Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Risky Business

Afghanistan is infamous for its unending chaos and unchecked poppy production. As international forces gear up to leave, concerns are mounting about escalating ethnic tensions and an ever-expanding drug market in the aftermath.

The projection of the 2013 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is that Afghanistan’s contribution to the world drug market will be about 92% of the total opium production by 2014. This report, Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, rightly refers to the trend as a “worrying situation.”

Historically speaking, the earliest account of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was seen around 300 years ago. Over the years, fluctuations of stability in Afghanistan have generally shown corresponding increase and decrease of poppy cultivation trends. After joining the UN in 1946, Afghan King Zahir Shah placed a ban on poppy production temporarily and Afghanistan moved steadily towards prosperity and modernization with extensive economic and technical support from the U.S. in the 1950s. This lasted till 1979 when the Soviet invasion halted the process. A decade of war claimed heavy loss to life and infrastructure – destroying roads, irrigation canals, food processing factories, cotton gins and fruit markets – and the ensuing chaos ruined major economic activity creating an environment of desperation and crime, ideal for growth and use of opium. As the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, warring tribal factions fought for control and by 1994 the Taliban had emerged as the dominant force controlling almost 80% of the land. Not much economic or social progress happened during Taliban rule and by 2000, Afghanistan’s opium production reached 75% of the world’s total. Helmand province in the South took the lead with almost 52% and Nangarhar province with 24% of total opium production in the country.

In July 2000, Mullah Omar, Afghanistan’s de facto head of state, surprisingly placed a ban on opium production. Enforced with strict measures, even threats to life and property, this resulted in unprecedented reduction in poppy cultivation. The UNDCP Donor Mission recorded complete success of the ban and confirmed the result in the Annual Opium Poppy Survey. At the October 2001 session of the UN General Assembly, it was acknowledged that, “…This year’s production [2001] is around 185 tons. This is down from the 3300 tons last year [2000], a decrease of over 94 per cent. Compared to the record harvest of 4700 tons two years ago, the decrease is well over 97 per cent.” Later, however, the agencies observed that the ban’s real objective was to create an artificial shortage to hike prices of heroin, not eradication. The UNDOC report cautioned, “If Taliban officials were sincere in stopping the production of opium and heroin, then one would expect them to order the destruction of all stocks existing in areas under their control.” Although, no hard evidence was found of stockpiling on a large scale, the fears expressed by UNODC were widely shared in the international community. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, the warlords and drug dealers once again exploited the chaos and soon enough the opium production rose up to 85%, and has only increased since.

Some reasons for this persistence include the farmers’ reliance on what they consider dependable income necessary for survival. The poppy crop pays for all the food their families need, the stalks serve as firewood, its ash is used to make soap and the seeds are utilized for cooking oil. The farmers also lack trust in their government’s credibility and ability to build roads, bridges, and canals, and alternate livelihoods. Officials are accused of letting foreign aid for agricultural projects disappear into corrupt government coffers, and letting the people starve while buying fancy property in Dubai and the U.S. for themselves.
This corruption allegedly reaches the top levels of government, including the President, Hamid Karzai himself. His late half-brother, Wali Ahmed Karzai, was ironically also on CIA payroll (New York Times, July 2009). The report also alleged that President Karzai is reluctant to check drug lords in his political power base in Southern Afghanistan where most of the opium production takes place and Wali Karzai, who was killed in 2011 by a trusted commander presumably over a drug related dispute, was openly accused of eagerly filling in the vacuum created by removal of other drug lords by the U.S. military and the Karzai government.

Finding an effective solution to issues like opium production in Afghanistan is a complicated task. As a nation, Afghanistan constitutes a mix of several ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups fighting for control over territory and resources. The current Afghan government’s jurisdiction is largely ineffective outside Kabul. Deep ethnic divisions tear apart the societal fabric, millions are displaced, disabled and struggling to survive, lawlessness is a way of life, no worthwhile educational or healthcare system stands, and there is a huge dearth of professional, skilled personnel. Hence, there are no short cuts or quick-fix solutions possible in the current scenario. The opium problem cannot be seen as an isolated issue, but rather a part of the larger broken system.

For any program to be successful, it would have to be community based and not seen as being imposed from outside. The government needs to work sincerely and deliver on its promises to build its credibility and help the Afghan people move forward. The Afghan government will also need all the help it can get from the international community. The world community needs to acknowledge that besides the poverty and corruption factor, it is the demand in the First World that encourages the heroine business; a simple question of supply and demand. The opium benefits the international drug markets more than the producing countries, as acknowledged by U.S. State Department, and quoted by the Voice of America in a 27 February 2004 broadcast, “Afghan heroin sells on the international narcotics market for 100 times the price farmers get for their opium right out of the field.” Clearly, eradicating opium production is a collective responsibility. 

