Informal transborder trade networks and regional integration: towards an ethnographic study of networks

Regional integration projects in Africa have often been criticised by political science and international relations scholars, drawing attention to the difference between regionalism and regionalisation. Regionalism is defined as the ideology and the respective set of policies and programmes that seek to unify a certain region politically, economically and socially, an ideology that seeks to ‘promote an identified space as a regional project’ (Bach, 2004: 2). Regionalisation, on the other hand, has been described as the act of integration itself. In other words, while regionalism is the ideology, regionalisation is the process. While ideology could be the exclusive preserve of the state, regionalisation is an act over which the state does not exercise exclusive authority. Actors who do not have explicit regionalism ideologies are often involved in the regionalisation process. One could then have NGOs, media, multinational corporations, informal traders, among others, as regionalisation forces. It is argued that regional integration projects would be more successful if they moved beyond the ideology of regionalism and paid attention to the actual processes of regionalisation. In particular, there have been assertions that analyses of regional integration processes in Africa should look at informal transborder traders as potential sources of regional integration from below, especially since they are the ones who experience the effects of the border, and whose livelihood depends on not being bound by the borders of any particular country (Bøås et al. 1999, Bøås, 2001). This project seeks in part to heed that call.

The main question that the project seeks to answer is: Can informal transborder trade networks act as regional integration forces in West Africa? This question, however, only leads to the most important part of the study; the enquiry into the network of transborder traders. The project will look at the institutions within the networks and the interactions between individuals and between individuals and institutions – the rules, norms and strategies that regulate these institutions and interactions. The aim is to capture the nuanced realities, power structures and social relations within informal transborder trade networks. Special attention will be paid to processes of identity formation and identification within the network of traders, to issues of ethnicity and other forms of identification and to the management of conflict. These become especially important when one considers that these networks necessarily have to include citizens of other countries, since they extend beyond the boundaries of individual nation-states.


Bach, Daniel. 2004. Integration theory, globalisation and New Regionalism: Anything to Glean from Africa? Presented at the Fifth Pan-European Conference, Netherlands Congress Centre, The Hague, September 9-11

Bøås, Morten, Marianne Marchand, and Tim Shaw. 1999. ‘New Regionalisms in the New Millennium’. Third World Quarterly 20(5), pp. 897-910.

Bøås, Morten. 2001. ‘Regions and regionalisation: A heretic’s view’. In: Regionalism and Regional Integration in Africa, Discussion Paper 11, Nordiska Africainstitutet, Uppsala, Sweden

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