Instead of threatening Afghan farmers who grow poppies with having their crops eradicated, the new US/UK plan is to offer them money in various forms in return for not growing poppies. If that worked, it would produce the desired result – a smaller total poppy crop – by helping farmers rather than damaging them. That sounds like an improvement.
But my colleague Jon Caulkins points out that the desired result isn’t, in fact, desirable. A smaller poppy crop means higher opium prices, which won’t much inconvenience heroin refiners, since the price of opium is a small part of the price of heroin. Refiners’ demand for opium is relatively inelastic: the price goes up, in percentage terms, much more than the quantity purchased goes down. So a smaller crop means more total dollars in illicit transactions. And it’s the dollars, not the kilos, that contribute to the security problem in Afghanistan.
The best outcome would be to make farmers better off – for example, by “just handing them cash,” as a “senior U.S. military official” dismissively put it to Karen DeParle – without accomplishing the purported goal of the program in the form of a smaller poppy crop.
Yes, it’s important to have metrics of success. It’s more important to choose the right metrics.