11 September 2023

Aid for the War on Drugs

Share this post
related content

This report follows development aid being spent on narcotics control around the world. It calls on governments and donors to divest from punitive and prohibitionist drug control regimes which undermine their other health and human rights commitments, and invest in programmes which prioritise community, health and justice.

undermining human rights, health & development

Mass incarceration and overpopulated prisons. Death sentences. Civilians killed during counter-narcotics operations by specialised police units. Poor farmers’ livelihoods destroyed by aerial spraying and other ‘forced eradication’ of crops they keep. Rights violated by forced treatment programmes, discrimination, and barriers to health care. These are among the consequences of the global war on drugs that has particularly impacted poor, marginalised, and racialised communities around the world.

The evidence base for such negative impacts is now vast and widely recognised internationally, including by United Nations (UN) agencies and in reports published by the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Also well-documented internationally are the benefits of alternative approaches to drug policy – including harm reduction initiatives that advance, rather than undermine, public health and human rights – and the lack of evidence that punitive and prohibitionist approaches to drugs have actually curbed drug use. Despite this, vast amounts of international funding continue to flow to punitive drug control activities, while harm reduction remains vastly underfunded.

There is a long history of drug policy being used by world powers to strengthen and enforce their control over other populations, and to target specific communities. Racist and colonial dynamics continue to this day, with wealthier governments, led by the US, spending billions of taxpayer dollars around the world to bolster or expand punitive drug control regimes and related law enforcement. These funding flows are out of pace with existing evidence, as well as international development, health, and human rights commitments, including the goal to end AIDS by 2030. They rely on and reinforce systems that disproportionately harm Black, Brown and Indigenous people worldwide.

In order to decolonise drug policy and advance health- and human rights-based approaches, the material and financial bases of punitive drug control must be revealed and redirected. This report contributes to these goals by synthesising existing research on international financial flows for punitive drug control, and adding new analysis of data on official development assistance (ODA) spent by aid donors and institutions on “narcotics control”. These specific, public budgets are supposed to support international development, including health goals and global poverty reduction. This spending is more commonly associated with initiatives to vaccinate and educate children, for instance – but project-level data included in this report shows that some of it has also gone to supporting things like undercover policing, “intelligence-led profiling”, and efforts to increase arrests and prosecutions for drug-related offences.

lack of transparency

Each year, aid donors report their spending to the OECD which maintains what is called its Creditor Reporting System (CRS). According to the most recent update of the data in this system (from mid-December 2022, covering spending through the end of 2021), more than USD 930 million of aid money was spent on “narcotics control” projects in countries around the world in the ten years from 2012-2021. This includes spending by dozens of donors – led by the US, EU, Japan, and the UK. Tens of millions of dollars of this total (at least USD 68 million over the period studied) were spent in countries that have the death penalty for drug-related offences. This raises particularly serious concerns about whether and how aid budgets have bolstered regimes that execute people, building upon previous HRI research in this area. While some donors, such as the UK, have spent less aid this way in recent years, others have increased it – most notably the US, where such spending rose significantly in 2021, in the first year of President Joe Biden’s administration.

Though data availability and transparency vary across projects and donors, this analysis reveals how aid money has supported approaches that undermine global development goals and “do no harm” principles. Put simply: aid funding is supposed to help poor and marginalised communities, while punitive drug control regimes have been shown to disproportionately negatively affect them. This makes such regimes a poor fit for such important yet limited development budgets. This research also shows how these donors have numerous opportunities – as well as obligations – to change how they invest in global drug policy by funding under-resourced, evidence-based, and health- and human rights-centred harm reduction efforts instead, worldwide.

bankrolling punitive drug control

Many governments spend huge amounts of money on punitive drug control policies and initiatives, despite their risks and costs to public health goals and human rights. Expansive law enforcement, surveillance, prosecutorial infrastructure, and mass incarceration can be very expensive for limited public budgets that could be spent otherwise. The same could be said for the other infrastructure that serve anti-drug regimes.

