The framework for UNODC operations is the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. On the occasion of UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem in 1998 , alternative development was officially defined and the ten-year Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development was elaborated.

United Nations General Assembly

As the ten-year period came to an end in 2008 and at the occasion of the 52nd Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in 2009, a Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem was adopted, calling for further action and innovative strategies to support alternative development, based on an assessment of the success that has been achieved in the course of the ten-year period. Additionally, numerous UN resolutions including Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolutions 2006/33, 2007/12 and 2008/26, reaffirm, emphasise and request programmes and projects to promote alternative development.

During the 56th CND, and after an invigorated international debate, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Alternative Development were endorsed in 2013 and subsequently adopted by the Economic and Social Council and the United Nations General Assembly.