Peacebuilding: a view from the margins


This blogpost by Dr Zahbia Yousuf (PSRP researcher, Conciliation Resources) was first published on EU-CIVCAP.

Statebuilding and peacebuilding discussions increasingly emphasise inclusion as a key ingredient for peaceful states and societies, and marginalisation as a key cause of conflict. However, the persistence of conflict and violence in many borderland regions can defy and challenge these peacebuilding blueprints.

Borderlands are often considered the margins of states – geographically, but also politically, economically and socially. They are considered to be areas of uncertainty and danger, in and from which violence and conflict can emerge at any time to threaten the sovereignty, security and integrity of the state. Secessionist movements, insurgent groups and criminal networks transporting firearms, drugs, people – all are attributed to the unruly nature of the border. From Hadrian’s walled efforts to separate Romans from so-called barbarians in Britannia, to Kashmir (the most militarised zone in the world) and Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, there are many examples old and new of borderlands being viewed as areas to be pacified and regulated, prompting securitised responses or exceptional forms of government.

This view of borderlands as trouble spots, lagging or disruptive zones goes some way to explaining why national and international peacebuilding policy and practice struggle to practically incorporate them. The tendency to stabilise and securitise borderlands, rather than include them and the concerns of those living there, is compounded by the fact that mainstream peacebuilding and statebuilding policy often works on the basis that peace and development are built at the centre before spreading out to the edges of the state.

‘Bringing in’ the view from the borderlands

To incorporate the interests and concerns of borderlands and their communities – in either a national peace process or a sub-national process in a border region – peacebuilding policy and practice must grapple with various dimensions of borderland dynamics, the four most important of which are outlined below.

Understanding where authority and legitimacy lie

It may not always be clear (especially to the outside world) who exercises authority in borderland areas – particularly where the state does not visibly deliver services or is excessively present in the form of heavy military actions. Identifying local understandings of authority and legitimacy can be crucial to discerning which actors or institutions organise political and economic life.

Authority in borderlands is also typically informal and hybrid – exhibiting state/non-state, formal/informal, licit/illicit, and military characteristics – with multiple actors making contesting claims to exercise it. Cross-border and international influences loom large, too. An interesting example of contingent authority is the eastern borderlands of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where informal petrol traders have set up their own structures for negotiating prices, cross-border trade and employment. The structures mimic state rules and authority, interacting and bargaining with state actors on issues of taxation, policing, violence and security. The network of relations the traders have established with the state, as well as the population, gives them legitimacy among local and cross-border communities.

Engaging with multiple forms of authority

In recent years the peacebuilding field has increasingly tried to understand how multiple forms of public authority function in conflict contexts to inform interventions –public authority is increasingly seen as a pool of resources, of which the state is just one possible provider. This involves looking explicitly at how legitimacy and authority are generated, by whom, and through which networks, institutions, relations of power, and forms of violence. For example, in Myanmar’s borderlands, several forces influence political and socio-economic dynamics: militia movements and their relative strength and interests at various times, state authorities, tribal leaders, Chinese businesspeople and officials, as well as cross-border economic and political networks. From a peacebuilding and humanitarian perspective, interventions (whether local, national or international) must navigate these multiple authorities to be effective and accepted by power-holders and communities alike.

Understanding how and why violence emerges in the borderlands

Violence in borderland regions is often blamed on the fragility of sub-national state institutions or their economic underdevelopment, and attributed to borderlands having been left out of processes of state consolidation and political and economic integration. And typical policy responses to violence that rely on securitising or closing borders can paradoxically have detrimental effects for community security including undermining existing networks and community resilience.

Looking out from the border rather than from the centre challenges us to think differently about how violence emerges and is sustained: i.e. as being related to processes of statebuilding and economic development rather than residual to them. This can offer a useful critique of conventional approaches to borderlands – securitisation, regulation of borderland economies and movement of borderland peoples – and challenges the policy assumption that there is a natural peace dividend arising from statebuilding and economic development.

Inclusion vs stability

Even when the abovementioned dynamics can be navigated, a core challenge for peacebuilding is that the introduction and inclusion of new interests inevitably challenges existing political arrangements, prompting resistance from power-holders. ‘Bringing in’ the borderlands can have multiple destabilising effects: there may be resistance to communities historically viewed as subversive now shaping national identities or being given political or socio-economic power, and new forms of insecurity may arise from efforts to integrate border regions back into the state. For example, in Nepal pressure to ensure formal inclusion of marginalised groups including the Madhes from the borderland Terai region, but also other marginalised groups such as Janajtis and women, has been met with resistance. Traditional elites have denounced the agenda of inclusive change and aggressively pursued the maintenance of the status quo, essentially ensuring that underlying power relations persevere.


While borderland dynamics may present distinct challenges to inclusion in peacebuilding processes, the persistence of conflict and violence in borderland areas – from Pakistan to Colombia – suggests alternatives to current approaches warrant further investigation. A borderlands lens can help peacebuilding policy and practice to be sensitive to the dynamics of border spaces, and to how these dynamics shape and are shaped by national and transnational processes.

Better understanding of how authority and violence function in border areas, as well as how actors on the ground navigate different interests in support of peacebuilding, can provide key insights for inclusive transition processes. A Conciliation Resources ‘Accord Insight’ publication on peacebuilding and political settlements in borderlands (due for publication in mid-2018) will explore how peacebuilding policy and practice can better incorporate a view from the margins, including a more in-depth reflection on some of the cases discussed in this article.

Author: Zahbia Yousuf

Image: The Comuna 13 shantytown, one of the poorest areas of Medellín, Credit: EC Photo/Raul Arboleda