UN International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development

UN International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development

An Opportunity Lost?

On Nov. 6, voters in two U.S. states took the extraordinary step of approving legal, regulated markets for cannabis. The Uruguayan government has presented a similar proposal. Yet while some drug policy reforms advance, challenges remain in confronting the existing international drug policy paradigm and structures, which remain averse to change. In this commentary, WOLA drug policy expert Coletta A. Youngers offers a unique, first-hand view of drug policy on the international stage and a window into the high-level discussions that drive that policy. 

By Coletta A. Youngers

In November 2011 I was invited by the Thai government to take part in an international delegation to develop a set of UN International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development. Our work began with a five-day journey along the Thai-Burma border to see first-hand the development programs that have been successful in virtually eliminating poppy production in that country.  Over 100 government officials and experts from 28 countries visited the Thai “Royal Project,” which has research stations and development projects in five Northern provinces of the country.  Thailand is the only country in the world to have eliminated the production of a crop used to manufacture illicit drugs; and the secret to its success, as we witnessed, is a sustained, long-term economic development and nation building program that has strong government, and royal family, backing.

At the end of the week, delegation members began the process of drafting the declaration that is to be approved by governments in a meeting to place in Lima, Peru, on November 15 and 16, 2012. The Guiding Principles were never intended to be binding, but rather, according to the document approved in Thailand, are intended to “assist … in the design, formulation, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of effective alternative development programmes and strategies with the ultimate goal of securing sustainable alternative livelihoods for affected farmers and communities.”

The fundamental thrust of the work done in Thailand was to move toward “mainstreaming” alternative development into national, regional, and local development initiatives. In other words, alternative development should be seen not only as a complement to law enforcement, but rather as a necessary component of economic development targeting some of the world’s poorest people. The document was written with an eye toward reaching out to those government agencies involved in all aspects of development, provision of basic services, and promotion of the rule of law.  

The draft of the Guiding Principles adopted in November 2011 built upon the practical experience of several decades of work promoting alternative development, which led to a new understanding of the importance of holistic policies. What is often referred to as an “alternative livelihoods” approach is based on improving the welfare of poor farmers via comprehensive development strategies that include improving local governance and citizen security, combined with voluntary reductions in the cultivation of crops deviated to the illicit market. Proper sequencing is crucial to success; viable economic livelihoods must be secured before significant crop reductions can be achieved. The draft document also underscores the importance of “people-centered” development practices and full compliance with the promotion and protection of human rights. One of the document’s most significant advances is its rejection of policies that condition economic assistance on prior crop reductions.

As with all UN documents, the negotiations in Thailand over the draft document were arduous and many compromises were made.  Particularly disappointing from my point of view was that the language on proper sequencing replicated that included in the  Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem, adopted during the ten-year review of UN drug policy; in other words, there was no progress in presenting the concept with greater clarity. Nonetheless, the final product overall marks a major advance of the international communities’ understanding of the most effective means of promoting alternative development. That was due in large part to the fact that those involved in the process were experts, either government officials or those from civil society, with a deep knowledge of the issues.

In anticipation of the Lima meeting, country missions in Vienna (where the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs is based) began reviewing the draft declaration. According to some reports, the draft declaration has become a political football as those negotiations proceed, with some countries allegedly suggesting language that would actually be a step backwards, though they are meeting resistance by others. This no doubt stems in part from fear of policy change on the part of certain governments, such as the United States and Russia, in the face of increasing calls for drug policy reform.

The Thai government played a major leadership role and invested significant resources in advancing international understanding on the complex topic of alternative development. The result was a draft document on International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development that deserved the full support of governments around the world.  Those of us who participated as civil society experts in the Thailand delegation are not invited to attend the official meeting in Lima next week, adding to our concerns that the spirit and context of the original document will be lost. We will, nonetheless, be monitoring developments closely with the hope that concern for reducing extreme rural poverty will take precedence over politics and fear.

Click here for Part II of this analysis on the outcomes of the Lima meeting.