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From Opium to Coffee: My experience working in Alternative Development with the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) in Lao PDR

By Arushi Dahiya

Disclaimer: The views are those of the author's alone and do not represent the views of UNA-Canada.


Image 1: Village Ban Tham in Houaphanh Province, Lao PDR, where the alternative development project is establishing new coffee nurseries this year.

Sabaidee from Vientiane – the capital city of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)! My name is Arushi Dahiya, and I am currently working here in Vientiane, as a Junior Professional Consultant with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). At UNODC, I work as a part of the office’s Alternative Development programme – which I’m sure you are just as curious to learn more about as I was – but first, a little backstory.

Prior to my assignment with the United Nations (UN), I was completing my Honours Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Toronto (UofT), Canada. At UofT, I specialized in International/Global Development Studies co-op with a Double Minor in Political Science and Socio-cultural Anthropology. My academic pursuits translated directly into a passion for working for an organization such as the UN so that I could help confront some of the world's biggest challenges – specifically, in the areas of development, poverty, human rights, and the drug problem.

Image 2: Village of farmers in Houaphanh Province, Lao PDR.

This brings us back to Alternative Development (AD), and what I have been fortunate enough to be working on, over the past months. Alternative Development is at the nexus of agriculture, drugs, and development. Our AD programme in Lao PDR focuses on helping communities at risk of opium poppy cultivation transition to growing coffee instead of opium, so that they can lead sustainable livelihoods, free from poverty. AD in Lao PDR aims to directly address the local and global drug problem in the region, through a constructive solution that supports the prosperity and livelihood of communities. This is done through our support of the farmer-owned and led cooperative – the Vanmai Coffee Cooperative. At present, over 600 households in Houaphanh Province, across 600 hectares of land, are a part of the Vanmai Coffee Cooperative. Not only is the cooperative Fairtrade certified, but it has signed a long-term commercial trade agreement with an international coffee roaster and as of today, is on track to export four containers of coffee green beans to the international market – all in addition to having established national sales channels.

My specific role in this project spans a variety of different areas including, project implementation, monitoring, communication, donor report writing, as well as working on the project’s operations like procurements, capacity building, etc. As a newly incumbent worker in the development sector, I feel extremely lucky to have been dealt the cards I have. Work in this field can be high pressure – given the numerous deadlines by which one must submit funding proposals or reports to donors, or submit requests for procurements, etc. – to name a few. However, amongst the pressure, I believe that anybody who works in this field does so because of their drive to do good for the world. To give back to humanity.

Image 3: Two little children stand looking towards the mountains that overlook their families coffee plantation in Phongsaly Province, Lao PDR.

At UNODC, I have been deeply fortunate to learn more about – and contribute to – supporting a successful community-driven project. My experience with this work has been nothing short of incredible. Furthermore, the meaningful connections I have been able to forge with my team and community – make me feel truly at home here.


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