The Evolution of Borders: A Brief History

JacobProjects, SMART borders

Borders and ports of entry have become such a crucial part of trade and the movement of people and goods across borders, and their functions are quite clear. However, this has not always been the case, since boundaries were in many instances not as clearly defined as they are now. Furthermore, throughout modern history, borders served many different purposes compared to the present day.

The Roman Empire: Up until the early 17th century, borders across the Roman Empire were used as administrative or economic outposts, with very little or no military fortification. During the middle ages towards the start of the 17th century, most regions were divided by natural landmarks such as rivers, mountains, or deserts. However, due to a lack of distinct natural landmarks in early Britain, walls were erected to indicate territorial division.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Tribes, or groups of people, generally conglomerated in specific areas, far from one another. Contrary to modern civilisations, wars between tribes were not motivated by expanding tribal land or populations. Warfare also contributed to continual migration and movement, which supported the lack of interest in territories and strict borders. Like the Roman Empire, many tribal groups’ hunting, and agricultural activities were camped into specific areas through rocky terrain, rivers, or other natural features.

In contrast to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East people used warfare to expand their borders and increase their reach. Towards the Eastern side, conflict or domination was also a way of reprimanding regions or groups that “behaved badly” or were considered barbarians. China’s great wall was constructed to bring a clear division between the Chinese Han dynasty and Mongol tribes. The previously used border comprising of semi-arid desert separating the two was not as effective as a barrier.

From antiquity to the 17th century: Borders were not about territories, but rather about containing or enclosing groups of people providing resources, paying taxes, or working as labourers. City walls and fortifications were elements of consolidating internal power, rather than protection against external threats. Treaties intended to divide up properties and rights over natural resources, much more than they did to shape borders between territories.

The Thirty Years War and the Westphalian Order: During the 17th-century war broke out in Europe, which lasted 30 years. The battle was initially motivated by conflicting religious motives but evolved into a war for total control over Europe. Towards the mid-17th century, all the participants’ resources were depleted, with over 8 million people dying in battle or war-induced famine. The war highlighted the need for a new set of rules to establish and keep the peace. During 1648, various parties involved in the conflict signed a series of treaties, called the Peace of Westphalia, which ultimately laid the groundwork for forming the modern nation-state.

The modern nation-state refers to the idea that residents living in a specific territory are subject to that state’s laws. Along with these laws also came the establishment of fixed boundaries for each country. This Westphalian Order spilt over into South America and Africa as well. Borders continued to change and shift during the first and second world war, and again during the cold war. Due to the continuous shifting of borders, 60% of European borders were drawn during the 20th century.

The role of customs in facilitating trade: Throughout the rise of modern civilisation, central governments have controlled and regulated goods and people moving between nations. These border controls’ original objective was to impose duties and other taxes on imports and exports to prevent smuggling and restrict unwanted people’s entry. Hence, customs administrations acted as gatekeepers, checking customs compliance at national borders. However, as international trade has grown exponentially in contemporary times, modern customs administrations’ gatekeeper role has become obsolete.

Instead, customs administrations’ broader role has taken on a more enabling role and have evolved into an extension of the local government’s arm, varying from country to country. Nonetheless, the core functions of a customs administration in modern times are covered in four main areas:

  • Revenue collection;
  • Regulatory compliance;
  • Trade facilitation;
  • Security.

Each focus area will depend on a country’s share of customs duties/tax in its national revenue. Nonetheless, each concept remains a source of risk for customs administrations which must be managed. Despite these risks, customs administrations need to balance the speedy flow of goods and people and maintain the efficacy of its control measures. Luckily, technology has become a crucial ally in this endeavour.

The rise of technology and its influence in 20th-century borders: From the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century maps were primarily considered an aesthetic representation of the word, more symbolistic than realistic. Mapping became more accurate and essential as explorers started discovering new countries, territories and even islands. This advancement led to the evolution from maps as art pieces to maps as elements of power, evidence of claim to territories. Towards the very end of the 20th century, aerial and satellite photography, GPS, and data processing allowed us to create more accurate and definitive borderlines.

