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Illicit economies, shadowy realms, and survival at the margins

May 16, 2018
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Guest post by Eric Gutierrez, Senior Adviser on Tackling Violence and Building Peace at Christian AidEric Gutierrez

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, poor landless farmers in the most conflict-affected areas of southern Afghanistan started migrating in increasing numbers to the relatively more insecure rocky desert areas. With the help of loans worth a few thousand dollars (typically provided by drug traffickers), they built their huts, prepared the land, and used percussion drills to sink tube wells of up to 100 meters deep to draw water out for growing opium poppy. After harvest, the loans were paid off, not in cash, but in high-value, low-volume, and non-perishable opium gum, collected very conveniently from right at their doorsteps by creditors. The opium plant itself (stalk, leaves, roots) was left on the ground to regenerate the sandy soil.

By 2013, an incredible transformation had taken place – an additional 300,000 hectares of agricultural land was created, supporting over 1.2 million people in southwestern Afghanistan alone. David Mansfield, the researcher who documented the transformation, and compressed it using satellite imagery and aerial mapping into a 2.5-minute video, challenged donors and development agencies: “show me a development project that has been this successful”.

Similar patterns – of poor peasants displaced by poverty and conflict taking a huge gamble to find their luck in more insecure areas to pursue illicit livelihoods – are found elsewhere. Field research (still to be published) in eastern Congo by Fraser Murray, a refugee and migration scholar, found that up to 73% of the 4.49 million internally-displaced people in that troubled region of warlords and ethnic militias choose to live outside the protection offered by the sprawling refugee camps administered by the UN and humanitarian agencies.

Poppy in Afghanistan (The US Dept of Defense posted this with the caption 'Afghans work in a field' - oops)

Poppy in Afghanistan (The US Dept of Defense posted this with the caption ‘Afghans work in a field’ – oops)

The live-out refugees typically engage in what another researcher called ‘guerrilla agriculture’, illegally planting food crops in nearby national parks reserved for wildlife. Some smuggle second-hand clothes and other small consumer items across the border with Uganda. Others, like the Twa people (forest-based hunter-gatherers) pushed out of the park, resort to poaching. In Shabunda, households set up illegal makeshift mines to extract coltan, a high-value mineral used in the manufacture of mobile phones.

Like Mansfield, Murray is sceptical of the actual aims of development agencies. He asks why 80% of humanitarian and development aid is spent inside the camps, when the majority of those who need it live outside. He points out that development actors misunderstand or have yet to seriously engage with the agency of people living at the margins.

These examples show the dynamics of survival in many of the world’s most dangerous places. “Dangerous places” is actually a technical label adopted by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), to describe locations found in a total of 110 countries – 46 of which figure among the top 25% in terms of the highest violent death rates, and 78 of which are sources of 40% of the world’s refugees and internally-displaced persons. Hence, ‘dangerous places’ are typically those locations where state institutions do not or barely operate; where public services have gone missing or where infrastructure has been destroyed; or where insurance companies, banks, and firms don’t do business. In many cases, these are places too risky for humanitarian or development agency staff to even visit.

Yet as the examples reveal, people in these places somehow survive even without state protection or development aid. Life continues, albeit precariously and with many serious trade-offs. People living in dangerous places make choices and build relationships with ‘unusual actors’ to enable economic transactions and some form of order to survive. They spontaneously find ways to help themselves, typically by relying on informal, including illicit, economic activities, to tide them over. They are consequently stigmatised as criminals, and therefore regarded as outside the purview of official development. Whatever the problems are, these are typically seen as matters for law enforcement, and not for development or humanitarian agencies, to resolve.

The survival of poor communities engaged in illicit economic activities, almost without help and support from development agencies, makes the UN slogan of ‘Leave No One Behind’ look like empty rhetoric. The puzzle is – why are development agencies effectively defaulting on reaching poor people stigmatised as criminals? Why is there indecision on addressing the tough questions on illicit economies?

Over the last few years, a critical mass of research is starting to put illicit economies on the agenda of development agencies. Christian Aid published case studies on drugs and illicit practices, and on dangerous places in the Sahel. In June 2017, delegates from academia, policy, and the development sector attended a workshop at the University of Glasgow. And in April 2018, a Colloquium on the Development Implications of Illicit Economies was held at SOAS, University of London.

Debates on definitions appear to be one reason for the failure to focus on illicit economies. For example, Melissa Tullis of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) explains there still exists no official definition of “illicit financial flows”, making it extremely difficult for governments to agree on how to monitor the phenomenon. It was also for these reasons that ‘illicit financial flows’ almost did not make it into the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – it ended up in Goal 16, target 4.

Another gap is the lack of a model or theory for an in-depth understanding of the elusive, ever-changing details of illicit economies, explains professor Alfred W. McCoy, author of the classic The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972).  