Since 1971, the US has spent more than a trillion dollars on its war on drugs and given expanded powers to law enforcement, including mandatory sentencing domestically. Billions of dollars have also been spent on flagship projects of the country’s global war on drugs, much of it focused on Central and South America. In 2021, US government documents show that its funding for drug control internationally totalled more than USD 1.1 billion that year alone – spent through various government departments and agencies, led by the DEA (USD 464 million) and the State Department’s Bureau of INL agency (USD 425 million), which also leads counter-narcotics trainings and capacity building to “catalyse and sustain long-term organisational change”. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) also spent USD 53.5 million on drug control that year.

European countries are also significant funders of drug control. Despite transparency and data accessibility gaps, a 2017 Council of Europe report found estimates for 16 European countries’ drug-related expenditure, ranging up to 0.5% of GDP, with most of these expenditures focused on reducing the supply of drugs.

following the money

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).


Evidence from around the world has shown the significant health and welfare impacts of harm reduction initiatives. These initiatives, which seek to mitigate negative health, social, and economic consequences of using drugs (without necessarily ending drug use), include opioid agonist treatment; needle and syringe programmes; condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); safe drug consumption spaces; and programmes to prevent and manage overdoses, ensure the non-discriminatory provision of services, and keep people who use or engage with drugs out of prison. Despite their benefits, they remain woefully under-funded worldwide.


Despite overwhelming evidence in favour of following a health and human rights-based approach to drug policy, and clear international standards, vast amounts of international funding – including from aid budgets that are supposed to help poor and marginalised communities around the world – have gone to punitive and damaging anti-drug regimes instead.

It is possible for drug policies and laws to contribute to healthier, safer societies. This requires changes in how resources are currently allocated. Drug policy and associated international funding flows must be decolonised. The harms caused by countries spreading punitive drug policies must be redressed; communities destroyed must be rebuilt.

Governments and donors must divest from unjust punitive drug responses and invest in community, health, and justice. They must invest in harm reduction.


International donors should:

  • Stop using money from their limited aid budgets (supposed to help end poverty and achieve global development goals) for “narcotics control” activities.
  • Divest from punitive and prohibitionist drug control regimes and be more transparent about their spending on drug-related activities, including harm reduction (regardless of what budget line this money comes from).
  • Invest in evidence-based and health- and human rights-centred harm reduction initiatives that align with global development and other commitments.

Civil society and journalists should:

  • Demand greater transparency in how aid money is spent.
  • Conduct further, in-depth investigations into how money has been spent on “narcotics control” in different countries (including how it was justified; any results claimed; and any direct or indirect impacts that may have undermined other goals or aid rules).

Taxpayers in donor countries should:

  • Demand integrity and transparency in their governments’ international spending, including that from limited aid budgets.
  • Demand that support from public budgets flows to evidence-based and public health and human rights-centred measures.

The OECD should:

  • Solicit and listen to advice from health and human rights experts, as well as people who use drugs, on whether to remove “narcotics control” from their list of categories of spending eligible to be counted as aid.
  • Conduct and publish a thorough review of all aid spent on “narcotics control” so far, whether any spending breached guidance on this category, and the use of national security or other justifications by donors to withhold details about funded projects.
  • Increase transparency of all current and previous aid spending, making data and details of projects easier to access, thereby facilitating accountability.

Governments should:

  • Decriminalise drug use and possession and support harm reduction for people who use drugs, and until then, promote evidence-based and health- and human-rights centred alternatives to incarceration.
  • Critically evaluate their own spending on drug control, divest from punitive drug control, and invest in evidence-based harm reduction programmes.
  • Meaningfully involve communities and civil society in the financial decision-making and monitoring of all drug-related policies.


Our Divest/Invest campaign calls on governments and donors to divest from the unjust drug war and invest in programmes that prioritise community, health and justice.

To learn more visit www.investinjustice.net

Don't miss our events
and publications

Subscribe to our newsletter