During the late 20th century, technology started to change how we perceived borders and continued to do so. Now, technologies allow us to monitor who and what moves across each border and record these movements. As technology develops, and the world becomes more integrated, more people and goods want to move across borders. People want to travel from one country to another for business and leisure or feed their curiosity and experience new things. More goods are moving across borders than ever before, albeit currently being interrupted by the COVID pandemic of course. The increase is partly due to the variety of goods available worldwide, and people’s knowledge and desire for things that they cannot buy locally, or not as cheap locally.

Along with the influx of people and goods moving across borders, traversing borders’ complexity has also increased. Countries want to prevent people from entering their territories without the necessary documentation, confirming that they are who they say they are, for example. They also want to avoid illegal goods such as drugs, weapons, (and in some cases alcohol), etc., from moving across borders. Of course, these movements are often a large stream of income for many developing countries regarding duties and tariffs. Different government agencies have become involved in protecting other interests, requiring a specific set of documents or information to enter the country. With all these regulations, it has become much more challenging to move from one country to another. The challenge is partly due to the number of people and goods that do so, and in part due to the high number of procedures countries put in place to prevent the illegal movement of goods and people.

With the rapid rise of the fourth industrial revolutions, some borders have started implementing technology to simplify procedures, improve security, increase data collection accuracy, and store data more efficiently. Initiatives such as One-Stop Border Posts, Single Window Systems, Authorised Economic Operators, Bond Guarantees, GPS tracking, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) among other advancements, are once more changing the entire landscape of cross border trade. Data collected from cargo moving across borders and results of inspections have allowed customs officials to identify, manage and mitigate risks. All these technological advancements can be collectively included under the WCO’s umbrella term – SMART borders.

SMART borders: In 2019 the WCO selected the slogan “SMART borders for seamless Trade, Travel and Transport” as the theme for the year, SMART being an acronym for Secure, Measurable, Automated, Risk Management-based, and Technology-driven. The SMART border concept aims to encourage WCO members to move towards a technology-driven environment that can facilitate and expedite people and goods’ movement across borders while maintaining and even enhancing controls. SMART borders should encourage the development of interconnected border agencies that operate in a transparent and trustworthy environment.

The concept is not one specific measure that needs to be implemented or changed. Instead, SMART borders are an overall way of doing things, ranging from porous manual border procedures to quick and effective digital processes. Because the SMART borders-concept is such a broad topic of discussion, it opens discussions on Electronic Single Window Systems, Authorized Economic Operators, and other similar processes and initiatives. All these things have in common are a common goal to speed up the movement of goods (and people) across borders while reducing the cost. (More on SMART borders under our projects)

As technology has integrated the world, it has also, to an extent, allowed us to start integrating several geographical territories under the same border rules. For example, the European Union’s borders are so integrated that goods can be moved across several countries with minimal restrictions. For instance, single-window systems have allowed integration or cooperation between different countries and between various government agencies.

Technology has brought people together throughout the past two or three decades, and globalisation has connected people to goods and services worldwide. The internet has created opportunities to simplify trading across borders and provided us with an entirely new genre of goods, digital goods, and services. Allowing people to live in one country and do work in another, allowing MSMEs to leverage e-commerce and modify their goods at low costs to meet new demands.

Concluding remarks: The concept of borders is expected to evolve as humankind and technology evolve continually. However, the onus is on the role players active in the trade environment to ensure that border-specific technologies continue to break new ground and simplify and speed up customs and trade-related procedures.

Unfortunately, many of these ambitious plans and dreams were brought to a screeching halt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Borders closed, countries were locked down, trade was reduced, borders were congested, businesses closed. Decades of working towards an integrated world, working towards people and goods’ free movement halted in a few months.

The sudden closure of borders and the restrictions on trade and business has shown us, more than ever, how important trade is to a country, and the global economy. It highlighted how integrated the supply chain has become, and how reliant countries are on each other. Unfortunately, the limited movement of people and reduced capacity of operations at borders (land, air, and sea) also showed us some big pressure points in our border posts, our governments, and our institutions.