Islamic Republic of Mauritania
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Contributor: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Contact: Jean Bonnal

Islamic Republic of Mauritania

The terms and data used in this publication are in no way an indication of the authors' position relating to the legal status of the countries, territories, cities and zones mention, or of their authorities or borders

A. General Country Data

Surface Area1,030,700 sq. km
Population (millions)2.4
Population Growth2.5%
Urban Population53.8%
Density (1995)2 inh/sq. km
GDP (1994) Billions US $1.1
GDP per Capita US $ 458
Currency Ouguiya
National Budget24% of GDP
Human Development Indicator0.254
HDI Ranking (out of 174 countries)158

Borders, Topography and Climate

Situated in the Saharan region of West Africa, Mauritania fronts the Atlantic Ocean on the west, is bordered by Western Sahara on the northwest, Algeria on the north, Mali on the east and southeast, and Senegal on the southwest. Except for the valley of the River Senegal on the south, two thirds of Mauritania is within the Sahara Desert. The worn down relief is composed of sediments, rocky debris (regs), and of sandy deposits (dunes) from which emerge here and there massifs of low altitude, most often of a tabular shape, eroded under the force of strong winds. Altitudes vary from 150 m in the south-west to about 460 m in the north-east.

Mauritania has a desert climate. During the day and for more than six months per year, temperatures reach 88 degrees centigrade, but nights are cool. The coastal region is temperate. Annual rainfall varies from less than 130 mm in rhe north to about 660 mm in the valley of the River Senegal.

Characteristics, and Recent Developments of the Political System

The extant constitution goes back to 12 July 1991, having been approved by referendum at 97%. The constitution proclaims that Mauritania is an Arab and African Islamic Republic with the charia as its organic law. In accordance with the constitution, the president is the chief executive, elected by universal suffrage for a six-year term, assisted by a prime minister and a bicameral legislature, composed of a National Assembly and a Senate. Even though democracy and multi-party politics are enshrined in the constitution, the very strong influence of the president appears in the possibility of being reelected an unlimited number of times, the very short parliamentary sessions, as well as the powers of the government to set the legislative agenda.

The country is divided into 12 regions (each governed by a council), and a district (the capital and the largest city). Nouakchott, the capital, was created in 1957, from a military outpost, where the Maure country of normads meets the country of the sedentary population of the River Senegal. It has continually attracted populations from the interior and its population will soon reach 700, 000.

Agriculture in Mauritania

Agriculture employs 67% of the work force and contributes a third of the GDP. The agricultural sector is basically farming for food crops and the raising of cattle and sheep by nomads. The principal crops are : dates, millet, sorghum, rice, and various roots. Agricultural production is insufficient during droughts. It has been maintained in spite of the lack of water (made up for by drilling of wells for underground water). There continues to be a deficit of water supply on account of the high population growth. The raising of livestock is the principal economic activity in the Maure country : cattle, sheep, goats (leather,skins, milk, meat...). Mauritania also earns income through the sale of fishing rights.

Years of drought and overgrazing and deforestation are increasing the desert region of the country. A plan for a dam on the River Senegal aims at increasing water supply and making it more regular but would inevitably have a negative impact on the ecosystem.

Current Economic Situation

The country depends mostly on international aid which is 20% of its annual GDP. In spite of this aid the economy remains stagnant. In 1989 an economic stabilization agreement was signed with IMF; it was a continuation of the structural adjustment program of 1985, which itself was completed in 1991 by an agricultural structural adjustment program. In 1993 Mauritania reestablished the adjustment program and streamlined its finances as a result of an agreement with the Paris Club, allowing it to reduce its public debt by about 50%. An economic recovery plan was implemented through the privatization of many public enterprises. In 1996 the recovery plan was maintained under the aegis of international financial organizations. Since 1991, it has been followed by the institution of a decentralization process.

