Header image for news printout

End-of-mission statement on Mauritania, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Nouakchott, 11 May 2016

1. Introduction

This statement marks the conclusion of a ten-day visit to Mauritania at the invitation of the Government.  I am very grateful to the Government, particularly the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action, for its strong cooperation in facilitating my mission. I was fortunate to be able to meet with the Prime Minister as well as the Ministers for Economy and Finance; Interior and Decentralization; Habitat, Town Planning and Regional Development; and Social Affairs, Childhood and the Family. I also met with a number of Directors-General and heads of national institutions, local representatives of ministries and national institutions, governors (Wali), prefects (hakem), mayors, the representatives of the relevant international agencies, ambassadors of States represented in Mauritania, and civil society representatives. I also met with many people living in extreme poverty in areas as diverse as the wilayas of Gorgol, Brakna and Trarza.

2. Human rights obligations

Mauritania has ratified all the major international human rights treaties. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The purpose of my visit was to evaluate and report to the Human Rights Council on the extent to which Mauritania’s policies and programs that relate to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations.

3. Overview

In many respects Mauritania is a wealthy country. It is rich in minerals, fish, cattle and good agricultural land in the Senegal River Valley.  It is also a country whose legal system no longer accepts slavery, has maintained stability, and has enjoyed comparatively high levels of international development assistance.  While there have been significant achievements in recent years, especially in relation to urban areas, the situation is very different in regions such as Gorgol, Trarza, and Brakna, in which large numbers of people continue to live in crushing poverty.  For many of them the only tangible impact so far of the Government’s development policies has been the expropriation of their land without compensation so that it can be turned over to large-scale investors.

4. Principal Issues

The final report on my mission will be presented in June 2017 to the UN Human Rights Council.  It will address a broader range of issues than can be dealt with here.  In particular, careful consideration will be given to the complex but highly problematic issue of land title, and the effective expropriation of the land held by traditional communities without compensation and with often devastating consequences.  But for the purposes of the present statement, I would like to highlight six issues.

(a) Exclusion
There is a systematic absence from almost all positions of real power, and a continuing exclusion from many aspects of economic and social life, of the Haratines and the Afro-Mauritanians.  These groups make up over two-thirds of the population, but various policies serve to render their needs and rights invisible.  I was consistently told by officials that there is no discrimination in Mauritania, and certainly not on the grounds of ethnicity, race, or social origin.  The repetition of such an implausible claim might  reasonably be taken as evidence of the contrary.  The Government’s commitment to ending the ‘vestiges of slavery’ must be expanded to address directly the most enduring and consequential ‘vestige,’ which is the continuing deep disempowerment of the great majority of former slaves.

The Government’s adamant insistence that it can take no account of ethnicity in its policies serves to reinforce the status quo.  An egregious example of this is the fact that individuals from the two excluded groups make up the overwhelming majority of those who have been unable to obtain a national identity card, without which very little can be done in Mauritania.  When I asked for an estimate of how many adults in Mauritania do not have civil status in the form of the national ID card, I received no convincing answers.  It seems clear that the Government does not know how many persons do not have such status.  Based on extensive information provided to me, it is clear that the problem is widespread.  Those without the document cannot vote, cannot attend school beyond the primary level, cannot qualify for many government benefits, and generally cannot own land.  The bureaucracy responsible for issuing the cards is cumbersome and its officials are reportedly not easily accessible. Obtaining the document is expensive for those living in extreme poverty, for appeals procedures one must go to the courts, and a host of bureaucratic arrangements have been introduced by law and practice which have the effect of deterring many applicants, most of whom happen to be Black. Although by no means confined to them, this is especially problematic for those Afro-Mauritanians who were expelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the context of the passif humanitaire, whose identity documents were taken or lost, and upon return have had severe difficulties to restore their identity documents and enjoy their full citizenship rights.

