Guest Post: The Long, Long Road from Talking Transparency to Curbing Corruption in Mauritania

GAB is delighted to welcome back Till Bruckner, an international development expert who recently spent six months living Mauritania, and contributes the following guest post based on his experience there:

What do fish and iron have in common? Answer: Mauritania, a largely desert country of less than four million people in north-western Africa, is immensely rich in both. At the same time, most Mauritanians are poor. And one of the biggest reasons is corruption and misgovernance.

Consider first fishing. Although Mauritania has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, its marine wealth is carried away by foreign ships whose owners often bribe senior government figures to obtain fishing permits and take their catch straight to Europe or Asia. As a result, the country has failed to develop a significant fishing industry, or domestic fish processing industry, of its own, and a fishing industry that boasts an annual catch of half a million tons generates a mere 40,000 jobs inside Mauritania. Yet to the south, Senegal translates a catch of similar size into at least 130,000 jobs, while to the north, Morocco has turned its million-ton-a-year catch into a massive export industry whose turnover is projected to reach two billion dollars by the end of this decade.

Inland, deep in the Sahara, some mountains contain more metal than rock, consisting of up to 75% iron, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Mauritania nationalized its iron mines in 1974, creating the state-owned monopoly company SNIM. Its workers blast the slopes to rubble, and conveyor belts transport the rubble into waiting railway waggons. The longest train in the world then chugs its way across 700 kilometres of desert, loads its cargo onto giant foreign freighters—and neither the ore nor most of the money paid for it are ever seen again. The looting dynamics in Mauritania’s mining sector are illustrated by the stark contrast between Zouerate, the town in the Sahara where the iron is mined—which looks like a dystopian hellhole straight out of a Mad Max film—and the rich suburbs of the capital city of Nouakchott (which produces virtually nothing), where giant villas rise out of the sand, and oversized SUVs cruise the streets. And in Nouakchott itself, in the poor suburbs, families living five to a windowless room have to pay for their drinking water by the barrel.

The preferred prescription in a situation like this (from the usual suspects: development professionals, anticorruption activists, etc.) is a combination of transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring. But Mauritania is actually doing well on those dimensions.

Mauritania has more free speech, and more political freedom generally, than its neighbor Morocco. Critical newspapers frequently run stories attacking the president, ministers, and top generals – but little if anything changes as a result. The watchdogs bark, the caravan moves on. Similarly, the lengthy compliance reports of the national office of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the press releases of the local Publish What You Pay coalition seem to change nothing. They probably have a double-digit readership at best, and nearly all of that audience lives abroad. These “civil society groups” are foreign implants, often run by people who acquired their ideas during time spent abroad, and the endless stream of paper they produce speaks in a language that is alien even to the minority of Mauritanians who can read and write complex texts. These groups appear to have zero impact on curbing corruption. For every donor dollar invested, the theft of extractive revenues decreases by zilch.

So, am I saying that it’s all hopeless, and that the resources that have gone into supporting local pro-transparency and pro-accountability NGOs have been a waste of time and money? Actually, no. Admittedly, these groups may have had no measurable impact on the amounts of resources pilfered so far, and we shouldn’t try to obfuscate that fact. But I am more optimistic over the long term, for two reasons:

  • First, any reductions in corruption levels and improvements in governance will take a long time, and may not follow the rational-legal pathways pioneered in China and Europe. Only two generations ago, most of Mauritania’s population lived in the desert or in small villages, where the very concept of government was unknown, and non-democratic inequalities are deeply entrenched in its social structure. We need to acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, Mauritania will not witness the emergence of Western-style accountability dynamics. As a friend of mine who is involved in local politics put it, “This is a young country. It’s still under construction.”
  • Second, while it is easy to laugh off local NGOs as incompetent freeloading donor puppets (face it, that’s exactly what many of them are), these tiny groups can play an incredibly valuable – if unquantifiable – role by accelerating the spread of novel ideas like transparency and bureaucratic accountability, setting new standards and introducing useful tools along the way. Also, compared to the billions at high risk of corruption in extractive industries, or the millions that donors are pouring into infrastructure development in Mauritania, the local counterparts of international groups like Publish What You Pay, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the Fisheries Transparency Initiative cost mere pennies to keep alive.

In other words, change is already underway, but it will come slowly, and from within. Ideas take time to spread, and attitudes take time to shift. If donors want to curb corruption in Mauritania and similar countries, they should by all means continue to support local transparency groups. However, at the same time, they must ask themselves whether short-term impact metrics, hundred-page NGO reports and workshops in five star hotels are really the smartest way to support the spread of new ideas and feed into local dynamics of social change. So yes, supporting these groups can help – but it would help even more if donors could bring themselves to abandon the fantasy of a direct causal relationship between funding for local NGOs and immediate tangible reductions in corruption levels, and instead rethink their “civil society” support strategies in terms of accelerating the spread of new memes.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Long, Long Road from Talking Transparency to Curbing Corruption in Mauritania

  1. First rate analysis that tracks my own experiences. Those at foreign-funded NGOs now producing those zillion page reports may tomorrow be government officials, and the experience and knowledge gained from working in an NGO (and even writing those reports that few in country read) will serve them well. I willl hope to read a follow up analysis in 20 years.

