Afghanistan is the world’s leading illicit opium producer, accounting for more than 90% of illicit heroin globally.

The cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan is linked to domestic and international criminal enterprises, as well as being a lucrative source of income for anti-government forces. As seen throughout Afghanistan, the cultivation of opium also leaves a trail of social ills, health issues, destroyed communities, and a legacy of corruption in its wake.

For poor farmers, the drug is also bad news. Despite the opium economy generating billions of dollars in revenue every year, poor farmers at the bottom of the value chain only receive around 5% of poppy revenues. Most of the profits go to the criminals that transport and sell the opium to international buyers.

Studies by UNODC, the United Nations drug control agency, have shown that the decision to grow opium poppies instead of other, higher value crops, is based on a number of factors, including the lack of basic infrastructure and developed value chains, so that licit crops can be raised, transported, and sold to market. With opium being easy to grow, easy to sell, and often purchased at the farm gate, it is easy to see why it is often the crop of choice for many poor farmers.


It is obvious that any solution to the problem of illicit opium production must offer farmers a better deal than they get from growing the drug.  Unfortunately, many ‘crop substitution’ initiatives in the past have not met with a great deal of success. UNDP is taking a different approach, with a form of Alternative Development (AD), which it is hoped will bring more success.

The AD approach emerged from the crop-substitution initiatives of the 1970s and the integrated rural development initiatives of the 1980s. At the core of AD is a recognition that the cultivation of drug crops is interwoven with numerous other issues which go well beyond the microeconomics and agronomy of opium cultivation.

One important observation is that rural communities where illicit crops are grown do not tend to experience a ‘healthy’ process of economic development. While providing short term gains, the illicit crops actually hinder normal economic growth, and the growth of the institutions on which a healthy economy depends. Farmers are effectively locked into a vicious cycle of poverty.

Alternative Development can break this cycle by fostering a sustainable licit economy, which in the long run can attract investment and help to develop the necessary infrastructure, thus changing and sustaining the livelihood of rural communities.

AD approaches have been tried in Afghanistan before, with mixed success. As with any development intervention, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach tends to be less effective once it clashes with the reality on the ground. Solutions which are tailored to the specific environment are far more likely to be effective in the long term.

UNDP Brazil / Tiago Zenero


UNDP’s Alternative Development approach builds on previous AD approaches, and is currently being piloted in a project called CBARD (Community-Based Agriculture and Rural Development). CBARD has been jointly developed with UNODC, is being implemented by the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL).  CBARD was established in 2016 and is being piloted across three of Afghanistan’s highest poppy producing provinces – Badghis, Farah and Nangarhar.

CBARD combines the AD approach with the proven effectiveness of area-based development (ABD) and community-based development approaches. What this means in practice is taking the elements which work from both these approaches. For example, when selecting communities to work with, CBARD focuses on community’s accessibility and distance from markets, land and water resources available, type of crops cultivated and level of community engagement. CBARD adopts a community-based approach by promoting sustainable socio-economic development at the local level by strengthening participatory governance and fostering community-based initiatives.

This hybrid approach to developing alternative livelihoods in Afghan rural communities is previously untested in Afghanistan. The theory is that once farmers see the higher incomes they can earn from other crops, they may choose not to cultivate poppy in the future.


Early results from the project are very promising. In 2018, if we compare the average income from greenhouses constructed under CBARD ($1,000 per 400m2) with poppy fields (around $1,800 per 10,000m2), the greenhouses are shown to produce a much higher income per hectare.  The construction of nearly 138 greenhouses by CBARD has led to an extra 575 tons of cucumber and 80 tons of tomato harvests, bringing targeted farmers an additional US$ 132,000 of income.

CBARD is using these results to raise awareness of farmers and to expand project activities in the coming years. In 2019, CBARD will have over ten hectares of functional greenhouses, which are expected to bring around $250K in revenue to farmers. In addition, CBARD is working on linking with international markets, which will increase the income-earning opportunities for farmers even further. If CBARD is a success, it can be scaled up to work in other provinces across the country, providing a long-term, sustainable answer to the problem of opium production in Afghanistan.

About the Author:
Napoleon Navarro is currently serving as Senior Deputy Resident Representative (Programmes) of UNDP Afghanistan. As a development professional at the United Nations, Napoleon has the benefit of two decades of development experience, working with and in diverse developing countries, across a range of development challenges. In his long career with the UN, he has served as Senior Policy Advisor for UNDP Cambodia and Deputy Country Director (Programmes) for UNDP Cambodia. Before that, he was Deputy Country Director (Programmes) for UNDP China and was Deputy Division Chief/Programme Advisor for the Northeast Asia and Mekong Division of the Regional Bureau for Asia & the Pacific. Napoleon Navarro is married to Catherine Navarro, and with whom has two daughters. He was born on 1 July 1964, in Manila.


Icon of SDG 01 Icon of SDG 02 Icon of SDG 08 Icon of SDG 13 Icon of SDG 15 Icon of SDG 16

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Afghanistan 
Go to UNDP Global