Mauritania is a mostly desert country, such that only 0.5% of the land is considered arable. The country has a population of about 4.1 million people, and the density of 3.9 inhabitants per square kilometer makes it the fourth least densely populated country in the whole of Africa.
Independent from France since 1960, Mauritania enjoyed political stability until a bloodless military coup in July 1978 ousted the first President Mokhtar Ould Daddah. The last coup, on August 6, 2008, brought to power General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Mauritania accelerated poverty reduction during the commodity boom, making it a leading performer in the region. Until the early 2000s, Mauritania had been on a slow poverty reduction trajectory, with a decline in the poverty rate of slightly below 1% on average per year. The average rate of poverty reduction accelerated to around 1.5 percentage points a year during the commodity super-cycle, 2004–2014. In particular, during 2008–2014, Mauritania experienced a significant reduction in poverty, as the poverty rate dropped from 44.5% to 33.0% (based on the national poverty line of MRO 177,200). In the same period, extreme poverty halved, with the rate declining from 10.8% to 5.6%, based on the international absolute extreme poverty line of $1.90 (purchasing power parity). Poverty reduction has been robust, as confirmed by subjective perceptions of poverty, and is consistent across selected poverty lines and poverty indicators (the poverty rate and the poverty gap or severity of poverty). Cross-country benchmarking confirms that Mauritania’s performance in poverty reduction was above average. Poverty elasticity to GDP growth was the fourth highest in Africa, after South Africa, Madagascar, and Botswana.
Poverty reduction has been reinforced by positive dynamics in terms of inequality and vulnerability. Driven by the robust, pro-poor profile of household expenditure growth, inequality, as measured by the Gini Index, declined from 35.3 to 31.9 in 2008–14. Moreover, various estimates show a decrease in vulnerability in 2008–2014, indicating improved endowments associated with consumption. The share of the hard-core poor—people who are both poor and likely to remain poor in the future—dropped by half, from 32.8% to 15.6%. The strong decline in poverty has been driven mostly by developments in rural areas, where the majority of the poor are located, while Nouakchott has experienced a slight increase in poverty.
After decades of sluggish performance, Mauritania’s GDP growth has accelerated over the last 15 years, but is now cooling down with the end of the commodity super-cycle. Mauritania experienced robust GDP growth, averaging 5.5% between 2003 and 2015 when international commodity prices rose to historic levels. Growth performance was close to the average for Sub-Saharan Africa, and represented a marked improvement over the 1990s, when annual growth averaged only 2.7%. After proving resilient to the end of the commodity super-cycle in 2014, GDP growth in 2015 receded to 3% on the back of a negative terms of trade shock and a drop in mining and oil production of 15.7% and 11.0%, respectively, year-on-year.
Booming revenue from the narrow extractives sector has been the main driver of higher economic growth. The value of mineral exports jumped from US$318 million in 2003 to US$2,652 million in 2013, despite generally stagnant mining production. Extractives represented, on average, 25% of GDP, 82% of exports, and 23% of domestic revenue. The terms of trade improvement is estimated to have brought, on average, 2.5% additional national income per year. The mining boom translated into large foreign investments in the extractives sector and significant state-driven public investments.
Mauritania faces multiple development challenges. Three priority constraint areas will need to be tackled if the “extract and export” model is to be effectively 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 both the optimal and pro-poor use of revenue and impedes economic diversification. Mauritania benefits from abundant, diversified mineral wealth. However, setbacks in attracting private investments, the weak performance of the iron ore parastatal company, and comparatively low revenue generation limit the optimal and sustainable exploitation of the country’s resource wealth. Even the most favorable outlook establishes that most large-scale extractive industries create disproportionately few jobs. This has been exemplified by Mauritania.
Second, the failure to harness the full potential of Mauritania’s largest non-extractive natural endowments in livestock and fisheries constrains the country’s prospects for economic diversification and employment creation. The economic potential of livestock exports remains untapped, notwithstanding the sector’s significance. National accounts estimate that the sector’s share in the economy was on average 16% between 2005 and 2015, which is likely to be underestimated in light of the high degree of informality in livestock operations. It represents over three-quarters of the value-added in the agro-pastoral sector, provides revenues 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. Though the pastoral economy benefited from higher prices for livestock products, production stagnated. The higher price trend may not continue, especially if lower mineral rents spill over into lower demand for food in urban areas. Moreover, the sector is subject to acute desertification and climate change stresses. Mauritania’s fisheries sector, despite having some of the richest resources in the world, is also performing below potential. The sector faces significant challenges in sustainability and in the generation of local revenue and employment.
Finally, the rapid and outpaced management of urbanization in Mauritania hinders the eventual emergence of productive and inclusive urban centers of growth. Mauritania has the second highest rate of urbanization on the continent. The fast-paced expansion of urban centers, induced by the heavy flow of drought-affected rural and nomadic populations into the cities, has created inordinate 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, and poor service coverage, self-employment and weak human capital—characteristics which are 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: Apr 19, 2017