Aid donors report their spending to the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). This data is accessible via what is called the Creditor Reporting System (CRS), and at the time of writing it was last updated in May 2023 with figures for 2021. Analysis of this data reveals that aid donors have spent almost a billion dollars of this money on “narcotics control” efforts around the world. Specifically: at least USD 974 million was spent this way over the ten years between 2012-2021.

The OECD’s DAC defines ODA as “government aid that promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries”, with military assistance, and projects prioritising donor national security or commercial interests, not eligible. Under this definition, its accounting system has many categories of spending – and changes have been made to the rules over time. In 2014, William Hynes, then a Policy Analyst in the OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate, described how: “In the early 1990s, some limited ODA coverage was allowed of expenditure on global issues such as environment, peacekeeping and “narcotics control”. It was felt this would help maintain the relevance of ODA, whereas failing to expand coverage would see ODA concentrating on a declining number of less developed countries.”

“Narcotics control” was then assigned sector code 16063 in the OECD’s CRS system. The official description of this category states it is for:

“In-country and customs controls including training of the police; educational programmes and awareness campaigns to restrict narcotics traffic and in-country distribution. ODA recording of “narcotics control” expenditures is limited to activities that focus on economic development and welfare including alternative development programmes and crop substitution. Activities by the donor country to interdict drug supplies, destroy crops or train or finance military personnel in anti-narcotics activities are not reportable”.

Other OECD reporting directives specify that “the supply of equipment intended to convey a threat of, or deliver, lethal force, is not reportable as ODA”. There are fine lines and some exceptions within these rules, however. Training in the use of lethal equipment is also not ODA-eligible, for instance. However, training in the management (including the security and storage of such equipment) is eligible. Intelligence gathering is not ODA-eligible, unless it is for “preventative or investigatory activities by law enforcement agencies in the context of routine policing to uphold the rule of law, including countering transnational organised crime”.

There is a separate sector code (number 12330) for “Control of harmful use of alcohol and drugs” projects, whose description says it’s for the:

“prevention and reduction of harmful use of alcohol and psychoactive drugs; development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of prevention and treatment strategies, programmes and interventions; early identification and management of health conditions caused by use of alcohol and drugs.”

This category appears to be even more recent, entering the dataset in 2018. Its projects received a total of USD 25 million in the four years from then through 2021 (less than 10% of the total USD 323 million that “narcotics control” projects received in 2021 alone).

Overall, the data shows that 30 donor countries and institutions have reported the use of at least some of their aid budgets for “narcotics control”. More than half of the ten-year total came from the US (USD 550 million) – followed by EU Institutions (USD 282 million), Japan (USD 78 million), the UK (USD 22 million), Germany (USD 12 million), Finland (USD 9 million), and Korea (USD 8 million). While relatively small shares of overall aid spending, they still rival or eclipse those dedicated to other things (see Annexes: Table 3). For example, more aid globally was spent in 2021 on “narcotics control” (USD 323 million) than school feeding projects (USD 286 million) or labour rights (USD 198 million).

Sean Hocking

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