Mauritania is a desert country, with as little as 0.5% of its land considered arable. Bordering Senegal, Mali, and a disputed region of Morocco, it has a population of about 4.3 million (2016). Its population density of 3.9 inhabitants per square kilometer makes it the fourth least densely populated country in Africa.
After its independence from France in1960, Mauritania enjoyed political stability until a bloodless military coup in July 1978 ousted its first president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah. A coup in August 2008 brought General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to power. He won elections in 2009, and was reelected in 2014 for a second and last term. However, a referendum in 2017 has kept him in power, along with suppressing the Senate and establishing Regional Councils for local development, a new national flag and anthem, and a single Haut Conseil de la Fatwa et des Recours Gracieux (High Council of Fatwa and Appeal s Court). Presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. The political landscape is polarized, with the Union pour la République (Union for the Republic, UPR)—the ruling party of a majority that includes several small parties—on one side, and the opposition Forum national pour la démocratie et l’Unité (National Front for Democracy and Unity, FNDU) a coalition of political parties, such as Tawassal (Islamic Brothers), and civil organizations and independents.
Helped by a prudent fiscal policy and the gradual recovery of global mineral prices, Mauritania has emerged from the fall in commodity prices. Real GDP growth recovered to 3.5% percent in 2017 from 2% in 2016, pushed primarily by improved performances in the fisheries, livestock, manufacturing, and commerce sectors. With its population growing at about 3%, the pace of the economic recovery nevertheless remains slow, leading to only a small rise of 1.1% in real per capita income. This jeopardizes gains made in poverty reduction between 2008 and 2014.
Budgetary tightening, coupled with a rebound in mining exports, has led to a drop in the current account deficit—from 15.8% of GDP in 2016 to 11% in 2017. This has reduced external financing pressures and kept a stable level of central bank reserves, estimated at 5.1 month of imports. The size of the deficit remains a structural challenge for macro policies in Mauritania, however, as does the concentration of external resources in extractives-related Foreign Direct Investment, and foreign borrowing for public investment.
Mauritania experienced sustained GDP growth from 2008 to 2014, accompanied by significant improvements in household welfare. The annual real growth in mean household expenditure per capita was 1.52 percent. All quantiles did well and there was a sharp decline in the poverty headcount—from 44.5 % of the country’s population in 2008 to 33% in 2014. Changes in welfare have been pro-poor, with the poor and the extreme poor performing better than the non-poor. Inequality, measured by the Gini index, decreased from 35.3 in 2008 to 31.9 in 2014. These developments are explained by improvements in production, productivity, and income in rural areas following the restructuring of the agricultural and livestock sector, and by other factors such as internal migration and changes in relative prices.
Despite the progress, though, some population groups have been left behind, and the country is still lagging behind too in many social dimensions. Poverty has not fallen in the capital, Nouakchott, probably because migration to urban areas tends to self-select, making it likely that the poorest of the poor migrate to it. Labor force participation and the employment rate have not improved, and groups which are marginalized from social progress, such as the youth, women, and low-income workers are increasingly marginalized. Only 55 percent of children aged 6 to 11 are enrolled in primary school, one third of households live in precarious housing, and 38% of people use electricity as a source of lighting.
Mauritania faces multiple development challenges: three areas need to be tackled if the “extract and export” model of development is to be transformed into sustainable economic diversification and job creation.
First, the weak management of extractive rents is a binding constraint to inclusive growth in the short- to medium-term as it limits the optimal and pro-poor use of revenue and impedes economic diversification. Mauritania benefits from abundant, diversified mineral wealth. However, setbacks in attracting private investment, the weak performance of the iron ore parastatal company, and comparatively low revenue generation limit the exploitation of the country’s wealth. Even the most favorable view of mining extractives is that most, large-scale extractive industries create disproportionately few jobs. Mauritania is an example of this.
Second, the failure to harness Mauritania’s other natural endowments in livestock and fisheries constrains prospects of diversification and employment. The economic potential of livestock exports remains untapped, notwithstanding the sector’s significance inside the country: the sector’s share of the economy was conservatively estimated at about 16% from 2005 to 2015. The sector provides over 75% of the value-added goods in the agri-pastoral sector, revenue to roughly one million individuals, plays a key role in food security and resilience, and serves as a means of capital accumulation and insurance, especially among the poorest. But though the sector benefited from higher prices for its products, production has stagnated. The higher price trend may not continue, especially if lower mineral rents spill over into lower demand for food in urban areas. The livestock sector is subject to acute desertification and climate change stresses. Despite having some of the richest resources in the world, Mauritania’s fisheries sector is also performing below potential. The sector faces significant challenges in sustainability and in the generation of local revenue and employment.
Third, the rapid pace of urbanization in Mauritania hinders the emergence of productive and inclusive urban centers of growth. Mauritania has the second highest rate of urbanization on the continent. The heavy flow of drought-affected rural and nomadic populations into its cities has created challenges in planning and the provision of services. Few of the positive effects ordinarily associated with agglomeration have emerged: urban centers are characterized by informality, poor infrastructure, poor service coverage, self-employment, and weak human capital—characteristics neither favorable to attracting the private sector to invest nor to creating an enabling environment for the development of higher-productivity services and tertiary sectors.
Last Updated: May 16, 2018