Conventional policy discourses have typically framed illicit economies as a security problem and a driver of violence, corruption, exploitation, and governance failures in the Global South. However, for many communities living in poverty and conflict-affected areas across the globe, Illicit economies may provide vital sources of livelihoods and underpin political orders at the margins of the state.
There has long been policy recognition of the relationship between development, crime and conflict. The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report identifies State fragility and underdevelopment as key explanatory factors for illicit economic activity. This activity can be interwoven with conflict undermining peacebuilding efforts and weakening State institutions. OECD research also contends that fragile and/or conflict affected states are more vulnerable to transnational organised crime and corruption. The security-development nexus therefore argues that development can tackle the causes of insecurity and that security is at the same time a precondition for development. The influence of this framework has been particularly evident in international drug control policies. In 2015 for example the UNODC argued that alternative development ‘helped to address not only the driving factors, but also the underlying root causes of the cultivation of illicit crops’.
Policy responses in this area, though, have been criticised for giving security elements more weight than development concerns. Importantly, the securitisation of development has undermined the involvement of several development actors. Mainstream human development approaches, for example, encourage close working relationships with communities as well as their active participation in development interventions. Securitised responses based on the use or threat of force, may be viewed as incompatible with such goals. Furthermore, in contexts where illicit economies lift communities out of poverty, development actors may be reluctant to align with suppression efforts.
How development actors might confront such dilemmas and advance development-led responses is a central question of the illicit economies and development policy agenda. Here, the growing literature on illicit economies in the Global South offers several insights. This broad, multi-disciplinary literature problematises the relationship between illicit economies and development, moving beyond the securitised assumptions of conventional policy discourses. Work on livelihoods for example engages with the socio-economic benefits provided by illicit economies to marginalised communities. Political economy analyses on the other hand question the assumption that illicit economies necessarily cause political instability and deepen conflict. The literature also examines the negative impacts of securitisation approaches on human rights and governance systems as well as the environmental damage caused directly and indirectly by crop eradication policies.
This introductory article outlines key themes of the illicit economies and development research and policy agendas: Addressing the Development Implications of Illicit Economies: The Rise of a Policy and Research Agenda.
See more discussion in a special issue of the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development.