Past the Water’s Edge: Mauritania

Past the Waters Edge: Mauritania

Kathleen Schaaf

Non-OECD countries making waves in international politics.

Official Name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Capital City: Nouakchott

Location: West Africa

Population: 3.8 million

Per Capita GDP: $2,200

Government Type: Republic, currently under military rule. Laws come from both Islamic law and French civil law.

Official Religion: Islam

Source: CIA World Factbook

Making Headlines: This past week, the Walk Free Foundation published the Global Slave Index examining modern  global slavery. Mauritania topped the list in proportion of the population living as slaves, with an estimated 140,000 to 160,000 slaves of its population of 3.8 million, equating to 3.7-4.2%. Most of Mauritania’s high number of slaves are due to a high rates of child marriages as well as human trafficking. Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981; it did not become a punishable offense until 2007. To this day, just one slave owner has been fully prosecuted for the act. The study estimates that 29.8 million people across the world today live as slaves. Defining modern slavery as “slavery, slave-like practices (such as debt bondage, forced marriage, and exploitation of children), human trafficking and forced labour,” the report ranks countries by proportion of the population living as slaves and well as by absolute number of slaves in the country. Haiti and Pakistan rank second and third in proportion of slaves, while India, China, and Pakistan are top three in absolute numbers. Especially notable is India’s nearly 14 million slaves, compared to next highest China’s 3 million slaves.

The report has received attention from media and government officials alike. Former United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton applauds the study’s ability to help find solutions to modern slavery while acknowledging the study’s imperfections, stating that the study “reminds us that trafficking in persons is a crime that affects every country in the world, that all governments have a responsibility to deal with this problem and that no government anywhere is doing enough.” Meanwhile, Haiti questions the findings of the study and its spot on the list, noting the lack of validity in such survey research and highlighting the programs the government has initiated to help curb its rate of child labor.

Country Outlook: Mauritania’s unsettled past and long list of challenges mean that growth and improvement of quality of life in Mauritania will be difficult, but it’s not without hope. Freed from French colonial rule in 1960, several leaders have been ousted in military coups. In the past 7 years, Mauritania has undergone democratic elections prompting a shift from military to civilian rule in 2007, only to undergo yet another military coup in 2008 putting General Mohamed Ould Abdel AZIZ in command. He remains in power today, in cooperation with the military. Many of Mauritania’s struggles stem from its extreme poverty – an estimated 40 percent of its population lives on less than $2 a day. Amid the Arab Spring movement coursing through northern Africa, Mauritania experienced protests similar to the rest of the Arab League, on the basis of political, social, and economic disenfranchisement. Recently, Mauritania has faced increased threat of terrorism by al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb as well as continuing to experience ethnic tensions between its black and white and black Moor populations.

Despite these challenged, Mauritania has found some areas for economic growth. Over half of its population continues to rely on subsistence agriculture, but rich natural resources provide opportunities for export-led growth. While growth from oil wealth has yet to materialize as some analysts had hoped following its discovery in 2001, the country is a strong exporter of iron ore, accounting for over 40% of its total exports. Its rich fishing waters carry potential for future industry, but risk depletion by foreign fishers. Despite these challenges, Mauritania’s annual growth rate reached 6.0% in 2012.

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