Downloads: 1 available

Available in English



Zahbia Yousuf draws out  key lessons for peacebuilding policy and practice from the case studies. The article analyses particular risks associated  with peace transitions in borderlands: of aggravating rather  than alleviating violence and exclusion; of contributing to the  fragmentation of local political leadership; and of stimulating negative narratives of borderland communities. She then draws out priorities for peacebuilding in borderlands, stressing  that analysis must capture borderland dynamics, that space for peacebuilding in borderlands needs to be safeguarded, and that peacebuilding needs to create connections – between the centre and the periphery, within borderlands and across borders.


Key Findings

Understanding peace and transition processes in borderlands
National transition processes that ignore borderlands or attempt to absorb or pacify them risk aggravating violence and exclusion. The consolidation of national-level political settlements encourages an over-emphasis on short-term stabilisation in borderlands, which can experience ‘selective integration’ while remaining excluded from commitments to rights or the rule of law.

Efforts to support local governance in borderlands risk fragmenting political leadership and exacerbating conflict. Strategies by central governments to cede key political, administrative or security functions to local non-state institutions have often contributed to the fragmentation of local political leadership in regions with historical experiences of state exclusion.

Peace and transition processes can prompt negative narratives of borderland communities that reinforce their exclusion. Constructed and reconstructed over many years, divisive narratives typically focus on cultural, religious and political differences and an assumed lack of commitment to national ideals and identity. 

Priorities for peacebuilding in borderlands
Ensure conflict and peacebuilding analysis captures borderland dynamics. Analysis should include how different groups in borderlands experience national transition processes, looking out for common pitfalls such as the potential for elite capture or failure to build on existing peacebuilding capacities and mechanisms.

Make space for peacebuilding in borderlands: navigating constraints, identifying entry points and working with brokers. International actors can support peacebuilding in borderlands by mediating between local organisations and national governments to facilitate the development of mutual options for progress. Local brokers can help navigate murky borderland politics and identify who is best placed to advance particular agendas with different powerholders.

Connect peacebuilding at the centre, in borderlands and across borders. Influencing change at the centre can require alliances with national media, political parties and civil society, and with international NGOs. Supporting mobilisation locally requires maintaining legitimacy and relevance with different local constituencies amid shifting dynamics and competing agendas. 

Understanding peace and transition processes in borderlands

Prospects for peacebuilding in borderlands

Ensure conflict and peacebuilding analysis captures borderland dynamics

Any peacebuilding effort should be based on coherent, up-to- date and politically attuned analysis that includes how different groups in borderlands experience national transition processes. Analysis should look out for common pitfalls, such as the potential for elite capture or failure to build on existing peacebuilding capacities and mechanisms. It should consider not just the incentive structures of different elite groups but also the nature of different borderland relationships – cross- border, transnational, centre–periphery, and within the borderland itself – and whether these are cooperative or conflictual. Assessing how the costs and benefits of particular interventions are spatially distributed can also disaggregate how different policies linked to security, counter-terrorism and economic extraction impact on inclusion, social development and violence reduction in borderland regions. This can help clarify how policies developed far from borderlands and seemingly unrelated to conflict resolution affect borderland peace and stability.

Capturing these insights requires shifting the current configuration of the development and peacebuilding sector – with country teams and planning processes headquartered in national capitals and using official, rather than local, languages. Sub-national offices with a remit for cross-border analysis and programming is a key starting point. This does not mean replacing a country-level, national focus with a borderland one, but rather taking account of non-national histories and how local, national, transnational and global relations create outcomes in borderlands very different to those seen nationally.

Special attention should be paid to how sub-national modes of exclusion operate. Targeted analysis that disaggregates identity can help identify key ‘exclusion variables’, such as informal and formal barriers to inclusion, marginalised groups who need particular support, and influential local actors who can either champion or resist change. Understanding these dynamics can also help identify unexpected opportunities for change. For example, in Tunisia, in-depth political economy and community perceptions analysis allowed international peacebuilding organisations with strong relations to local peacebuilding networks to advocate on sensitive issues when democratic spaces opened up.

The design of transition processes, such as devolution, constitutional reform and national dialogues, should incorporate measures to mitigate against the unintended consequences of elite contestation and co-option. This could involve commitments to track the inclusion of different groups, the prevalence and incidence of different forms of violence, and service provision outcomes. Planning should also involve gender-sensitive conflict mitigation strategies that focus on civic engagement and education, and channels for non-elites to take political office. For example, emerging discussions on decentralisation in government-controlled areas of the Donbas region of Ukraine have sought to engage populations stigmatised in the post-2014 conflict, providing space for them to shape priorities and mechanisms for future political governance.

Make space for peacebuilding in borderlands: constraints, entry points and brokers

While peace and transition processes may open up peacebuilding space at a national level, borderland areas can at the same time become heavily contested and constricted due to increased violence, securitised measures or geo- political wrangling. Local peacebuilders may have the greatest access and legitimacy among their communities but can also face suspicion and threats through their activities and associations. In Myanmar, the army’s role in stabilising the Kachin and Shan states to facilitate resource extraction ensures it is the most powerful actor and authority. Local peacebuilding organisations have had to navigate a complex web of power relations to gain access and permission to work there.