Language policy is another way in which discrimination is achieved in practice.  A State is fully entitled to designate a single official language, as Mauritania has done with Arabic.  But in a multilingual state, in which many people do not speak the official language, it is incumbent upon the government to adopt reasonable flexibility rather than insisting that communications be in Arabic.

(b) Recognition of economic and social rights
In international forums, Mauritania has consistently reaffirmed its obligations in relation to economic, social and cultural rights.  Economic and social rights are mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution but there are no substantive provisions dealing with them.  Nor do the key rights seem to be recognized in any meaningful way in legislative form.  Official recognition that there are human rights to goods such as water, health care, education, and food would begin to transform the way in which policies are formulated and implemented.

Instead of being rights-based, Mauritania’s domestic policies seem to be conceived more in terms of acts of charity towards its citizens.  While the obligation to be charitable is an important and admirable part of Islamic doctrine, this does not capture the nature and scope of the formal obligations owed to its inhabitants under international human rights law.

(c) The need for a more concerted effort to eliminate extreme poverty
The Government rightly points to important decreases in poverty rates and to significant urban development initiatives to highlight its achievements in this area.  But these gains must be seen also in light of the continuing grim realities.  44% of the rural population live in poverty.  Those households in which the head of household works in farming or livestock rearing have poverty rates of 59.6% and 41.8% respectively.  Net primary school enrollments in wilayas such as Gorgol are as low as 65.3%, and only 10% of children in some rural areas ever get to secondary school.

The human face of poverty beyond the statistics can be illustrated by reference to the right to health.  During my field visits, better access to health facilities was repeatedly mentioned as a top concern. I visited the village of Kouedi in Gorgol, whose 350 residents have to travel 7 kilometers to M’bout town for health care. In the commune of Bath Moyt, consisting of twelve villages, the commune’s sole health dispensary is staffed by one nurse and a midwife. Children are often affected by malaria and diarrhea. In case of complications, villagers have to hire a taxi to travel more than 20 kilometers to Monguel, at a cost of 8,000 Ouguiya. For more complicated matters, patients have to travel to Kaédi, which costs 22,000 Ouguiya. The only ambulance currently available to transport patients to the dispensary from various parts of the commune is a donkey cart. In the village of Keur-Madiké in Trarza, there is a health dispensary, but the nurse left two years ago and has not been replaced by the Government. The dispensary is deserted and locked, but expensive health equipment and medicines lie abandoned.  Because there is no health care provided in the village and the road to Rosso cannot be reached during the rainy season, villagers are forced to cross the Senegal River into Senegal for emergencies, or in cases of birthing complications.

Women are particularly affected by the virtual total absence of pre-natal and post-natal care.  The results of these lack of facilities are starkly confirmed by the national statistics.  Mauritania still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.  The 2013 census indicated a rate of 582 deaths per 100,000 live births.  But World Bank data indicate that the rate was as high as 655 in 2013 and that it was 602 in 2015.  In the same year, the under-five child mortality rate was 84.7 per 1,000, which is a tragic statistic that encapsulates how much remains to be done.

(d) Vision versus reality
While the Minister of Economy and Finance outlined an impressive and humane vision for Mauritania, there remains a huge gap between this vision and the realities on the ground.  Over the years, Mauritania has certainly not been wanting for grand strategies, nor will it be in the years ahead.  Strategies such as the Stratégie de croissance accélérée et de prospérité partagée (SCAPP), which is currently under preparation, will continue to make all too little difference until social rights are recognized as human rights and efforts are made to target not just the poorest of the extremely poor, but to adopt ethnically inclusive policies.

(e) Accurate and disaggregated data
Mauritania has a strong professional Office of National Statistics, but the ways in which many statistics are collected, analysed and presented by the Government bears the hallmarks of political interference.  As a result both of the massaging of the data, and the refusal to disaggregate it in terms of ethnicity, language and other such vital dimensions, it is extremely difficult to obtain an accurate and consistent picture of most areas of social life, and effective policy design is made a great deal more difficult as a result.  What is concealed today, will only come back to haunt the future.

