Trade between Ethiopia and Kenya on Dawa River. UNDP / Matteo Frontini

It is one thing for African states to test extensively for COVID-19, lock down populations, and flatten the curve in capital cities. It won’t be easy. But it is another thing entirely to combat the disease in the margins of the state, where governance, commerce, and violence are intimately woven into cross-border dynamics of trade and mobility.  

Borderlands in Africa play host to an estimated 270 million inhabitants, a combined population significantly larger than any single state on the continent. These regions are inadequately served by national development initiatives. The problem stems from an apparent paradox: borderlands are both sub-national and inter-national at the same time. They are made up of sub-state districts, while also straddling international borders. This poses an enormous challenge for development initiatives that are funded and implemented at the national level, with data collection, analysis, and project work extending just as far as the border, but no further.


“If COVID-19 is endemic in the periphery, the centre cannot safely be reopened.”

COVID-19 doesn’t care about borders, and it thrives in the territories surrounding them -- in communities for whom the state and its promises of healthcare and security are not much more than a distant glow; where governance falls to a mismatched cohort of municipal, traditional, religious, and violent authorities; where rumours and misinformation spread as quickly as medical advice and government edicts; and where limited testing means that the disease is still an invisible enemy. Supply chains to border regions were unreliable, even before border closures paralysed the continent and severed access to critical supplies, water, and essential medicines.

Borderlands are especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of disease control measures, in particular those that restrict movement and hinder informal trade. In the haste to combat the disease, these measures are not always justified by an analysis of the trade-offs between protecting public health and ensuring that people are able to meet their basic food and protection needs. In regions such as the Great Lakes, the result of enforcing these measures is likely to have a disproportionate effect on women, who make up the majority of traders in the extensive network of border markets between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

An opportunity to bring about lasting change

Public health emergencies in borderland regions also create opportunities to bring about lasting change. If action is taken fast, the worst effects of the crisis can still be mitigated. Lessons learned from recent Ebola epidemics show how emergency health facilities and health communications systems can endure beyond the lifespan of the current crisis. Marginalized communities can be engaged in a manner that builds trust, and that better integrates them into processes of national development. Temporary ceasefires between armed groups can be a steppingstone towards lasting peace. New digital technologies can be trialled and implemented in a way that may revolutionize the fight against zoonotic diseases in the future. Reopening borders can be done in a way that advances the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA) and that turns our attention to the livelihoods of the most vulnerable: women cross-border traders in the Great Lakes, for example, and unemployed youth in the Sahel.

“COVID-19 doesn’t care about borders, and it thrives in the territories surrounding them.”

Not acting would violate one of the core Sustainable Development Goals we all subscribe to, that no one is left behind. It would also be catastrophic for the global disease response effort. If COVID-19 is endemic in the periphery, the centre cannot safely be reopened.

In places such as Liptako-Gourma (between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger), the Mandera Triangle (between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia), and the Chad Basin (between Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria), what is needed is a coordinated response, one that treats these regions as distinct political and economic entities in their own right, not merely as the power vacuums between nations.

The work has already begun, with UNDP conducting Integrated cross-border programming in the Sahel to promote cross-border cooperation, build resilience to climate change, prevent and resolve conflicts, and empower women and youth. The innovative approaches coming out of these regions may be replicated in other contexts and provide a toolkit in the fight against the pandemic. But much more remains to be done.


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