B. On-going Decentralization Process

Background, Objectives, and Legal Framework

The first decentralization law was voted in 1986 but the decentralization process effectively started in 1991when the central authorities decided to follow the recommendations of international organizations, which saw decentralization as an appropriate solution to the problem of diminishing resources, and as a way of continuing the restructuring of the economy started with the privatization process launched the same year.

Functions, Resources, and Autonomy of Decentralized Entities

Decentralization transferred extensive responsibilities to the local level especially regarding decision-making and finances. Consultation, implementation and control functions are shared by the regional and local levels. However, these two levels were not given the financial resources that they need to carry out their functions. The local level has more autonomy in the use of resources than the regional level even though it is overseen by the Ministry of Interior.

C. Decentralization and Rural Development

Forms of Decentralization, Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Formulation

Decentralization in the agricultural and rural sectors began in 993 but its implementation timetable was interrupted due to the weak organizational capacity as well as the low financial resources of the local level. The dominant form of decentralization involving rural development has been the extensive deconcentration of state services, followed by a limited delegation of powers to semi-public entities. Devolution of powers has been on the whole, very limited, whether it be to subnational governments or to civil society organizations. Deconcentration involving the restructuring of the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment (MDRE) started in 1993. With regard to the agricultural sector in particular, rather than the local level, it was the regional level which was targeted because of its strong technical and financial capacity, which it was thought would support the process and contribute towards the training of the local level to carry out its new functions and responsibilities.

Within this context, rural development planning and strategic policy formulation have been modified even though they remain basically the responsibility of the national level : ascending procedures have been incorporated with regard to policy formulation. This has made it possible for national policies to be moderately modified according to region, and for them to be extensively modified depending on type of production. If local participation is limited to consultations, there is some amount of coordination with the regional level in government intervention. The modalities for coordination in matters relating to equipment and rural infrastructure are classic and have been noticed in different countries. They involve on the one hand, decision-making and financing at the national level, and on the other, control, monitoring and evaluation at the regional level.

Decentralization and Agricultural Support Services

With regard to the decentralization of the major agricultural support services, regions were assigned the responsibility for the formulation of policy regarding credit and inputs, whereas policy formulation regarding training, extension services, research, credit and irrigation remained the exclusive domain of the national level. The same goes for the financing of these services, which remains the responsibility of the national level except for that of inputs, which is assigned to the regional level.

The assignment of functions is more varied in the area of service delivery. Though the public sector remains dominant in the delivery of research services, it shares this role with NGOs for training and extension services, and with the private sector for irrigation services. The private sector has beyond that, a predominant role in the supply of inputs and shares this role with producer organizations with regard to everything involving agricultural credit.

Support Policies, Constraints and Evaluation of the Decentralization Process

Mauritania did not deem it indispensable to support decentralization with an information dissemination policy. Instead, it gave priority to the training of technical services and subnational governments on the new responsibilities and support for producer organizations. Consequently, there are two major constraints on the decentralization process : on the one hand, the weak capacity of lecal governments and civil society organizations, and on the other, the want of coordination between levels of government and at the same time the need for a nework for consultations.

In spite of these problems, the process of decentralization seems to have had a positive impact not only on agricultural services and on anti-poverty measures, but also on production infrastructure (roads, irrigation, warehouses) and citizen participation. The process does not appear to have had an effect on either social infrastructure (health, housing, education) or on environmental protection.


The country continues to face two major challenges : On the one hand, the continuing extension of the desert toward the south, and on the other, the risks of uncontrolled social transformation, which could lead to confrontation between communities, and to the end of political compromises. It is not certain whether without progress on democracy and on decentralization, Mauritania could successfully surmount these difficulties. It is necessary for the country to carry out a more forceful information dissemination campaign together with training programs for rural populations and to complete its deconcentration program by a devolution of powers to civil society organizations and to local communities. All this would require the creation of mechanisms for coordination between levels of government and an effective framework for consultations.