(f) Development
Too many of the Government’s social development programs are ad hoc and responsive more to powerful constituencies than to need.  International donors have not succeeded in encouraging the Government to be more principled and systematic in its approach, and they themselves have devoted far too little attention to the sort of coordination that would greatly enhance their combined impact.  Consideration should be given to the establishment of a Friends of Mauritania group, bringing together the major donors to discuss priorities in advance of their regular meetings with the Government.

In the present statement, I will focus at some length on two specific important issues.  One concerns the role of Tadamoun and the other the cash transfer system that is now being put in place.

(i) Tadamoun
Tadamoun is the Government’s lead agency in the fight against poverty.  It was established in 2013 with three separate but related functions: to combat poverty, to address the consequences of slavery, and to design and implement programmes to promote the reintegration of Mauritanian returnees who fled during the ‘passif humanitaire.’  In general, the agency has opted to take a very low profile in relation to these last two roles.  Instead, its management argues that general anti-poverty development projects will best address all three prongs of its mandate, thus relieving it of the need to design special programs or policies to focus on the particular needs of the two specific groups which it was set up to address.  This policy is defended on the grounds that it is better not to single out particular groups for advantageous treatment, let alone to acknowledge that there are deep ethnicity-related roots underlying many of the issues.  When asked about the composition of the agency, and whether it sought to achieve any sort of balance of ethnic groups amongst its staff, the Director-General replied adamantly that such an approach was unthinkable.  Ethnicity was neither a relevant nor an appropriate consideration.  This seems especially difficult to defend in a society in which virtually every person outside of government to whom I spoke suggested that most things in Mauritanian society, and above all in politics, are decided on the basis of ethnic considerations.

In any event, the overall policy option that has been chosen by the Government means that its lead agency is not in fact directly addressing two of the country’s most urgent social problems

While Tadamoun is accorded the role of a development agency in its statute and in its aspirations, with the exception of its work on the cash transfer program (described below) it seems in practice to act more like a major charitable organization that seeks to leave its mark through construction activities.  For the most part, the agency itself is thus neither responsible for, nor engaged in the process of operationalizing its buildings.  Schools and health centers are simply turned over to the relevant authorities with the hope that the latter will find human resources and administrative capacity to operate and repair the facilities, usually in situations where this had not proven to be the case previously. 

Although its annual report for 2015 should by now have been published, it has not been, and the agency was unable to provide me with any detailed account of its recent overall activities.  Its roughly $20 million budget is depressingly small given the enormity of the problems it is supposed to address.  In identifying priority concerns or areas, let alone in selecting particular projects to fund, it does not appear to operate on the basis of established and transparent criteria.  Whatever the reality of its methods of functioning, such an approach leaves the agency open to allegations of patronage and favoritism, and suggestions that it is not primarily concerned with the principled targeting of the needs of the most vulnerable members of society.

Tadamoun officials encouraged me to visit a number of its major projects in the regions which I was visiting.  Unfortunately, since the program had been fixed long before this offer was made, it only proved possible to visit one such project.  This was a school that was built in 2015 in Dar el Barka, but which has not yet opened for students.  The school is an impressive edifice, towering like a yellow Taj Mahal in the midst of a very poor and not especially densely populated area of desert.  It was clearly a matter of great pride for both Tadamoun and the local authorities and was equipped with impressive offices for the administrators and classrooms equipped with brand new rows of desks and vast blackboards.  It was built at a cost to date of 84 million Ouguiya.  The contrast with other schools that I visited which were hugely over-crowded, grossly under-staffed, lacking any reliable water supply, and in some cases lacking any functioning toilets, could not have been more dramatic.  Interlocutors assured me that the school was on a scale unknown even in Nouakchott.  But it is not at all clear whether such a grandiose school is viable in key respects such as the availability of teachers, the money required for upkeep, and the possibility of ensuring adequate water supplies and toilets.  Even if this school proves to be the exception, and remains viable, the question still remains whether the scarce resources available to Tadamoun are best spent on constructing a handful of symbolic gestures of this sort, or should rather be devoted to the vast and pressing unmet needs of existing schools around the country whose buildings are falling down, whose toilets don’t work, and which have serious problems attracting and retaining teachers because the facilities and accommodation available are so poor.

