Impossible odds?

So opium production in Afghanistan has gone up by 61% in under a year. Development bloggers frequently remind us that Aid cannot solve every problem in development, and that often other factors, such as international trade policies, have effects that massively outweigh the impact of Aid donations, and Western governments’ policy on trade in opiates is particularly strict!

I know next to nothing about the situation in Afghanistan, but the simple economics tells me that Western aid agencies and their law enforcement buddies must have faced the mother of all uphill battles on that front. Maybe here and there they had some small successes – I assume some bright minds got to work and original approaches were adopted – but when farmers stand to make several times as much growing poppies as other crops, you really need some fantastically good ideas and uniformly fantastic implementation in order to succeed on a large scale.

More useful analysis would be better found amongst those with at least a passing familiarity to the situation on the ground. I choose to blog about it, however, because I see smaller echoes of this challenge on a fairly regular basis, and especially in tropical conservation. So much environmental destruction is caused by people who, as a result of poverty, have very little choice. Deforestation is a particular case in point, driven by a remorseless logic of jam today and the tragedy of the commons, people clear the trees today only to die in a landslide tomorrow.

The case for intervention often seems compelling. And yet, to my mind, so often does the case for not intervening. In long-settled, remote rural communities problems can be contained; it’s not easy, but you can at least in theory work out which communities own what or have what stake in different natural resources, and thus devise some system for managing the resources under threat. (So long as the national laws do not hamstring you.) But in frontier ‘pioneer’ communities, or densely populated or peri-urban areas CBNRM just won’t cut it; today’s community simply isn’t the same as tomorrow’s and with massive economic forces right on the doorstep we face near impossible odds to offer better returns than imminent environmental destruction.

In such cases I have a simple rule of thumb: pick only those battles for which you have a good plan of action and a decent chance of winning.

Conservationists have wised up to this fact: hence the stiff opposition to new roads through ‘virgin’ rainforest (or precious savannah). We know that once the road has been built there is very little we can do to prevent expanding deforestation and forest fragmentation along the road’s route, so better to fight the road-building in the first place; the economic forces are more easily countered when they take the form of a few lobbyists than several thousand desperate migrants.

Still, too many other battles, like that against opium production in Afghanistan, seem to be fought in the wrong place or at the wrong time. We don’t necessarily have to resort to hand-wringing, but if the origin of a problem lies outside the capacities of the aid system then we shouldn’t try to fix it with an aid project.


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