Defund Police – At Home & Abroad: A call to transform international donor assistance.

The demand to “defund police,” which has been ignited and accelerated recently, has been a long fought for vision and demand by community organizers and practitioners for years.

The analysis and call underlying this demand is predicated on the evidence that we have shifted public resources toward systems and agents of punishment, control, and violence in order to address a myriad set of “problems” and at the expense of community-based initiatives grounded in health and social services that better seek to address and improve people’s individual and collective well-being, health, safety, and freedom. This analysis holds true not only for our local and domestic strategies and resource allocation, but in international aid as well. For too long, governments and international donor agencies have concentrated international assistance on mechanisms that have accelerated punishment and death in the name of security, and too often as well, in the name of democracy. Thus, this moment of reckoning and opportunity is one in which we need to reassess how we understand and fund community and public safety and well-being in America and how we do so in our international efforts as well.

There are many examples to draw upon to illustrate our ineffective and often misguided international donor assistance, from “regime change” in Iraq or Afghanistan to counter-terrorism efforts focused on indefinite detention and torture to or “forever wars”, to security sector assistance. There are significant debates as well regarding the size of the defense budget in the United States that often propagates the military industrial complex and comes at the expense of other investments in domestic services and responses. One that has undeniably resulted in significant harm to communities impacted and that closely mirrors our dynamics in the United States as well has been our international exportation of the “war on drugs.”

The punitive and prohibitionist approach to the war on drugs has permeated multiple donor agencies from the United States and internationally. In the United States, this has come from an alphabet soup of governmental agencies and outfits, from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) or its Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) to a range of Department of Defense Counternarcotics efforts. The FY2018 White House Budget included $1.4 billion for international drug control efforts, which represents a minimum baseline amount the US government dedicates to counternarcotics efforts alone and is in addition to contributions to international agencies.

While harms associated with the international drug market are undeniable and require responses, advocates and practitioners roundly recognize that this is largely driven by and a result of the prohibitionist regime that fuels criminal organizations and increases the capacity and use of violence. Thus, international drug control funding has largely exacerbated these dynamics and resulting harm as they reinforce prohibitionist and punitive model and ideology.

The vision underlying such funding – “a world without drugs” – has failed. This multi-billion dollar and decades-long failure has carried significant human cost. We can see such costs from the Plan Colombia and aerial fumigation of drug crops in Colombia to the 1,814 people, mostly Black, killed by Rio de Janeiro’s military police in 2019. One of the most impacted countries also happens to be our neighbor, Mexico. In 2019 alone, more than 35,000 Mexicans were murdered in drug war-related violence and it is estimated that as many as 150,000 Mexicans have been intentionally killed since the drug war was escalated in 2006. Rather than be dissuaded by the lives lost, President Trump has promised to escalate even further, vowing to “wage war” against Mexican criminal organizations using U.S. military personnel.

Now as we look to overdue shifts in our domestic funding focused on police and punitive measures, we must do so to our international spending as well. This of course does not mean that we should abandon our partners and local communities, but rather we should dedicate these funds to community-based solutions that can be scaled nationally that better respond to and improve people’s well-being, health, and safety, and increase efforts aimed at ending police and security sector corruption and impunity. And of course, we must end the drug war – which rather than creating a world without drugs, has created a world with more violence and more death.


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