Making a difference through Alternative Development

Over the past 25 years, UNODC has played a leading role in assisting Member States in developing and implementing drug control policy, including with regard to alternative development. Alternative development continues to be the principal method utilized by Members States and UNODC to address illicit drug crop cultivation within a framework of poverty reduction and sustainable development.

UNODC's approach

UNODC works in partnership with affected countries, other United Nations entities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. Its global alternative development activities operate on two levels: at headquarters and in the field. At its headquarters, in Vienna, UNODC promotes and coordinates policymaking efforts and the provision of technical support. Through its field offices, it coordinates projects and implements policies. Joint efforts include developing best practices, sharing lessons learned, assessing the impact of interventions and improving the analysis and dissemination of project results. In-depth studies and evaluations of alternative development programmes and projects are conducted to monitor and track progress made. Additional areas of involvement include credit schemes, income diversification and gender mainstreaming. Careful attention is placed on community participation and project management and monitoring at the local and national levels. These activities contribute to the establishment of a repository of technical knowledge that is used by Governments and UNODC to design new programmes and projects, identify indicators of achievement and benchmarks, develop capacity-building programmes and disseminate material for advocacy and resource mobilization. Aside from using traditional estimates of illicit crops to measure the impact of alternative development programmes, UNODC combines this methodology with human development impact indicators.

Who benefits from alternative development?

UNODC alternative development projects are designed to benefit small rural farmers who are involved in or at risk of becoming engaged in the cultivation of illicit crops. Almost 4.5 million people depend on income derived from the  cultivation of illicit drug crops such as coca bush and opium poppy. In most cases, affected populations live below the poverty level (Human Development Index 2009) and typically  50 per cent of their income comes from drug crop cultivation. For a typical success story of alternative development, click here.

Although the drug trade often helps small rural farmers cope with food shortages and the unpredictability of agricultural markets, economic dependence on illicit crops is not sustainable in the long term. Forming an enclave in the national economy and excluded from mainstream development, the illicit cultivation of coca bush and opium poppy leaves farmers in the hands of unscrupulous middlemen. In some countries, such as Colombia, many farmers have become mere employees of large commercial farms owned by drug traffickers. Moreover, farmers are continuously confronted with the threat of forced eradication of their illicit crops by the Government, which exacerbates their precarious socio-economic condition. Given suitable alternatives and the necessary infrastructure, most families would gladly switch to other sources of income.

Alternative development components

The focus of alternative development projects is on helping small rural farmers with licit income generation activities to reduce their dependency on income from opium poppy and coca bush. Efforts are also centered on health, education, basic infrastructure, community development and food security, among other areas. Special attention is given to environmental protection and improved markets for alternative development products . UNODC-supported alternative development also empowers communities while ensuring that both men and women benefit equally from development interventions.

Read more on community participation and gender mainstreaming .

Challenges ahead

The benefits of well-designed and properly implemented alternative development interventions are undeniable. However, many challenges still lie ahead. The gains made in reducing illicit cultivation in key countries over the past decade may be unsustainable if poverty is not adequately addressed. Poverty alleviation and sustainable agricultural and rural development should continue to be the main goals of alternative development. Food security, provision of basic human needs and income generation should be strengthened to support farmers courageous enough to switch to licit crops. UNODC, together with the affected countries and the international community, needs to strengthen and increase  efforts to design appropriate and sound policies and programmes to ensure sustainable alternative livelihoods for small farmers and their communities.