Borders and Networks: The Forgotten Elements of Development

Download the report

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



Can cross-border co-operation be a tool for the stabilisation and development of Mali and its northern regions?

Photo courtesy of Yann Arthus-Bertrand

This post, by Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat, is published to coincide with the International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali at the OECD today. French President François Hollande, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría will open the conference at 9:30-10:15 am Paris time. The event is not open to the public but you can watch the live webcast of the opening session.

Mobile populations, transhumance and nomadic herding, a valley at the interface between the desert and the savannah, cultural diversity between Arab-Berber and sub-Saharan worlds, everything in northern Mali reminds you that this area is a transition zone between Mali and Algeria.

This characteristic that for centuries underpinned the prosperity of the Saharan-Sahelian areas has not been perceived as an asset, either under colonisation or since independence. Sahelian and West African countries look “to the south” when thinking of their development (raw material exports, consumer goods imports) while the Maghreb, Algeria in particular, turns to the Mediterranean and Europe.

For over a century, the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have no longer been considered integrated parts of this mobile space rich in connections. They are simply “the north of a country”, contained within a border.

Trade continues to thrive however, anchored on a grid of trans-Saharan roads largely inherited from the distant past. But these activities are for the most part illegal, sometimes even serious crime.

Is it imaginable that one day trans-Saharan trade will be revived, restoring to the north the role it has always played; giving it the chance to change status from a marginal area to one of dynamism and linkage? Cross-border co-operation may be the first step towards achieving this goal.

Mali is one of the pioneers of cross-border co-operation in Africa. In the late 1990s Malian President Alpha Oumar Konaré imagined an Africa where “the concept of border would give way to that of ‘border area’, a place of bonding, sharing and exchange, where populations on both sides of the border share common schools, security posts, markets and health centres… In this way, border areas can escape the absurd colonial geometric layout and become areas of movement and solidarity for people who often share the same language and the same culture[i].”

This approach was taken up by Mali’s National Directorate for Borders with even more conviction than the 1992 Constitution, which stipulates in Article 117 that “The Republic of Mali may conclude with any African state agreements of association or community, including partial or total surrender of sovereignty in order to achieve African unity.” On the Algerian side, a December 1994 decree authorises and provides a framework for border barter trade with Niger and Mali in order to “normalise a legitimate practice based on traditional trade links between Algeria and West Africa whose habits and customs predate colonisation.”

Across the great Sahara-Sahelian areas, the concept of trans-border must be adapted. It is not a question, as in densely populated areas, of supporting and strengthening co-operation based on close proximity, but rather based on roads and markets.

CBC-triangleOn the Malian side, Gao (90 000 inhabitants) is the “metropolis” of the north. Sitting on the “hinge” that is the river, it is located 500 km from the border, as the crow flies. Kidal (30 000 inhabitants) is the last real town before the Algerian border more than 350 km away and itself located 500 km from Tamanrasset (100 000 inhabitants) in southern Algeria. These long distances do not prevent trade that binds these communities as surely as if they were neighbours.

To be useful, cross-border co-operation should, as much as possible, address “real” spaces. That is to say, it must confirm to the dynamics on the ground shaped by social and economic networks. In terms of history, socio-cultural links and trade, Tamanrasset looks as much to Niger as to Mali. Agadez (120 000 inhabitants) is the third apex in a grand triangle of cross-border co-operation. The city is located 400 km as the crow flies from the Algerian border. In between is Arlit (80 000 inhabitants). Another smaller triangle can be drawn with Tamanrasset, Kidal and Arlit as the vertices.

It is for the relevant authorities to define what could be the focus of a cross-border co-operation programme within one or the other of these spaces.

Consider hypothetically the livestock and meat sector, already at the centre of strong informal cross-border dynamics. Southern Algeria largely depends on Mali and Niger for its supplies of sheep and camels. The sale of Sahelian cattle is banned in Algeria, yet illegal importation is common. Pressures on the price of beef in the Tamanrasset market are becoming more frequent. Speaking on the subject, the President of the Tamanrasset Chamber of Agriculture said in July 2010: “Neither Mali nor Niger has slaughterhouses of the standard that could possibly supply Tamanrasset, not to mention the north. Right now, only a few butchers are engaged in live cattle trade between the two friendly countries and Algeria. But the quantities they bring are only enough for the towns of Tamanrasset and In Salah. Yet the cattle potential in these two neighbouring countries is impressive, and if investors get involved in that niche, particularly investing in abattoirs that conform to health standards, fresh beef would sell at a quarter of its current price.”

There is here perhaps is a starting point for reflection among national and local authorities in the three countries concerned, with the knowledge also that very many herders of Algerian nationality live and raise their herds in Mali and Niger.

Useful links

This article is based on The Malian regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu: National and regional perspectives (in French). Executive summary available in English and French.

International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali: Northern regions at the heart of reconciliation and peace consolidation OECD, Paris, 22 October 2015. The conference brings together the Mali government and civil society, international partners, investors and diaspora, to discuss together the economic recovery and development of Mali.

[i] Cited by Adame Ba Konaré in his preface to the Jeune Afrique Atlas of Mali