(ii) The cash transfer system and the Emel shops
A significant part of social expenditure by the Government of Mauritania (excluding education and health care) is related to the so-called Emel program (Arabic for hope), which started in 2011 in response to a severe drought and related food insecurity. The largest component of the Emel program is the Emel shops (Boutiques Emel), a network of subsidized food shops around the country. Public spending on the Emel program peaked in 2012 with 32.72 billion Ouguiya.  It declined to somewhere between 12.9 and 14.4 billion Ouguiyas in 2013, but rose to 21 billion Ouguiyas in 2015 and is expected to cost 21.79 billion Ouguiyas in 2016. Mauritania relies largely on national resources to finance this program.  It is clear, however, that the Ministry of Finance and Economy, along with the international financial institutions, consider the program to be excessively expensive and a highly inefficient way of targeting the extreme poor.

In April 2015, the Government and the World Bank’s International Development Association agreed on project to introduce a cash transfer program, accompanied by a ‘Social Registry’ of all poor households. Funding for this $29 million project will come from the World Bank ($15 million), the Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Multi Donor Trust Fund ($4 million from the United Kingdom) and the Mauritanian Government ($10 million) over a period of 5 years.  In the project documents, the possibility is raised that the cash transfer system could make it possible to largely phase out the Emel program, both in order to make overall savings and to have sufficient resources for the cash transfer program and possible ‘cash plus’ social programs.  While no decision has yet been taken to this effect, it is clear that the option is very much on the table, although not one that is being publicly discussed.

The first phase of the project is to set up a national Social Registry tracking the poorest 150,000 households in Mauritania.  100,000 of those will eventually receive cash transfers and the Registry may be used for other purposes as well. The methodology of arriving at those registered households is as follows. First, quotas per geographical (not: administrative) area are set for the number of poor households that can be included in the Social Registry. Second, targeting committees are formed per geographical area to identify the poor households in that area in accordance with the quota. Third, selected households are asked to fill out a questionnaire to filter out households that are not considered poor (proxy-means test). A complaint mechanism is foreseen for those who believe they should have been included in the Registry.

The second phase of the project is the introduction of a nationwide cash-transfer program that will initially pay out 15,000 Ouguiya every 3 months to a total of 100,000 poor households, which would amount to 6 billion Ouguiya per year. This program will be administered by Tadamoun. Currently, it is not foreseen to make the cash transfers conditional on the recipient meeting significant requirements such as enrolling children in school or participating in vaccination programs. The reason for avoiding such conditions is telling.  It is that the lack of access to education and health care services in Mauritania would make such conditions unreasonable.

To better understand the introduction of the Social Registry and the cash transfer program, I spoke to a range of relevant actors about the project, including the Minister of Economy and Finance and social protection experts at that Ministry, the Director-General of Tadamoun, as well as the World Bank and UNICEF. I also visited the department (moughatta) of M’bout in Gorgol where the first phase of the project is currently rolled out and met with the Hakem, a representative of Tadamoun, and social workers involved in the selection of poor households for the Social Registry. I also met with individuals in M’bout town, and the villages of N’Dadj-Beni Choufra and Kouedi, who were selected for registration in the Social Registry.  On the basis of these discussions, I would offer several observations.

