By Eric Gutierrez (Christian Aid)

When the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030 or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a key promise made was to ‘leave no one behind’. Hence, governments and development agencies set ambitious targets on inclusion to reach the poorest of the poor and to ‘put the last first’.

A key problem, however, is that development programmes are barely reaching the most dangerous places – locations with high levels of violence, strife and continuing displacement that are sometimes abandoned by state institutions or are deemed too risky for development agency staff to even visit.

Despite the conflict and relative chaos though, different forms of order emerge in these places. People somehow survive, making choices in complex processes of adaptation that create new, hybrid forms of de facto political authority and economic détente, new patterns of access to resources and wealth redistribution, and peculiar if not bizarre methods of social transformation. A key example is captured in this 2.5 minute video, based on the research by David Mansfield, on how land-poor peasants in southern Afghanistan migrated to less secure areas to rebuild their lives by pursuing illicit livelihoods. 

For poor households trapped in conflict, survival in dangerous places often means engaging with unscrupulous criminals, corrupt officials, and other predatory actors who co-inhabit these spaces. Firms big or small, including lending institutions and insurance companies, will normally not do business in these areas, but smugglers, warlords and similar types can. And often, these ‘unusual actors’ become not only the sole sources of credit, transport services, access to markets or employment, but also of property security and forms of political protection that those being left behind are forced to rely on, despite the serious trade-offs. As a consequence, these vulnerable communities are routinely stigmatised as criminals themselves. The usual response is that law enforcement, not development agencies, should be exclusively dealing with them. 

There is ongoing research aimed at addressing these conditions and challenges. Last April 19-20, 2018, Christian Aid – along with the University of Glasgow, Germany’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (GIZ), the Open Society Foundations, and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – organised a conference aimed at putting illicit economies on the development agenda and to debate policy options and solutions. Papers presented show how the topic of illicit economies is now an emerging field of academic and policy inquiry.

Beyond the involvement of academia and policy experts, Christian Aid has also involved the intrepid survivors themselves to know more and support the development of their own solutions. In 2017 for example, it brought a group of eight peasant leaders from partner organisations in Colombia on a study tour of the coca-growing areas of Bolivia. The Colombians – who represent land-poor local groups displaced by conflict and who have resorted to coca-growing for survival – sought to find out why there is significantly reduced criminal involvement and little or no violence in the coca-growing areas of Bolivia. They also wanted to know what the future of their livelihoods may look like in post-conflict Colombia, given that illicit crops are on the formal agenda of the longer-term negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement.

The productive exchange between Colombian and Bolivian cocaleros produced at least two key conclusions. First, it became evident that the presence of strong, local, self-help and typically non-state institutions in peasant communities is the key factor that mitigates violence and criminal activity in coca-growing areas. The experience in Bolivia showed that such local institutions – known as the sindicatos or coca growers’ unions – not only give voice to marginalised households and allow them to assert their interests in interactions with both markets and state institutions. The most remarkable outcome is that these local organisations became a source of political power that enabled marginalised peasants and indigenous communities to effectively capture state power. Today, the coca leaf – the source of stigmatisation and illegitimacy – has been transformed into a national symbol that is recognised in no less than the Constitution as “not a narcotic in its natural state, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and a factor of social unity”. The relative absence of violence, the inability of Colombian-type criminal cartels to emerge, and the gradual but steady reductions of coca leaf production in a regulated and controlled market in Bolivia underscore what basic, community-based empowerment could deliver.

Among others, the Colombian visitors observed an eradication exercise by the Bolivian military. Unlike the arbitrary and typically repressive enforcement of state authority that Colombians often experience, it was the sindicatos themselves that identified the locations of excessive coca production. Their overriding concern is to preserve coca-growing as a livelihood for traditional purposes, and in order to do this, the sindicatos would have to demonstrate that they are able to control production from feeding into the criminal market. Once the sindicatos identified where over-production is going on, eradication takes place.

The decision is not without resistance but is overall deemed fair and managed well; otherwise, such an eradication can trigger rebellion, or at least lead to an open rejection of the authority of the sindicatos. In these processes, the Colombians saw how the relationships between Bolivian farmers and state authorities have been deeply transformed. The local organisations exercise some form of control over the operations of the armed forces on their collective livelihoods.

The other key takeaway for the land-poor Colombian peasants was that the future of coca-growing areas can be better secured less by traditional crop substitution programmes, but more by comprehensive development that draws land and labour away from illicit economies. Land tenure security, as well as diversified and longer-term income and employment opportunities, supported by access to public services, can induce a transition from illicit to licit economies.

There is still a long way to go. But what is clear though is that the combined efforts from academia, policy circles, and the involvement of the grassroots in the development of solutions can pave the way for more systematic responses to the tough questions on illicit economies. The momentum needs to be sustained, if only to ensure that no one is really left behind.