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December 03, 2008

Lessons for Executive Summarizers
Posted by Patrick Barry

It's no secret that poppy cultivation and opium production are a huge problem in Afghanistan, but the UNODC's latest Opium Survey for Afghanistan, which showed that cultivation declined 19% this year has raised the eyebrows of people like Spencer Ackerman and Mark Leon Goldberg.  Goldberg reports that the survey attributed this decline to both enhanced counternarcotics efforts and a drought.  As you can see, this is right from the UNODC's Executive Summary:

The full opium survey shows that cultivation reduced more than expected thanks to successful counter-narcotic efforts in the northern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan.

This decline was also a result of unfavourable weather conditions that caused extreme drought and crop failure in some provinces, especially those in which agriculture is rainfed.

But don't go thanking God and counternarcotics officers just yet.  A comparison of the Executive Summary with the Executive Summary contained in the actual report (believe it or not, they aren't the same) shows that there are SIGNIFICANT differences in their explanations for the reduction, including some that would lead you to a less-than-happy set of conclusions:

Since 2007 opium cultivation declined by 19% to 157,000 hectares this year, for several reasons. First, as shown in our August Report, restraint at planting (but not eradication), has been successful. Pressure by governors, shuras and village elders has kept cultivation down in many provinces. Second, and most importantly, the dynamics of farm prices. As (Afghan) supply has once again exceeded (world) demand, prices for opium (both fresh and old) are down 20% in nominal terms (and much more at constant prices).

The distinctions here are absolutely critical for understanding the current dynamics of Afghanistan's opium trade.  We'll start with the second cause, because it helps explain the first.  World opium prices are down 20%, indicating that supply far outpaces demand.  This glut in opium supply has consequences for cultivators and traffickers, as declining prices translate to less revenue.  Since evidence suggests that the opium supply chain is at least partially controlled by the Taliban and other warlords through taxation and extortion, declining prices mean that less revenue goes to fund the insurgency.  A logical way for the Taliban, associated warlords and drug traffickers to rebalance supply and demand is for them to reign in production, which goes to explain the steep drop in cultivation.  So what one Executive Summary made out to be a sign of counternarcotics efforts, the other shows is just a market correcting itself. 

You would think that the UN wouldn't want to publish executive summaries that wildly mis-characterize the findings contained in other UN executive summaries.  Of course, since I still haven't read the 187-page report, I'm not 100% sure that I'm mischaracterizing it either.  Let's hope not. 


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Thanks for going beyond the executive summary. I was rather surprised by that success and this makes both it and some past things I've read more understandable.

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