Borders and Networks: The Forgotten Elements of Development

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Laurent Bossard, Director, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

The latest SWAC/OECD publication Cross-Border Co-operation and Policy Networks in West Africa addresses the crucial but often overlooked issue of cross-border co-operation, employing an analytical approach sparsely used in the development field and in West Africa in particular – social network analysis. These two unique features of the publication make for enriching reading.

More than 46% of West Africa’s agglomerations and over half of the West African urban population are located within 100 km of a border. In fact no place in Benin, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau or Togo is more than 100 km from a border, and these border areas cover two-thirds of Guinea, Senegal and Sierra Leone, and more than half of Burkina Faso and Ghana, as well as being home to the vast majority of the Mauritanian and Niger populations. These figures show us the importance that we should place on border and cross-border dynamics, particularly in relation to the development of agro-pastoral and food security, health-related education, the management and preservation of the environment, and of course, security issues. The only things that stop at borders are national policies. The rest passes through: goods, information, people; but also crises and instabilities. People living close to borders, their networks, villages and towns are the foundations of powerful, transnational processes of de facto regional integration, whilst de jure integration continues to struggle with implementation challenges.

The idea of reconciling “bottom-up” integration with “top-down” integration through cross-border co-operation policies is slowly progressing. Cross-border co-operation, promoted at the turn of the century by former Malian President Alpha Oumar Konaré, now benefits from programmes led by the African Union Commission, ECOWAS and UEMOA, whilst a number of international initiatives are also underway. However, this approach remains marginal in the public policies of West African countries and in the portfolios of development co-operation institutions, due largely to the persistence of legal and financial constraints.

It is true that these initiatives are taking place in a context marked by an upsurge in transnational terrorism, which, as in Mali, Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, encourages the international community and African countries to attach increasing importance to the security of borders. More than ever, border control is a crucial issue for the stability of states and the prosperity of West Africans. As underscored by the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) recent report on the management of Mali’s borders, a new balance must be found “between control and free movement so that border areas can fully facilitate integration and peace”.

But for this to happen, the co-operation potential of border regions and the functioning of public policy networks that enable the collaboration of cross-border actors must be known.

There are many publications that describe cross-border dynamics. However, few studies have attempted to systematically map the regions that are most favourable to cross-border co-operation, or to visualise the structure of co-operation networks. The analysis of cross-border policy networks presented in this publication is a welcome development for all actors involved in cross-border co-operation in West Africa.

It highlights, for the first time, how cross-border governance networks are organised, how information circulates between partners of different natures, and who are the most central actors, thus facilitating an understanding of these largely informal dynamics. Beyond the academic field, social network analysis is also an empowering tool for local communities and non-governmental organisations, as well as an operational tool for international organisations and governments.

Social network analysis is also pertinent for understanding the functioning of cross-border co-operation networks as it illustrates the complexity of both the relationships that exist between actors and their geographical locations, particularly when networks operate across borders. Furthermore, by providing information at a more detailed and geographically local level, the analysis is more relevant for local actors and the conditions they operate within, enabling local characteristics to be accounted for within national and international strategies. Future African public policies must utilise this approach to better match local realities. At the same time, public policies need to better integrate border areas where there is significant potential for development and regional integration.

Useful links

African Union Border Programme (AUBP)

African Borderlands Research Network (ABORNE)

Association of European Border Regions (AEBR)

Borderless West Africa – removing trade barriers in West Africa

Cross-border Co-operation Gateway (MOT)


Local Cross-border Initiative (LOBI/UNCDF)

Department of Border Region Studies at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU)

African Governance and Space (AFRIGOS) programme at the Centre for African Studies, University of Edinburgh



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