Sunday, July 31, 2011

Children of the Drug War

Among the most moving issues is that of the unseen impacts on children of: poverty, drought, terrorism and counterterrorism, economic sanctions - and the global war on drugs.

The calculus that keeps much of the 'first world' engaged in 'third world' events tends to ignore the human costs, focusing instead on fiscal budgets. In effort to go beyond the status quo thinking, Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate the true cost of the Iraq war as $3 trillion, including such things as the healthcare bills of injured war veterans. But these studies are few and far between.

This is where Children of the Drug War steps in. The book is now fully published, but we're still waiting for it to go up on websites.

My coauthor and I contributed a look into 'opium brides' in Afghanistan. These are children, largely girls, who get bartered to service farmers' debt to drug lords. Looking at the huge potential income gains from growing poppy over the nearest competitor wheat (more than 6-fold as lucrative), many farmers borrow the finances needed to get started. But as drought or field eradication policies take hold, their poppies are destroyed. This usually leaves poppy farmers in debt still owed to drug lords for the start-up capital. As means to repayment, a practice that occurs is offering the debtor a child-bride.

A popular essay in Newsweek some years back highlighted the issue and developed the term 'opium bride'. The scale and entrenchment of the problem is largely unknown as the war on terror takes place on the same grounds as the war on drugs: Helmand and Kandahar are the dubious sites of the both interventions into Afghanistan. This means that research and reporting from these areas is significantly limited.

What my coauthor Atal discovered in conducting interviews in and around Kandahar is that it's likely more pronounced than we think. Many of the people he was able to meet had specific details to share; all had heard of the practice.

The challenge is a difficult one, rooted in the nature of the economy -- we could call it a 'drug' economy as much of the literature does, but this ignores the fact that is just plain 'economy' to the people engaged in it; the scale of opium income has been as high as 3 times the "legal GDP" in Afghanistan. But it is also rooted in shifts of cultural practices, perceptions and power in Afghanistan in the last generation - and in the last 10 years of the renewed war.

The Afghan-Soviet war displaced traditional elites such as mullahs and tribal heads, leaving the local political space to be filled-in by mujahedeen veterans and those who could wield violence to sort out territory. Alongside the impacts on children and youth, these largely ignored shifts in power need to be further understood in Afghanistan as a result of the foreign interventions. This is one of the insights we try to offer in the book in the latest 10 year war period.

Children of the Drug War takes a broad look at many countries, an innovative book that digs deep under common debates on drugs and wars.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's a small plane that takes off for Bhutan.

The travel catalogues forecast a place of endless enchantment and mystery. The home of thunder dragons and national happiness. The privilege of what I do envelopes me absolutely.

I think next of my work, and life - one as if the other, the sequence masking more than it may illuminate. The work: Climate change. I'm to help write among the first assessments of its impacts and the scale of the needed response for the challenge in a small, landlocked country in the Himalayas.

How do you weigh the pebbles of modernity against those of tradition on the balance of human progress? City life versus rural? Better standards of living versus culture and life itself? That seems the riddle to unravel.

It's a place lucky even for the tourist; I arrive as an invited analyst. Traveling mid-2011, I carry Fukuyama's 'The origins of political order.' It makes me wonder: what secrets are to be uncovered from the Bhutanese mind and landscape.

Time, and peace. They seem the only things on offer - the only things that matter. Deep in the heart of the promise is that these are the very stuff of life, humanity missing the message every, elsewhere. Is it only so much spin, though, for excuse and tourism dollar?

The excuse: to keep at bay the wanton tragedies of the new, the future and modern. The dollars, for the complacency and hypocrisy of it all. An economy owing much to its tourist vision of tradition, temples, green forests and such.

Twenty-four days in the sands of gross happiness, forgotten sites of modernity/tradition, and loneliness to look forward to. In context the average tourist visit peters out at day five, rare the marker of day 10. What more, with over $200 a head per night to be here as a site-seer. I've walked before the expanse of the capital in naught more than a quarter hour - as if exhausting the currency of the city in minutes.

Days of jet-lag and not knowing the time overcome me. Should I remain wide awake or succumb to a desired eternity of sleep and dream?

The origins of political order indeed. Aspirations of man and beast alike; the authority of invented rules against the passions of love, prejudice and the realities of the possible. Where else but to play out the infinite surge of life and death, but at the hallmark of a country left at the thresholds of past and present.

Where else to find the wanting answers for the stage of oneself; one's life; to locate the regality of meaning for a future left open to choice. Escape utter nothingness and too much robustness at once.

And then, simply, breakfast arrives - to temper the treasures of the possible with the gifts of always. My loose thoughts reign themselves in with a decent meal.

To be here by the chances of so much fate. Bend my will to the grace of god. I'm not a religious man, but these are the prayer filled tones that color me over.

And, the plane lands.