First, Mauritania adopted a National Social Protection Strategy (NSPS) in 2013, which contains a broad and multidimensional concept of social protection, explicitly recognizes that social protection is a human right and ties social protection to the implementation of the Social Protection Floor Initiative. Since the time of the adoption of the NSPS, most social protection efforts of the Mauritanian Government have however focused narrowly on food assistance, which is only one of the five pillars of the NSPS. While a nationwide cash transfer program can in principle be an important element of a Government’s social protection policy, concerns exists that the cash transfer program will effectively crowd out any other relevant social protection programs related to the several pillars of the NSPS. While the NSPS was accompanied by the introduction of an institutional mechanism to coordinate social protection measures, that mechanism has been described as dysfunctional and without a clear ‘owner’ among line ministries.

Second, various interlocutors with whom I have spoken have criticized the Emel boutiques for having an urban bias; not reaching the extremely poor who do not have enough money even to buy food in subsidized stores; being inefficient because of the high costs involved in operating the stores; and providing opportunities for corruption. Despite these obvious shortcomings in a program that was originally only set up as a temporary emergency measure, the Emel program is now in its sixth year and a significant number of Mauritanians have come to rely on this network of more than 1,000 boutiques. In a poor country like Mauritania, where around 70% of food is imported, the closing down of a program that supports a sizeable part of the population in their access to food should be approached carefully. It should be taken into account that several countries around the world have already experienced social unrest in relation to the abolishing of food subsidies in a context of volatile world food prices.

While current spending on the Emel program for 2016 is around 22 billion Ouguiyas, the cash transfers currently envisaged will only cost 6 billion Ouguiyas, leaving aside the administrative costs.  While the Minister of Finance and Economy suggested that the space in the budget that opens up as a result of any phasing out of Emel would be taken up by the cash transfer program or other social protection measures, this does not at all seem to be the expectation of any other actors.

While the World Bank is convinced of the possibility of accurately ‘targeting’ the poorest Mauritanians, in practice there seems a strong risk that the program will be far from scientific. It is not straightforward who are the poorest in a community. It depends on the definition used as well as on the vagaries of the procedure used for identifying ‘the most deserving’. The current methodology may prevent so-called ‘inclusion errors’, but there are doubts whether it can prevent ‘exclusion errors’. First, the selection of households takes place per ‘grouping’ of villages, which opens up the possibility of discrimination and conflicts between villages and villagers; something that is all the more problematic in the context of Mauritania where ethnic minorities live closely together and sometimes share a troubled common history. Second, it is not entirely clear at this point who has the final say on the selection of poor households and to what extent this process involves genuine consultation and participation. A complaint mechanism is foreseen for those who believe they have been wrongly excluded in the form of a hotline, but in the Mauritanian context it is doubtful that such a complaint mechanism can be both independent and effective.

In terms of the design of the cash transfer program, several observations are in order. First, the amount of 15,000 Ouguiyas per three months seems too low to have the desired impact on the lives of the targeted households. The amount represents only about one-third of the national poverty line of 169,445 Ouguiyas per year. There seems to be no reason to accept, as suggested by some Government officials, that any higher amount would encourage indolence and dependence. Second, it is surely problematic that the amount is not adjusted for household size. Third, the cash transfer program (as well as the Social Registry) is not anchored in law, which means that the cash transfer might be eliminated at any stage, that eligibility requirements are not spelled out, and that no complaints mechanism is actually required to be set up. Finally, it is unclear where future financing of the cash transfer program will come from, which raises doubts about the sustainability of the program. 

None of this is to suggest that the cash transfer program is per se problematic.  But there are many aspects of it which need to be resolved before it can be concluded that it will be effective, viable, and fair.  In order to achieve such an outcome, the following steps are recommended:

a) The Government should undertake an impact assessment of the consequences of phasing out the Emel boutiques if such action is given serious consideration.  The assessment should also take into account the impact on the human rights of beneficiaries and other affected individuals.

b) Budgetary savings that might result from the scaling back of the Emel program should be earmarked for spending on social protection.