Personalities and personal ties continue to be much more important than formal structures and systems. Organisations are required to constantly assess where power lies in the country’s bureaucratic structures and who best to approach, creating a system of perpetual uncertainty where the reasons for gaining or being denied permission remain opaque and are not easily replicated.

Myanmar case study

International actors can play a key role in highlighting the contradictions between national and local peacebuilding spaces. They can also provide (discreet) analytical, logistical and financial support to local peacebuilding organisations, such as those looking to call attention to state violence, and help mitigate risks that such activities pose to an organisation’s operations in other parts of the country. In areas where armed groups provide governance functions, international agencies can support community-based actors to avoid government sanction for engaging with them, or mediate between local organisations and national governments to help develop mutual options.

Hybrid governance and institutions in borderlands means there may be multiple actors for peacebuilders to navigate and from whom buy-in must be sought. Shifting conflict dynamics in north-eastern Kenya have meant that different actors – clan based, religious leaders and women’s networks – have had different roles in resolving conflicts at different moments. For example, while religious leaders were prominent in reducing clan tensions after 2010, they lacked credibility in mediating Al Shabaab-related conflicts. In Nepal, certain individuals have gained prominence mediating centre–periphery relations as different actors seek to influence transition processes. Such ‘brokers’ have been key to negotiating on behalf of marginalised groups in borderlands and play important roles to support inclusion. In other places such as Kenya, Tunisia and Ukraine, brokers mobilise resources and mediate political positions across borders as well as with the centre, without necessarily reflecting broader community interests.

Questions therefore arise about who has legitimacy to effect peaceful change, reduce violence or speak on behalf of borderland communities. Different groups’ aims can be contradictory in contested spaces, and it can be difficult to gauge who is relevant and effective at specific times. The case studies suggest that communities may be pragmatic as to whom they assign legitimacy to at different times – for example, looking to current service providers or to people with more traditional authority. A focus on the role of brokers can help navigate such murky territory, and identify those best placed to advance particular agendas with different powerholders – at the centre, and in and across borderlands.

Connect peacebuilding at the centre, in borderlands and across borders

Support to peacebuilding in borderlands needs to acknowledge or link efforts within borderlands, across borders and at a national level. In Nepal, the two brokers described in the case study pursued contrasting approaches to representing the Tarai borderland region: while one sought to shape debates in the capital, Kathmandu, the other focused on building grassroots constituencies in the Tarai itself. Each faced a different set of challenges working at different levels and scales. Influencing the centre can require alliances with the national media, national political parties and national civil society, as well as international NGOs that may provide vital support but who may also dilute or co-opt local agendas. Sustaining mobilisation at a local level, on the other hand, requires maintaining legitimacy and relevance with different local constituencies amid shifting dynamics and competing agendas.

Working at multiple levels and scales is especially important where there are polarising nationalist narratives. The Ukraine case study highlights the lack of inter-community dialogue to dispel nationally driven misperceptions of Donbas populations. In Tunisia, international organisations have used the opening up of democratic space to challenge national media accounts of ‘terrorist’ borderland populations, highlighting instead their acute historic marginalisation and security concerns.

All of the case studies describe the importance of cross- border interaction for local communities, yet official peace and transition processes often struggle or neglect to incorporate this. Governments tend to focus on the financial potential of border regions for accessing transnational economic opportunities. But such opportunities do not necessarily include the communities living there and often fail to consider how local economies and livelihoods have historically been built around the border. Previously neglected by the centre, north-eastern Kenya is now a key regional trade route, for example, while Myanmar’s northern border regions have become hubs for resource extraction.

Border management is an underexplored area for conflict prevention and peacebuilding interventions. Decisions such as whether to open or close a border are often decided centrally and determined by security concerns, neglecting the economic, social and political impact on populations and the ‘choices’ they make in response to uncertainties created by inappropriate border management. The Syria and Tunisia case studies suggest that while many people benefit from informal trade, borderland populations favour predictability and regularisation of cross-border movement. In Tunisia, any interruption of income from the border results in significant social upheaval, and the lack of predictability has drawn many young men towards informal and dangerous migration.

There are challenges to regularising cross-border institutions in areas where the state has previously ceded its functions, in particular risks of displacing informal arrangements. Peace committees across the Kenyan–Somali border that tapped into Somali clan networks lost their role as improved government relations allowed for the development of joint border-management policies. These were less effective in managing security challenges related to Al Shabaab, while other important benefits such as Somali children’s access to schools in Kenya were also disrupted.

Further study could understand how movement across and activities around borders, such as local trade, are incorporated effectively into transition processes. This could include the informal ‘back roads’ that emerge around border restrictions, the impact on communities, including vulnerable groups such as refugees, and how such routes are exploited and secured by different sets of actors.

Issue editor

Dr Zahbia Yousuf

Zahbia joined Conciliation Resources as Peacebuilding Editor and Analyst in May 2012. Before this she was a Teaching Fellow in Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS University, and Kings College London. She has also been a Research Associate at INCORE at the University of Ulster, and the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Berlin.