McCoy suggests that there exists an invisible incubator for forms of illicit trades (illicit drugs, arms trafficking,

Coltan mine, DRC

Coltan mine, DRC

human smuggling, illegal migration, etc.).  He called this the ‘covert netherworld’, a shadowy realm and recurring clandestine domain beneath the surface of political life. Illicit economies persist because they have become the economic foundation of that shadowy realm that shapes, compromises, and corrupts conventional politics and political culture at the highest levels. Citing experiences in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, McCoy argued for the need to examine the deeper meaning of the character of illicit commodities and the implications of their phenomenal proliferation and persistence.

If indeed illicit economies are getting on the agenda, the next step now is how to bring this up in the portfolio of development agencies. Further longer-term collaboration between academia, policy, and development communities would hopefully develop sooner rather than later towards tackling the challenges of illicit economies, shadowy realms, and survival at the margins.

 

7 comments

  1. The case studies find some parallelism in certain 3rd world/developing setting. The article esp the case studies present an eye-opener on development & conflict that would enable development stakeholders (esp donors who need to to take off their prim-colored glasses,stare reality at their face & unveil the cloak of sterile isolation of peace & conflict issues/challenges) to untangle & liberate themselves from the perpetual business of filling up bottomless pits with tired old confidence-building measures of peace building. On top of the questions and uncertainties raised in the case studies, I do not find comfort in the seemingly murky business of folding into the mainstream the illicit into the legitimate — at what expense? As it is, conflict or none — politicians naturally transform (without effort) into criminals once in public offices that has been the trend for decades (& the paradox in certain democracies). In one particular case study, the paramilitaries of war/drug lords were instrumental in instigating the conflicts among elites, which is good as they eliminate each other. But more criminals in politics & public offices? Now, at what point will rule of law and good governance for the protection of citizens/populace settle in — as illicit economies and shadow governments are welded into the legitimate? Is this like “getting a thief to catch another thief”? I am reminded of hollywood cowboy movies of the wild wild west, where goons and guns of the good the bad and the ugly empty their guns, at each other, and always the good make it to “the end”. Did the case studies have the same ending this farl?

  2. Thanks for your questions Lily.

    There is this theory about different kinds of thieves. The first is of the ‘roving’ kind who loot and plunder randomly. This type may or may not be in competition with other thieves and bandits. The second is the stationary kind – one who has successfully monopolised theft and violence in his domain. Thus, the stationary bandit’s theft has become regular and predictable. According to the theory, “any given group of victims will prefer the stationary bandit who successfully monopolises theft to the uncoordinated, competitive theft of roving bandits.” It’s like choosing the lesser of two evils.

    But what also happens is that the stationary bandit will find it in his own interest to provide protection to those he preys on. Since all of his victims are his source of loot, it is in the stationary bandit’s interest to ensure that the victims are not murdered or maimed. Otherwise he loses his source of income and will again be involved in riskier, uncoordinated and competitive theft with other bandits. It may also be that the stationary bandit may want his victims to be more efficient and produce more, so his share of the loot expands.

    The stationary bandit is said to be the prototypical state, and his regularised and predictable looting becomes called ‘taxation’. Weber defined the ‘state’ as the community that can claim a monopoly on the use of violence and taxation.

    So it is not about the wild, wild, west. Even in the most dangerous places there is not a complete absence of some form of order. Thieves and criminals, as the case studies show, can be suppliers of order too. This remains a blind spot in the understanding of what is actually going on in the most poverty-stricken and conflict-affected places.

    1. Appreciate the response. Re “thieves and criminals can be suppliers of order, too” — I share this tale I learned from different sources years back — about some place described as plagued with “intractable & protracted insurgency, ethnic separatists, ‘roving’ criminals & pirates” (and much later of homegrown/foreign extremists.) These sources claimed, these people know one another even trading/exchanging arms/resources they obtained thru some clandestine arrangement with some sources. And every morning at 7, at their respective/nearby (may be a mountain across) HQ/camps/communities — the insurgents, separatists as well as security forces & their militia raise their respective flags. No fighting, there was peace… except when some high-ranking official(s) at the national capital needs to exhibit firepower in anticipation of approaching legislative hearings for annual budget appropriations. This & other similar tales must be fact, not fiction. Of the wild, wild west centuries ago, “some form of order” do exist, as sheriffs in the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood & some bounty hunters abound. In this modern wild- wherever, even as body counts increase horrendously attributed to a prevailing culture of impunity, the suppliers of order are not wanting & keeping the peace. But the UN claim they are counting & are troubled by prospect of crimes against humanity. Thank you.

