The Causes of Border Hardening in the Global South

Border Hardening
Hungarian-Serbian Border. Photo by Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea via Wikimedia.

By Christopher Blair

An Emerging Trend

International borders are hardening around the world. Since 2001, more than 60 new borders have been fortified. Walls and fences are the most prominent manifestation of this trend. As of 2020, nearly 40% of all countries had walled their international borders to some extent. Media and scholarly attention have tended to focus on prominent, politically contentious walls being erected in the United States and Europe. For instance, thousands of articles have been written about U.S. efforts to wall the Mexican border, Polish efforts to wall the Belarusian border, and Finnish efforts to wall the Russian border. These efforts are variously motivated by domestic political considerations, concerns about migrant and refugee inflows, and fears of Russian aggression.

Yet, for all the focus on border hardening in the Global North, more than 75% of border fortifications erected since 2001 have been built in low and middle income countries in the Global South. Recent developments like Pakistan’s completion of a fence along its border with Afghanistan, Kenyan attempts to wall the border with Somalia, and Indian efforts to harden the Bangladeshi border receive little attention in academic and policy evaluations of border control.

These cases—and the broader trend of border hardening in the Global South—stand in stark contrast with conventional wisdom that developing countries have little willingness or ability to project authority into their peripheries.

International Territorial Norms

The view that developing countries have little ability or incentive to control their borders is premised on two flawed assumptions about the consequences of international territorial norms. First, since World War II there has emerged a powerful norm against the violent alteration of borders. Although occasional violations, like Russia’s annexation of Crimea, still occur, it is generally impermissible for states to seize foreign territory. Threats of conquest were integral to state-building in Europe in the pre-modern era. Some research suggests that by constraining territorial aggrandizement, the territorial integrity norm robbed Global South states of a major impetus—foreign territorial threats—for consolidating control over borderlands. This assumption overlooks the important role of intrastate threats from rebels and militants in motivating state capacity-building in the developing world.

Second, a related norm, uti possidetis, dictates that new countries retain their prior administrative boundaries upon formation. For many states in the Global South, which achieved independence after 1945, this principle instantiated colonial boundaries as de jure interstate borders. Unfortunately, many colonial boundaries were drawn by European administrators ignorant of local ethnic constellations. Incongruence between political and social boundaries in post-colonial states sapped the ability of these new states to control their borders by inhibiting institutional development. This perspective neglects the important role of external assistance programs and foreign aid in supplementing the capacities of otherwise weak, developing countries. Yet, conventional wisdom suggests that together, the norms of territorial integrity and uti possidetis have undermined the incentives and means for developing states to fortify their borders.

Militancy, Security Assistance, and Fortification

Developing states do not lack incentives for border security. They do, however, face a variety of unique considerations around their borders, including the presence of co-ethnic population groups that span international boundaries, greater threats of civil conflict, and heightened dependence on foreign aid. To understand why border hardening is unfolding in the Global South, we need to focus on a different set of explanations than is relevant in the Global North.

My research shows that the border walls erected across the Global South have a surprising origin. Developing countries are not typically driven to fortify their borders because of populist politics, concerns over migration flows, or fears of interstate threats. Rather, these countries fortify their borders in response to the threat of transnational militancy. Where rebel groups, organized criminals, and terrorists spill across borders, enjoy foreign safe havens and support from neighboring states, and conduct regional attacks, target states fortify their borders to gain military advantage.

Cross-border logistical networks and sanctuaries are key to the resilience of violent non-state actors. Border fortifications built by Global South countries are intended to interdict rebels cross-border support and disrupt their access to territorial safe havens abroad, in turn reducing violence. In short, threats of civil conflict have given low and middle income countries a distinct incentive for consolidating control over their borderlands, prompting them to undertake border hardening.

Since 2001, when the U.S. launched the Global War on Terror, international concern about transnational militancy has also grown. Under the War on Terror, the U.S. and European states have drastically expanded security assistance for developing countries worldwide. Western aid has particularly targeted Global South states at-risk from transnational militancy. U.S. and European security assistance represents a second major factor that has contributed to border fortification in the Global South. In particular, Western security assistance has taken on a distinct border security focus since 2001. Through aid and training programs, Global North donor states hope to bolster the border enforcement capacities of recipient developing countries—especially those suffering civil conflict.

The provision of funds and equipment, and the transfer of technocratic practices of border enforcement through these assistance programs have prompted recipient developing countries to pursue overt displays of sovereignty and authority at their borders. In many cases, Western border security assistance directly underwrites the costs of barrier construction. For instance, the U.S. funded construction of border posts in Jordan intended to protect that country from transnational militants in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Whereas civil conflict provides a new incentive for border hardening in the Global South, these aid programs increase the ability of Global South countries to wall their borders.

Understanding the factors shaping border security policymaking in the Global South is crucial because of the gap between existing, North-centric theories and the empirical reality of border fortification, which is concentrated in the developing world. This gap is especially important because border security is likely to follow a unique path in post-colonial states. To understand why many Global South states have fortified their borders, it is important to consider unique factors like militancy and foreign aid.

About the Author

Christopher Blair is an Instructor, converting to Assistant Professor in Fall 2023, in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His work spans international relations and comparative politics, with a substantive focus on the political economy of conflict and migration. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. from the University of Virginia.

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