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The Fight Against Drug Trafficking: A Challenge for All of Us

Remarks for Thematic Debate of the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Drugs and Crime as a Threat to Development

Otaviano Canuto, World Bank Vice President and Head of Network,
Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM)

New York, June 26, 2012

First of all let me thank his Excellency Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nasser, President of the General Assembly, and our colleagues at the United Nations, for inviting me to participate in this panel.

The costs of criminal violence are staggering. At the individual level, there is the trauma and suffering of victims. And then there are the costs at the national level. A report for selected countries1 in Central America produced by the World Bank in 2011 suggests that at the national level, including citizen security, law enforcement and healthcare expenses the costs of crime and violence are close to eight percent of these countries' GDP, on average. The investment climate is polluted, and national institutions, key to ensure long term development are weakened.

The drug business is particularly insidious. It is by far the most profitable illicit global trade, says UNODC, amounting to some $320 billion annually, compared with estimates of $32 billion for human trafficking and $1 billion for illegal firearms. This profitability and its global nature makes drug trafficking extremely difficult to eradicate. So what can we do?

The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report titled "Conflict, Security and Development" emphasizes that preventing violence and building peaceful states requires strong leadership and concerted national and international efforts. Countries that have successfully moved away from organized criminal violence have been able to do so by mobilizing coalitions in support of citizen security, justice, and jobs to restore confidence in the short term and by transforming national institutions over time.

Collective action, confidence and long term institutional change. I would like us to reflect on these three simple ingredients and on how, in the presence of drug trafficking, our efforts to break the cycle of violence and promote development can be severely jeopardized.

Drug trafficking promotes violence and crime and undermines collective action. It fosters a culture of isolation and mistrust among citizens and business people, making it difficult for communities and countries to respond effectively to it.

Drug trafficking undermines citizens’ confidence by bringing about weak justice institutions and sub-national administrations. It encourages very high levels of corruption particularly at provincial and district levels. And drug trafficking has a negative impact on the business environment of a country by hindering investment, promoting insecurity, and encouraging the growth of informal activities.

So, how can we begin to mobilize the support and resources necessary to address this challenge?

First, let’s get our facts straight. Any intervention should be "evidence based", starting with a clear understanding of the risk factors involved and ending with a careful evaluation of how any planned action might affect future options for the actors involved.

This evidence based approach should also be used to design strategies that are very specific to the geographical realities faced. Why? Let’s take Afghanistan for example. Counter-narcotics actions against farmers are more effective and more likely to "stick" in areas where access to land and water resources is better, where there is proximity to markets, and where land-person ratios are higher. On the other hand, in remote, poor areas in the country with limited land and irrigation water, dependency on the opium economy is much greater. Efforts to eliminate it by introducing new legal cultivations will be hard to sustain if growing conditions and markets do not support it, possibly leading to unwanted results such as instability and loss of trust in local institutions.

Second, our approach should be holistic. Actions should be taken along multiple fronts, combining prevention and criminal justice reform. We should also not limit our efforts to improvements in specialized law enforcement agencies, since these alone are far from sufficient to tackle this issue. Instead we should be focusing on attacking the enabling environment for such criminal activities, by improving governance, and instilling rule of law both at the national and at the local level.

Third, to ensure sustainability, we should share the gains from eradicating drug trafficking with the ones most affected by it. At the local level we need to focus on policies that reduce drug production and trafficking while creating new profitable activities. Because such policies have an impact first and foremost on poor farmers and rural wage laborers, these stakeholders should be the focus of alternative livelihoods programs and should be involved in the design of the solution.

Fourth, our strategy should have both a short term and a long term focus. Preventive strategies, for example, may pay dividends only in the medium to long term. Thus, they should be complemented by programs that can generate significant and visible reductions in drug trafficking in the short run.

Unfortunately, these policies are especially difficult to implement in countries struggling with drug trafficking, since the drug war has often already brought extreme levels of violence, damaged criminal justice institutions, and eroded citizens’ confidence.

I believe however that some options may still be possible, even in the worst cases. Given the high levels of drug-related corruption in the criminal justice systems and the vast resources of the traffickers, directing more resources to drug enforcement efforts alone is not likely to address this problem. What we need is a coordinated effort that goes beyond the boundaries of an individual agency and even of an individual country.

Laying out the issues and individual approaches is relatively straightforward. What is much more difficult, of course, is to know how to respond in an integrated manner over a sustained period of time. This is a challenge for all of us. The existing work has tended to cover just one segment of the chain (prevention, investigation, trial, reclusion) when addressing drug trafficking and crime. I hope today’s event and discussion will push this agenda towards an integrated and collaborative approach, focused on collective action, citizens’ confidence and long term institutional reforms.


1. Report included Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

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