver Roy also discusses in one of his books how Al Quaeda has a strategy to recruit members by talking more about the oppressed and exploited poor.

If they recognize the opportunities available by attacking poverty, then how come we can't?

Bob Spencer

Anonymous said...

Just after 911, there was an estimate floating around that the entire opium crop of Afghanistan could have been purchased for around US $275 million.

Anyone who has seen the United Sates operate knew that the current situation in Afghanistan was the inevitable conclusion of the incompetence of the Bush administration acute lack of cultural understanding and wholesale denial of the lessons of history.

Spraying defoliants has never been a solution to illegal drug production. A recent example of this amazing incompetence would be Columbia and the cacao crop.

Hopefully, the recent news that Gates is going to make changes in US attitude at the State Dept. level gives a glimmer of hope that some sanity may creep back into the Afghanistan situation.

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