Expert Group Meeting on Alternative Development: the most important international forum for development-oriented drug policies


Trailblazing forum for a development-oriented drug policy

Alternative Development approaches in drug policy are gaining traction at all levels. Both in national drug strategies and in the context of the United Nations, more and more states recommend a humane drug policy that is geared to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Expert Group Meeting on Alternative Development initiated by the GPDPD has become the most important expert meeting for pro-development drug policy and has done much to foster this positive trend.

Many people in remote rural areas live in extreme poverty. The lack of legal alternatives often leaves them no option but to turn to the illegal sector to ensure their day-to-day survival. They grow coca, cannabis or opium poppies. The Alternative Development concept gives these people the opportunity to earn a living legally and to escape poverty. It opens up long-term development opportunities. To strengthen the approach and implement it effectively around the globe, decision-makers need to talk to one another and act in concert.


The most important forum of this sort is the Expert Group Meeting on Alternative Development, which has been organised annually since 2015 by the Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development (GPDPD). On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and in cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the governments of Thailand and Peru, and Thailand’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation (MFLF), the GPDPD has made the Expert Group Meeting an established institution.  


Every year, representatives of governments, UN institutions, non-governmental organisations and the science and research community meet to engage in open dialogue. The aim is to anchor the Alternative Development approach more firmly both in international drug policy and development policy. Interested governments are introduced to pro-development perspectives in addressing drug crop cultivation and processing. The increasing number of participating governments reflects the growing relevance and recognition of the meeting at international level. More and more countries can now report on projects in which they are implementing the principles of Alternative Development. The Expert Group Meeting thus also offers a platform for participants to discuss their own experience and to learn from one another.


2018 saw more governments than ever before attend the Expert Group Meeting. In 2019 too, the response was highly gratifying. Participants shared valuable experience and took decisions on the way forward. The December 2019 meeting was held in Doi Tung in the Province of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Questions addressed at the latest meeting included the following: Can Alternative Development concepts for rural areas also be transferred to the urban context, where people are forced into petty crime and the drug trade by a lack of alternatives for earning a living? What role can the private sector play in marketing products generated in Alternative Development projects? How is the interplay between projects and representatives of the police force and the judiciary? Over a period of several days, participants discussed the rule of law, criminal prosecution, and human rights, as well as reflecting on how Alternative Development can restore the trust of the local people in the state. The outcomes of the meeting, like its predecessors, were summarised and then submitted to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in the form of a draft resolution.


Chiang Rai was the ideal venue for the Expert Group Meeting, as it could be paired with the visit to the development project based in Doi Tung. This project has gained international acclaim as an excellent example of how to realise  Alternative Development – sustainable, with a long-term view and with the involvement of the local population. Thirty years ago, people in the border area of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos were still making a living from poppy growing and opium production. The area’s natural forests had been largely destroyed to make way for poppy fields. At the initiative of Thailand’s monarch, and due to the work of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (MFLF), the region was gradually connected up to the road network, and to the country’s water and electricity grids. Afforestation measures were launched, and education and health infrastructure put in place. People were given the opportunity to earn a living from legal farming, artisanal products and skilled crafts. A market has been set up to sell these goods. Today many former opium farmers have small businesses of their own and earn their money outside agriculture.


Politically, the Expert Group Meeting is aligned with the outcomes of the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The first Expert Group Meetings on Alternative Development provided strategic groundwork for the Special Session, and drew up positions on development policy which can also be seen in the UNGASS Outcome Document. With the adoption of the UNGASS Outcome Document and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, drug policy has become increasingly development-oriented. Since then, the Expert Group Meetings have served realise the innovations that are already proposed in many different documents. The GPDPD is thus supporting the direct implementation of the UNGASS resolutions and the SDGs. There is, however, still scope for honing our understanding of  Alternative Development.


The regular Expert Group Meetings are GPDPD’s contribution to ensuring that Alternative Development becomes increasingly significant. At CND meetings, approaches of this sort are now attracting more political support. At national level too, more and more countries are integrating the concept into their own drug strategies.