Launching Event & The Way Forward – “The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success”

Launching Event & The Way Forward – “The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success”

On 20 January 2020, AREU organised an event at the Serena hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, to launch its report “The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success” by Dr David Mansfield.

Participants included government representatives from MoPH, MRRD, MoI, NGOs representatives from OSDR, Alcis, PTRO, TLO, Apex Analytics, KOR, SSAWO, WADAN, academics from SOAS, and representatives from the Colombo Plan.

In her opening remarks, Dr Orzala Nemat acknowledged generous support of the EU for the NRM research throughout the years. She also acknowledged the role of OSDR and Alcis in making this research possible. She explained the goals of the European Union-funded three-years project on natural resources, including narcotics, and briefed the participants on the present challenges and issues related to the agriculture, groundwater and land conflict sectors which are the focus of this three pronged research into the NRM. She introduced Dr. David Mansfield and his last publication for AREU on the Helmand Food Zone, the result of three years of research. She highlighted the importance of answering the ‘so what’ question by gathering the group of experts from government and think tanks in order to develop stronger recommendations for policy and programming in future.

In his presentation of the report, Dr David Mansfield discussed the methodology of his research, and then went back to the origin of the Helmand Food Zone (HFS), its design and implementation, until its end in 2011. He explained the consequences, intended and unintended goals of the HFZ project. Despite this project’s end, “we still live with the consequences of HFZ” the migration of around 2.4 million people into the desert areas to cultivate poppy and thus a massive increase in poppy production in Helmand as well as a decrease of three meters in the groundwater levels in the region, and tensions around wheat seeds distributed only to landowners. Dr Mansfield illustrated his comments by satellite photos and videos.

Dr Mansfield concluded that the relative success of the HFZ during project cycle was due to the wheat price going up as compared to the poppy price going down dramatically. Another cause was the presence of international troops and governmental military forces that forced the people not to grow poppy. However, in the long run, the HFZ had a role in making Helmand become the largest poppy producer in the country, by far (from 100,000 hectares to 140,000 hectares cultivated). 

His recommendations were as follow: 

  • Look beyond simple and outdated models of crop substitution.
  • Recognize that interventions that raise the opportunity cost of labour would have the greatest development impact on opium production.
  • Focus development investments in those rural areas where investments will both deliver realistic outcomes and be practicable. 
  • Effective monitoring and evaluation is critical for programming conflict affected environments 
  • Use performance measurement to prioritize the assessment of crop and income diversification. 
  • Assess all national, multilateral and bilateral development programmes for their impact on the production, trade and use of opium and of its derivatives.
  • Conduct a comprehensive counter-narcotics review of the national priority programmes.
  • Strengthen the technical and strategic capacity of the line ministries so that they are better placed to integrate the causes of poppy cultivation into the design and implementation of their development programmes.
  • From an analytical perspective, abandon the crop comparisons that have dominated the descriptions of opium production in the literature of UNODC.


Discussion and Q&A

One of the participants asked if these recommendations had already been implemented, to which Dr. Mansfield answered that for the moment we have policies and guidelines available but in practice we are missing the implementation.

One participant commented that there is a need to go beyond single sector projects. A much better approach would be area based planning that is multidimensional and tackles various factors of the drug economy such as: agriculture, irrigation, jobs and employment, infrastructure and so on. 

Another question was asked on opioid vs. synthetic drug use, to which Dr Mansfield answered that at this stage, we don’t know enough about meth, it is not related to poppy as poppy is a parallel economy and that there is a need for more research on meth part too. The potential supply in the country is huge, but we do not know about the demand out there, and about the value chain. Dr Mansfield added that it has the potential to equal the size of the opium economy, and that any plan to counter methamphetamine needs to be planned locally and context-specific, and must have a pilot so that the knowledge can be shared.

One of the participants recommended that future projects focus more on sustainability, crucial to the government.

Another participant noted that the question of local consumption is of importance, as there would be around 2.5 million drug users in Afghanistan.

Another question was asked about Governor-led Eradication (GLE), and Good Performance Initiative (GPI). On GLE, Dr Mansfield explained that under it, governors are paid US$120 per hectare destroyed, in theory to compensate for petrol, maintenance, tractor driver, etc. This went up to US$500 per hectare, unreasonably high considering the actual cost of eradicating a hectare, closer to PKR 2,000. This created an incentive to over-report their eradication efforts to gain more money from the international community On GPI, Dr Mansfield explained that governors of poppy-free provinces would get US$1 million for development projects (even if the province had no history of poppy cultivation).

Read full report

Other questions tackled how to navigate the different databases (“nobody gets a monopoly on the truth”, answered Dr Mansfield), on prices differences between provinces (“different provinces have different markets”), on the US$600 billion already spent on development projects (“spending and spending wisely are two fundamentally different things”), on the sustainability of such projects, and on how to control the consequences in terms of poppy cultivation of irrigation projects, 

In her concluding remarks, Dr Orzala Nemat summarised the few ideas raised that should be explored for potential solutions, including piloting, the issue of data, more policy engagement among different stakeholders, or looking at how to tackle or avoid the politicisation of the issue and the lack of coordination on this topic.


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