SouthAsia Magazine , June 2013. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Building From Abroad

Millions of Bangladeshi migrants around the world are diligently working and sending back money to support development efforts in their home country.

The demand for human labor in the international community due to economic globalization ensures a constant flow of migrant workers, especially from developing countries. Bangladeshi workers have also long availed the opportunity of working abroad to not only stabilize their personal finances but also support development efforts within Bangladesh, one of the most populous nations in the world, making it a major manpower exporter in the international community.

Traditionally, Bangladeshi migrant workers have chosen destinations in the Middle East, South-East Asia and some Western countries. As figures from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS 2010) show, the number of migrants from 1976 to 2009 was 5.5 million. According to the World Bank 2010 report, the main direction of this outflow is to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar. Percentage-wise, this amounts to about 70% of the Bangladeshi migrant worker population, with Saudi Arabia hosting almost half of them. Singapore and Malaysia also claim a considerable share. Bangladeshi migrants to Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are more permanent settlers from urban and middle-class backgrounds, rather than contract laborers.

Prior to 2003, the Bangladeshi migrant worker population showed much gender disparity. Due to serious concerns raised about the mistreatment of women workers as victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking in host countries, the Bangladeshi government placed a ban on their migration. Consequently, they made up less than 1% of the worker outflow. However, economic pressures forced the government of Bangladesh to lift the ban in 2007 and, within one year, the figure for female migrants spiked to 5% of the total. This step was aimed at empowering Bangladeshi women and was applauded by women’s rights organizations around the world.

Unfortunately, the safety concern of both male and female workers remains unaddressed. One major contributing factor is that Bangladesh has not ratified the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Although a signatory to the convention, the Bangladeshi government has resisted ratification for fear of jeopardizing the active recruitment of its citizens and the resulting loss of potential benefits to its economy. Many human rights groups have criticized the government for not doing enough to uphold the rights of workers and their families despite their huge contribution to the country’s economy.

According to a 2009 national survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration in Bangladesh, another important area of concern for migrant workers is the high cost of moving abroad. This is largely due to a collusion between corrupt businesses, recruiters and government officials. Forced by an inability to finance their trip and find alternative arrangements, workers give in to promises of cost-effective processing of papers and obtain illegal falsified documents, most often unknowingly. These undocumented workers are attractive to employers looking for cheap labor and zero liability but carry huge potential for forced labor, debt bondage, exploitation, sexual abuse and human trafficking. To provide maximum benefits to the economy and social sector, this widespread corruption and exploitation needs to be effectively curtailed.

The importance of remittances cannot be emphasized enough for a developing country like Bangladesh, as various developmental studies suggest. Remittances have emerged as the key driver for economic growth in Bangladesh. This often serves as a more stable form of investment than foreign aid or even foreign investment. International development organizations, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are increasingly citing migrants’ remittances as a tool to promote development, though the effectiveness of these depends on how remittances are utilized, whether in consumer markets, savings or investment in education, healthcare, businesses, etc. Whatever the case may be, these remittances have certainly helped Bangladesh improve its international credit rating, which forms the basis for, and brings in, investor trust and confidence in transactions at international levels.

A heavy drain to the total estimated inflow of remittances is the use of unofficial channels. Several micro-studies in Bangladesh have shown that only half of the remittances are sent through official channels and the rest through unofficial means. To encourage usage of formal channels, the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) has been set up and is working to provide a system of efficient management of the migration sector.

Despite this issue, official remittances to Bangladesh made it the eighth largest remittance-recipient country in the world in 2010, according to World Bank MRF 2011. Remittances amounted to more than US$11 billion, representing 13% of the Gross Domestic Product. In 1976-77, migrant workers contributed US$49 million, which grew to US$9,689 million in 2008-2009. The global recession in 2008-2009 affected the number of migrants from Bangladesh, as did the political instability in the Middle East, but official government figures showed that remittance inflows during that time were still higher than the level of foreign direct investment and the total foreign aid received. Careful analysis by various development agencies revealed that the returning migrants from the Middle East were more inclined to bring their savings back home, while those who chose to stay sent their earnings home instead of risking life savings to political unpredictability.

The migration of Bangladeshi skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers is quite diverse in terms of destinations and the benefits from their labor are also manifold. There is much room for improvement in how the flow of this important source of income may be managed to increase the mutual benefit to individuals and the wider society. Most importantly, this includes providing protection to the migrant workers at home and abroad before expecting any return benefit from them.  

Building from Abroad , Feb, 2013