Rethinking Aid in Borderland Spaces: The Case of Akobo

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Freddie Carver
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In the Horn of Africa, there is a fundamental mismatch between the nation state framework through which bilateral and multilateral actors see the world, and the networked lives of often vulnerable populations in the region. This is most obvious at the margins of these states, where identities are fluid and decades of displacement and mobility have created extensive global networks beyond the control of state actors. Though movement and mobility, and to an extent the pathways used, are not new, the ability of the transnational
to become integrated with everyday life in disparate locations is.
The transformative impact of everyday transnational linkages is particularly acute in politically and economically marginalized borderlands. These areas are historically subject to more extractive forms of government. Given their insecure locations, such areas traditionally have attracted predominantly emergency assistance. In particular, these borderland spaces have become central to refugee operations in the Horn of Africa, with national
governments content for international resources to substitute for their own more proactive engagement.
An unintended consequence of this approach, however, has been to unmoor these territories further from the national sphere. Refugee programming has helped to internationalize them by creating incentives for transnationalism, whether to attend better schools over borders or by creating new migration routes to western countries that offer resettlement. This has created complex transnational resource flows through family and
extended kinship networks, transforming remote border posts into nodes for flows of
people, cash and social capital.
In these contexts, what are often perceived by outsiders as traditional and highly localized orders are actually interacting with the contemporary global economy and multiple cultural influences. The result can be a subversion of the usually unequal relationships between centre and periphery that not only challenges the spatial organization of state power but also the internal ordering of local societies.
If international actors are unaware of these dynamics, they are failing to understand a critical
component of how individuals, families and communities are organizing themselves
and surviving. Whether focused on fostering community resilience, tackling local conflicts
or encouraging economic activity, there is a need to understand better the daily influence of transnational dynamics. There is also a risk of significant negative effects on local populations from interventions designed to reassert the control of the centre or harden state boundaries.
This suggests a need for further research into the role of the aid industry in transnational political economies, and the opportunities and pitfalls of donor engagement in borderlands. Such research requires new or adapted analytical frameworks that can both investigate and describe complex networked systems. This entails, for example, asking questions about how changes in one location can impact on populations thousands of
kilometres away. Such frameworks also need to foreground individual agency in order to move beyond the limited standard accounts of mobility that focus on push and pull factors.
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