The most fundamental limitation of PSA is the fact that it takes the nation state as its sole frame of reference. The underlying conceptual framework is one of elites bargaining at a national level within a territorially defined state. This reinforces the statist approach adopted by development agencies, and is reflected in the way that the development industry organises itself, including the division of the world into country teams, national planning and budgeting processes, statistics aggregated at the national level, and the location of country offices in capital cities – all of which limit understandings of borderland dynamics.
This nation-state framework of analysis is problematic for three reasons:
First, it underplays international and regional dimensions of political settlements. Domestic elites’ strategies to secure their interests are often oriented outwards, particularly in regional conflict systems in which violence, networks and flows (of weapons, goods and people) operate across borders. The political survival of national elites in such circumstances depends upon capturing transnational resources, building alliances with external patrons and mobilising cross-border political or religious networks. Domestic political settlements are thus often heavily shaped by neighbouring states. Myanmar’s political settlement, for example, is deeply influenced by the country’s relationship with China, while in East Africa the domestic political settlements within Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are all interconnected. Power dynamics do not fit within the ‘container’ of the state but are intimately shaped by transnational power structures, networks and flows.
Second, PSA underestimates the importance of subnational bargaining processes. These often differ significantly from those at the centre but play a key role in shaping national-level political settlements. Greater understanding is needed of the specific challenges that borderlands pose to ruling elites, including: histories of weak state control and contested legitimacy of state authority; and the challenges of co-opting borderland elites into national coalitions when the availability of cross-border sources of weapons, revenue and support give borderland elites significant power and disruptive potential. In this sense, border regions can be understood as ‘special political zones’ that frequently occupy a disproportionate amount of the attention of ruling elites and where repeated challenges to the overarching political settlement are likely to arise. PSA does not provide clear entry points for engaging with conflicts where relatively stable political settlements at the national level co-exist with high levels of subnational borderland violence.
Third, PSA is rarely attuned to the significance of shifting centre–periphery relations in post-war transitions. It assumes that once order is established at the centre, this will provide the foundations for peace throughout a country’s territory.
In other words, political order radiates outwards from the centre into unruly peripheries. However, many conflicts emerging from the state’s margins are driven by contestation for control of borderland regions and longstanding grievances against central state authority (often linked to ethnic, religious and linguistic differences). Post-war bargaining therefore revolves around questions of political representation and inclusion/exclusion, distribution of resources, and access to services and government positions. In many post-war countries there may be a level of stability and settlement at the centre alongside ongoing conflict and ‘unsettlement’ in borderland regions. For instance, in Nepal in 2006, as discussed elsewhere in this publication (see p.48), there appeared to be a broad and inclusive settlement forged in Kathmandu, but this was not accepted in parts of the Tarai – the southern plains region bordering India, where two-thirds of the population identify as ‘Madhesi’ – leading to violent contestation.
There is a need to bring analytical frameworks that focus on power, institutions and resources more explicitly into conversation with approaches that deal with space, place and territory. Taking the state margins as the starting point from which to understand processes of state contestation, fragility and development addresses a number of key weaknesses in how PSA is being used in peacebuilding policy and development interventions, by:
1. clarifying the drivers and dynamics of borderland violence
2. providing tools to analyse the agents and dynamics of change in borderland regions
3. emphasising the importance of the ideas and beliefs of borderland communities to the dynamics of war-to-peace transitions
We go into greater detail of how these operate below.