  3. Appreciate the clarification about thieves & certainly no strangers. Re “thieves and criminals can be suppliers of order, too” — I share of this tale I learned from different sources years back — about some place described as plagued with “intractable insurgency, ethnic separatists, ‘roving’ criminals & pirates” (and years later of homegrown/ foreign extremists.) These sources claimed, these people know one another even trading/exchanging arms they obtained thru some clandestine arrangement with some sources. And every morning at 7, at their respective/nearby (may be a mountain across) HQ/camps/communities — the insurgents, separatists as well as security forces & their militia raise their respective flags. No fighting, there was peace… except when some high-ranking official(s) at the national capital needs to exhibit firepower in anticipation of approaching legislative hearings for annual budget appropriations. This & other similar tales must be fact, not fiction. And in the wild, wild west centuries ago, “some form of order” do exist, as sheriffs in the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood & some bounty hunters abound. In this modern wild- wherever, even as body counts increase horrendously attributed to a prevailing culture of impunity, the suppliers of order are not wanting & keeping the peace. Ask the UN … they claim they are counting & are troubled. But there is peace. Thank you. for your article and clarification

  4. Hi Eric

    A few corrections.

    At no point have I written or said that “drug traffickers” are financing the settlement of the former deserts of the south west. In fact I have challenged the narrative that this is the source of finance for the transformation of this area; it is a depiction that is salacious and overlooks the genuine social, economic and political processes that have led to more than 2.2 million people settling over 300,000 hectares in this area over the last 15 years.

    The vast majority of new settlers in the deserts of the southwest draw on family networks to find land and finance the costs of establishing a home and a viable farm. These loans are typically interest free. They are repaid in cash through the production and sale of opium produced on the land. Given the low cost of desert land – much of it having been “captured” – and until recently high yields and opium prices, repayment has been relatively easy. For example, it would only require just over 1/2 hectare of opium to repay the $5000 required for a solar panelled solar system, even with the lower yields farmers were experiencing in 2014 and 2015.

    It is also inaccurate to suggest that the settlement of land began after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 as you do in your article. What drove the movement of people north of the canal into the desert area was the high price of illicit opium access to new technology and the combination of violence and poorly considered drug control efforts. Much of the settlement of these areas took place after 2008. These are processes that I have documented in detail through fieldwork and imagery working with my colleagues from OSDR and Alcis, the most recent being:

    https://areu.org.af/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/1808E-STILL-WATER-RUNS-DEEP-Illicit-Poppy-and-the-Transformation-of-the-Deserts-of-Southwest-Afghanistan.pdf

    I would also like to point out that I did not produce the video, only the script. The hard work was done by Matt Angell and the team at Alcis. It has long been my view that the kind of GIS analysis done by Alcis is integral to robust research on illicit economies in Fragile and Conflict States; an essential antidote to the kind of hearsay and anecdote from secondary sources that can often pass as evidence in official narratives and academic articles.

    Finally, it is wrong to suggest that I am
    “sceptical of the actual aims of development agencies”. This seems a rather broad statement at best and certainly mischaracterises my views. My work over the last two decades has sought to support development agencies better understand the drugs economy in Afghanistan and other source countries. As such it has positioned illicit drug crop production within the wider discussion about how development actors can best operate in Fragile and Conflict Affected States in order that policies and programs do more good than harm.

  5. Thanks for your clarifications David, as always full of details so much needed for robust research. It certainly wasn’t my intention to misrepresent your research. Since you feel I have, I apologise.

    I realise that my comments on the role of opium in developing desert land had foregone the nuances in favour of brevity. Nevertheless, I believe the conclusions I have drawn are not without basis. That the widespread lack of credit in rural Afghanistan is leading farmers into poppy cultivation as a reliable means of accessing credit is something you have shown in your work. I take this as meaning either of two things: that money lenders will provide those loans if it is to finance poppy cultivation; or that the sources of credit will be those with an interest in producing opium, i.e. local traders a.k.a. the traffickers.

    I remember an old BBC Panorama report which said that the raw opium produced by villagers is usually bought by local traders who advance cash loans to the farmers, who then repay it in opium (not cash) after the harvest. This documentary seems to have been the origin of what has been widely reproduced elsewhere.

    Then there are the big men of Afghan drug trafficking included in the US Sanctions List who came from land-owning families. Since they rented land to sharecroppers, they are likely to be a source of those loans to farmers too. I’ve been trying to get and organise more information on their criminal careers and life histories.

    Your corrections now add further clarity – so thank you.

    I cited the figure of 1.2 million people (rather than 2.2 million as you state) and said the settlement of land took place after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 – my source for these was the video itself. I am sorry that I was not too accurate with my credits about the video. I too believe Alcis deserves recognition for the hard work, and that it is an antidote to the usual framing and narratives.

    On the point that I mischaracterised by saying you were sceptical, that was my honest impression from my interaction with you. That scepticism I believe is constructive, and quite essential for a frank and open assessment of aid impact. I see your work as providing the evidence base for that more thorough critical analysis.

    Thanks again, David.

  6. Fascinating topic. But is that the correct video link? I’m puzzled as ‘draining the deserts’ seems primarily about the use of solar pumps. True it says that irrigation enabled an additional 300,000 ha to be cultivated etc but the main subject is how solar pumps have replaced diesel in astonishing numbers but that now the area is so awash with them the ground water is being rapidly depleted + will likely return to desert with consequent desertion by the new population. It doesn’t seem to relate much to what either Eric or David are discussing.

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