  2. While I’m familiar with Moroccan corruption after living there for a few years, it is difficult to comprehend what Mauritanian civil society looks like. I am reminded of a Moroccan friend (an active member of CSOs), who said, after visiting Mauritania, that he never realized how nice and wealthy Morocco is.

    The idea of creating ‘memes’ is an excellent one, and I believe some national EITI offices have been translating multi-hundred page reports into digestible, understandable informational tidbits by adapting the findings into media that are consumable by the population. For example, Indonesia’s EITI has turned reports into comic books, radio, tv, and interactive maps [http://progrep.eiti.org/2016/platform-for-progress/bridging-information-gap]. Of course, Indonesia is not Mauritania, and their literacy rates vary dramatically (52% v. 94%), so charts and comic books would be less desirable media than radio.

    At best, Mauritanian civil society is in its nascent stage. But sooner or later, there will be nothing left to mine and nothing left to pull out of the oceans, and so it is essential that civil society grows quickly. The barriers are, of course, discouraging- after all, this is a country where between 4 and 17% of the population is enslaved, despite government claims to the contrary.

  3. Great post. Mauritania seems to be a good example of how perverse and devastating the effects of corruption on the development of a country are. For those who still think that corruption is a minor problem, the post illustrates just the opposite: countries endowed with natural resources – which ideally could be reverted into assets for its population, providing the welfare of present and future generations – can fall in disgrace if corruption becomes a common practice among its politicians and citizens. Not surprisingly, it is quite common that countries tremendously rich in natural resources follow the same path of misgovernance and corruption followed by Mauritania.
    I agree when the post says that the prescription in Mauritania’s case is “a combination of transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring”. These are well-tested measures which are known as being critical in the long and arduous process of fighting corruption. However, I would add one more: political will of making structural changes in public institutions and of enacting anti-corruption laws.

  4. An interesting post! The contrast between Mauritania and its neighboring countries is especially interesting. The claim that Mauritania is doing relatively well on transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring further raises a question why corruption is still rampant. The story is fascinating but I am a little disappointed that the post towards the end stops short of providing an in-depth analysis on some of the interesting issues.

    And the two reasons that the author feels optimistic in the long run do not sound very convincing. Reduction of corruption level takes a long time but good changes may not necessarily happen in the long run. International groups can play an invaluable role in reducing corruption but that is highly dependent on local political and economic structures. I do not disagree with the two points themselves, but just think they are too general and do not necessarily justify the optimism in the Mauritania context (maybe they do but it is not entirely clear). Being optimistic and continuing to support anticorruption efforts are certainly good but the more difficult question is how real changes could be made.

  5. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. As the variety of comments they have evoked so far clearly shows, they resonate with many different interests, My understanding of the main message of this post is that slamming NGOs for the seemingly intractable levels and effects of corruption in Mauritania, be it with more than a hint that the NGO sector has serious issues. I do not know Mauritania, but it all sounds familiar from the perspective of my own experience in very different countries (Cambodia and Nepal). Based on that experience, I fully agree with not blaming it all on the ineffectiveness of NGO work. Their problems are a co-creation, and thus co-responsibility, of those funding and those implementing. A parallel observation, not made in this post, but humorously but poignantly described in the “The 7 deadly sins of donor-driven democracy promotion” post that this one links to (which I strongly recommend to any GAB reader not very familiar with the development aid sector; it’s a terrific read) is that the same donors can be assumed to also be co-creators of the dismal governance of Mauritania. The combination a power elite that allows watchdogs to bark and other political freedoms (as long as they do not have a grassroots organizing aspect I assume) and a substantial donor flow to the state for infrastructure strongly suggests a “everyone happy scenario”. The donors get the ticks they need to make themselves look good (whatever the true objectives of this aid may be about which one can only speculate if one knows about Mauritania and its place in geo-politics), and the elite having to use even less of the loot to produce some evidence of ‘development’ (which every government needs to keep some measure of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace). Thinking about this from the perspective of the value-chain of aid, and unpacking the term “donor” into the variety of entities with very different objectives and interests that it subsumes (the recently published guide for aid recipients by Carothers et al. – Navigating International Aid in Transitions – is a good example of that unpacking) may be helpful in strategizing how to make money work more effectively for actual change. Aid directly disbursed by those with geo-political interests won’t change, but funding intermediaries, lower down the aid chain have more leeway to be innovative. Politically astute (local) NGOs can work their way around the constraints that come with the funding they receive, funding intermediaries are equally able to do so. There are not that many of that kind of local NGOs, nor of that kind of grantmaking intermediaries around, but for players within the aid system that can be expected to make a difference, that is still where i would put my hopes.

  6. Pingback: The Long, Long Road from Talking Transparency to Curbing Corruption in Mauritania | Anti Corruption Digest

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