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. Continue reading

Guest Post: Pro-Transparency Organizations Fail To Practice What They Preach

Till Bruckner, freelance journalist and Advocacy Manager for Transparify (an initiative that rates the financial transparency of think tanks and advocacy groups), contributes the following guest post in a private capacity:

“Transparency” is the watchword of the international anticorruption movement, a fact perhaps best illustrated by Transparency International’s choice of name. And partly due to the efforts of TI and many other groups, the world has changed for the better: transparency has become the new norm. Yet many of the anticorruption groups themselves need to wake up to this reality, and become more transparent themselves. Indeed, those of us in the anticorruption community would do a lot better if we started to walk our transparency talk.

This fact was driven home to me in a recent exchange I had with Professor Peter Eigen, the living legend who helped found Transparency International, about his newest venture, the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI). FiTI aims to curb corruption in international fisheries, and if it works as planned, it could have a positive impact on many issues, including overfishing, food security, and public revenue in developing countries. Somewhat unconventionally, FiTI is financed by the government of Mauritania, whose controversial president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, first announced the initiative. (see my recent article in Foreign Policy for more background.) I asked Professor Eigen about Mauritania’s financial support for the FiTI; he explained that Mauritania was only sponsoring the initial conceptual phase of FiTI, and he persuasively argued that its government would have no undue influence, let alone control, over outcomes. I then asked Professor Eigen how much Mauritania was paying his organization (the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform) in connection with its work on the FiTI project, but he told me he didn’t want to disclose the figure. He explained:

“This is a normal consulting arrangement of our not-for-profit organization with the [Mauritanian] government. We do not feel it would be proper for us to disclose details of contracts. If media or taxpayers want to find out how [the] Government spends its budget, they can ask the Government. This is for FiTI an unimportant side issue.”

Professor Eigen added two more points. First, his organization would at some later point account for the money on its website. Second, he himself would be working “pro bono.”

Summary: There’s no influence peddling; the use of taxpayer funds is a domestic issue; all money will be accounted for; and nobody is lining their pockets. So, everything is okay, right?

No, it’s not okay at all. Here’s why: Continue reading