Undermining development and security, fuelling conflict

The war on drugs is actively undermining development and security in many of the world's most fragile regions and states.

Drug traffickers can be more confident of a reliable, cheap supply of coca leaf, poppy or cannabis if government employees, honest politicians and armies can be kept at bay, and if farmers have few alternatives to drug production because they have little access to alternative sources of credit, and have to pay high prices to transport fertilizer or ship bulkier non-drug crops to market.

As a result, traffickers prefer it if there is little economic infrastructure or governance in producing and transit areas. So they target weak states through equipping private armies, financing or merging with separatist and insurgent groups, and simultaneously corrupting politicians, police, judiciary, armed forces and customs officers. Key examples include the internal armed conflicts in Colombia and Afghanistan.

Once an area is sufficiently destabilised, it deters investment by indigenous or external businesses and restricts the activities of international development NGOs and other bodies. It also diverts large amounts of valuable aid and other resources from health or development efforts into enforcement – often through the military, which can undermine accountability.

The same corrosive consequences for health, governance, public authority, and democracy are replicated as traffickers trans-ship heroin, cocaine and cannabis through the Caribbean, Central America, Central Asia and West Africa.

In short, the profitability of illegal drugs encourages traffickers to lock producing or transit areas into multi-dimensional underdevelopment.

  • There has been an explosion of violence in Mexico, with over 30,000 deaths since 2006, as the government has tried to use military force to crush the drug cartels. Instead, they have become sufficiently empowered and enriched to corrupt or outgun state enforcement efforts

  • Over a quarter of all cocaine consumed in Europe in 2007 (more than 140 tons, with a wholesale value of about $1.8 billion) was transited through West Africa, and Guinea-Bissau has become a narco-state in just five years, with the value of the drugs trade now much greater than its national income(1)

"Where are the voices of the development community? … Prohibition is putting money in the pockets of criminals and armed groups. … Profits from the illegal trade in drugs are not only used to buy guns, they also buy police chiefs and judges. Corruption is off the scale and, as it grows, democratic accountability, the key plank necessary for poor people to access and defend their rights, is progressively eroded ... The families caught up in this nightmare are the victims of an unworkable 'war on drugs'."

Jonathan Glennie, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute and former head of Christian Aid in Colombia, 2010.


(1) UNODC, 'Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa: The threat to stability and development', 2007.

The War on Drugs: Undermining Peace and Security



The War on Drugs: Undermining Development

(Updated development briefing coming soon)