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.