Yes, it can - and it should. Let me explain.
In 2010, the Melbourne-based Nossal Institute for Global Health released the report Dependent on Development. The interrelationships between illicit drugs and socioeconomic development (PDF).
Based on a sweeping review of the specialized English-language literature of the past twenty years, the document provides a clear and succinct summary account of the interdependencies of development and illicit drug production, trade and use.
Wisely staying clear of controversial debates about 'legalization', 'decriminalization' and 'alternative development', the Australian scholars probe the available evidence to test the hypothesis that "equitable socioeconomic development is necessary for successful control of illicit drugs, while effective and human rights based illicit drug control is required to foster sustainable socioeconomic development".
Nossal's findings will not necessarily come as groundbreaking news to anyone who has worked in this field before. But they are accurate and persuasively presented: both "poor" and "enhanced development" is associated with illicit drug production, use and trade; and illicit drug production, use and trade tends to have negative effects on development, particularly in the longer term.
The identified factors that shape these inter-relationships range from rural underdevelopment, violent conflict and socioeconomic deprivation to corruption, high levels of crime and the disruption of social structures.
It takes two to tango - drugs and development
The key message of Nossal's report is that headway on the development front in countries affected by the production, use and trade of illicit drugs is dependent on drug policies that are not principally geared at suppressing the 'drugs problem', as has been the case in the past decades.
Likewise, the effective, human rights-based control of illicit drugs and their negative impacts in source, transit and consumer countries (a distinction that is becoming increasingly outdated) hinges on drugs-savvier development interventions.
Tasking the international development community
Yet we know more about the negative effects of the current 'orthodox' counter-drug policies than we do about the positive impact that more appropriate, drug-savvier development initiatives could have on illicit drug production, use and trade in poor and vulnerable countries. In effect, the international development community has been conspicuously silent when it comes to taking a stance and making propositions to address this big and growing issue.
Just recall the 2011 World Development Report. It identifies illicit drug-trafficking and the associated organized crime and violence as major 'external stresses' for fragile and conflict-affected states.
That may in part be correct. But the World Bank stops short of closing the loop by failing to acknowledge the negative effects of the current counter-drug policies on those countries and the importance of coming up with more effective development strategies to deal with the problems associated with the production, use and trade of illicit drugs.
Building bridges, strengthening the evidence, reforming policy
On 6-8 February 2013, the Brighton-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS) will hold the Global Drug and Development Policy Roundup. Recognizing the importance of engaging the international development community more deeply in addressing the global drugs issue, the event, which is supported by the Open Society Foundations' Global Drug Policy program, will gather a good number of development and drug policy experts and decision-makers from across the world.
The aim is to contribute to building bridges between the two policy communities; think hard about how the evidence base for drugs-savvy development interventions can be strengthened and who should be involved in this; and how the cooperation between development and drug policy folks can be improved.
This will not be an easy task
This program might seem quite straightforward and one would think that getting the 'right' people around the table would not be a major issue. As it turned out, it was - particularly for some of the larger development organizations, both governmental and non-governmental.
Reaching out to them, the IDS-based organizers found that there was lacking interest, some reluctance and even a sense of confusion: why would a development agency care about illicit drugs and why would it be expected to know something about this subject matter and do something about it?
Well, the Nossal report's bottom line is that development agencies had better develop an interest and expertise in the issue of illicit drugs. Ignoring the 'elephant in the room' will not help them to conduct their business effectively and legitimately in a growing number of poor and vulnerable countries.
The Global Drug and Development Policy Roundup seeks to support the development community to engage constructively in this debate and, hopefully, become a little more drugs-savvy.
Watch this space.
Interested in reading more? Check out Markus' other posts on this issue: