Strengthening responses to cross-border conflict and complexity

How can we help build resilience and address conflict in border regions?

Our Experience

Having worked on conflict-related ecosystems across the region for many years, we are turning our attention to the complexities and risks of Africa’s often-troubled border-zones. We’ve been working with clients and communities wrestling with tough questions such as;

  • How can the resilience of borderlands communities be understood, and strengthened?
  • How do networks for human trafficking operate across borders?
  • How do violent extremist organisations exploit borderlands communities?
  • What is the role of government in facilitating stronger relationships between communities and their states?
  • What is the impact of border functionality on borderlands communities?

To date, our work has involved exploratory research and community engagement across the border zones of East Africa, helping to deepen understanding and generate new ways to work with local complexities.

The Challenge

East Africa’s borders are especially complex regions: To varying degrees, the regions border zones are extremely porous. This porosity can act as a source of resilience for border communities by facilitating cross-border trade, social connectivity, and greater access to services. However, the same conditions have also been conducive to the proliferation of conflict actors, which presents a significant threat to states and communities in the region.

Despite the unique characteristics of each country/region, conflict dynamics are highly interconnected and dynamic. While many border zones in the region may appear relatively stable from an outside perspective, this appearance of stability masks a hotbed of activity by violent groups linked to criminal and trafficking activity, political insurgency and violent extremism.

Border zones urgently require our attention and better-informed responses: Over the next decade, political transition, population growth, evolving transnational security risks and climate change will have a huge impact on all aspects of life – security, stability, development and humanitarian – for the Horn of Africa region. Working on the borders, as part of wider regional engagement, is crucial. Borders create a microcosm of competing political, economic and social dynamics; the failure to manage cross-border dynamics presents wider threats to stability. Conversely, strengthening the resilience of borderlands communities presents opportunities to enhance local and regional cooperation,

Yet to date, efforts at strengthening borders have struggled to achieve lasting impact: For better and for worse, new actors and institutions are increasingly turning their attentions to the region’s borders. Despite worthy intentions, there remains a tendency to intervene from narrowly defined agendas which can lead to counterproductive efforts. For example, the flood of migrants to Europe has driven policy-makers to tackle irregular migration across borders while economic and trade organisations have been keen to promote cross-border trade, at the same time the spread of violent extremism has prompted regional and Western governments alike to regard borderlands principally as a security risk.

Tackling such singular issues through unilateral interventions which fail to consider borderlands as a complex, multifaceted system risks unintended harm with potentially regional consequences.

To date, we’ve worked across East Africa’s border regions, helping to deepen understanding and generate new ways to work with local communities.

The State of System Change

Understanding how best to work with complex borderlands regions is difficult but vital work. Here we take a systems-based perspective to put forward some of what we see as the key area necessary to examine more deeply.

Shared understanding: An array of partial, and conflicting perspectives

Our experience is that one of the real problems of border regions is so many actors with so many perspectives and views that are partial and conflicting. Critical questions to explore more deeply must include:

  • What is the quality of shared understanding?
  • Are people focussed on understanding the symptoms or the deeper issues?
  • Where are the gaps?

Securing Commitment: The struggle of securing genuine commitment

With so many actors, and interests at play, it is extremely difficult to secure any real commitment to tackling specific problems. Perhaps the opportunity here is to galvanise commitment around smaller, more discrete problems (such as violent extremism). When we look at issues of commitment across border systems;
Do we see collective ownership?
What are the levels of inclusion and participation in understanding and tackling the problem?
Are there mandates, owners and champions of change?
Are the mechanisms to drive accountability?
Are there positive examples in some regions worth citing?

Changing the Dynamics: Diverse interventions, but what works at scale?

Borderlands interventions vary considerably in scope, scale and ambition, however:

  • Are they iterative, adaptive, contextually tailored enough?
  • Are there opportunities for scaling what works that are not being looked at?
  • How well integrated are they with other activities?

Enabling Coordination: Established platforms need to drive collaborative action.

With regard to the array of challenges faced by borderlands communities:

  • What is the need for and quality of coordination structures, mechanisms, processes both horizontally (i.e. between county – security – trade – community actors) and vertically (e.g. between community – county – national).
  • Where and how are things siloed?
  • What are the incentives? What are the power structures and how are they manipulated by elites?

Augmenting Learning: Information flows need to reach frontline change-makers.

Feedback loops in such complex regions are often distorted, delayed or altogether absent;

  • What is being done to understand this problem better?
  • How effective are these processes? Are they serving those on the front lines?
What Next?

In a cross-border context in the Horn of Africa, peace, resilience, trade, security and a whole host of other issues cannot be understood in isolation or approached in programmatic silos. The Horn region requires integrated cross-border interventions. For example, if cross-border peacebuilding as the foundation, efforts should also focus intentionally on building wider resilience.

Using regular conflict and resilience analyses, interventions should be designed in context-specific terms. Localised, context-specific conflict drivers should be used as the foundation to develop an integrated understanding and narrative of the cross-border nature of conflict dynamics and of how key actors are operating within the margins and faultlines of cross-border and regional systems.

Relationships and programming footprints with local and national authorities, civil society and communities across the region should be utilised to generate a deeper understanding of cross-border risks, and work closely alongside relevant actors to identify and pilot interventions to address these risks. All the while, this can contribute to the development of a shared engagement by local actors in order to strengthen collaboration across borders to address common and inter-connected conflict-related challenges.

In such fluid environments, sustainability is all the more difficult to achieve, but all the more important to prioritise. Ensuring requisite resources earmarked for holistic, sustainable interventions will maintain momentum and self-reliance of cross-border programmes at both community and policy-making levels.

Tools & Resources

Evolving Traditional Practices: Managing Small Arms in the Horn of Africa and Karamoja Cluster (2014)

This research report from Small Arms Survey provides useful contextual information on the conflict risks and community dynamics affecting the region including its borderlands.


Transnational Conflict in Africa: A New Field of Study and a Shift in Policy Priorities (2019)

This blog from the LSE’s Conflict Research Programme highlights the importance of shifting towards a more regional, rather than national, lens when considering conflict related policies.


Why East Africa’s Borders are Blowing Up (2014)

This article from Foreign Policy covers many of the contemporary complexities and risks afflicting the region’s border zones.


Assessing Resilience for Peace Guidance Note (2016)

While this document from Interpeace does not specifically discuss border zones, it offers a valuable means to consider conflict and peacebuilding more holistically, which is highly pertinent to border zones.


Borders and Borderlands as Resources in the Horn of Africa (2010)

This book treats communities in the borderlands as agents; it deals with the conduits and opportunities of state borders in the Horn of Africa, and investigates how the people living there exploit state borders through various strategies.


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