c) The targeting process for the Social Registry and cash transfer program should be subject to evaluation after the targeting process in M’bout has been completed. Specific attention should be given to the impact of the targeting process on relations between members of different ethnic groups.

d) One way to reduce the chance of exclusion errors would be to change the order of the targeting process by starting the local selection process with a proxy-means test and subsequently let the result be validated by local communities in a manner that ensures the participation of all affected individuals. The existence of a complaints mechanism that is truly independent of the Government, transparent and easily accessible and with the power to adjust initial targeting outcomes is of great importance.

e) The amount of the cash transfer should be evaluated, taking account of regional and international experience and evidence in terms of the amount that would be required in order to have a transformative impact on human development. Cash transfers should also be adapted to reflect household size and other relevant circumstances such as disability, illness and unemployment.

f) The Social Registry and cash transfer program should be anchored in a new national law, which spells out the eligibility for cash transfers, recognizes the cash transfer as a legal entitlement, establishes the targeting and complaint procedures, and specifies the initial amount of the cash transfer.

g) Subsequent introduction of conditionalities to qualify for the cash transfer program should be accompanied by a reasoned opinion by the Ministry of Economy and Finance and/or Tadamoun that shows that the proposed conditions could be met by all potential recipients in light of the available education, health care and other relevant social services.

Annex: Details of the Mission
The Special Rapporteur visited Mauritania from 2 to 11 May 2016 at the invitation of the Government. During the visit, the Special Rapporteur met with: the Prime Minister, the President of the National Assembly, the Minister of National Education, the Minister of Interior and Decentralisation, the Minister of Habitat, Town Planning and Regional Development, the Minister of Social Affairs, Childhood and Family, and the Minister of Economy and Finance.  He also met with the Director General of the National Agency “Tadamoun”, the Director of the National Office of Statistics, the Director General of the National Agency for the Registration of Population and Secure Documents, the Commissioner for Food Security, and the President of the National Commission on Human Rights. He also met with high-level technical experts within the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the Tadamoun Agency.

In Nouakchott, the Special Rapporteur also met with representatives of opposition parties, international organisations, the diplomatic community and civil society.  He also visited bidonvilles in El Mina district and Dar El Beida neighbourhood.  

From 4 to 8 May, the Special Rapporteur undertook field visits to the wilayas of Gorgol, Brakna and Trarza.  On 5 May, the Special Rapporteur visited the wilaya of Gorgol and met with the Wali of Gorgol.  He visited the moughataa of Mbout where he met with the Hakem, social workers from the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and representatives of the Tadamoun Agency.  He visited and spoke to people living in an urban district of Mbout and two rural villages of Kouedi and N’dadj-Beni Chourfa. On 6 May, the Special Rapporteur met with people in Bath Moyt village and visited their school and dispensary.  On the same day, the Special Rapporteur also visited and met with families living in poverty in Bir Oulad Yara village in the wilaya of Brakna.

On 7 May, the Special Rapporteur visited Boghé and met with the Hakem of the Boghé moughataa, the Mayor of Boghé, and representatives of the Commission on Land Titles and the National Agency for the Registration of Population and Secure Documents.  During his visit to the wilaya of Brakna, the Special Rapporteur visited Dar El Avia, Ould Birom and Dar El Barka and engaged with people in those communities.  In Dar El Barka, he met with the Hakem and visited a school constructed by the Tadamoun Agency.    

On 8 May, the Special Rapporteur visited the wilaya of Trarza and met with the Wali, regional representatives of the Ministries of Agriculture, Hydrology and Sanitation, and National Education, and the Tadamoun Agency, and a representative of the Rosso municipality.  He visited and met with the population of Tékane and Keur-Madiké villages and also visited a school in Keur-Madiké.  

During his visit to Kaédi and Rosso, the Special Rapporteur also held meetings with representatives of civil society in the wilayas of Gorgol and Trarza respectively.


See my 2014 report to the United Nations General Assembly on the Social Protection Floor Initiative, which can be found here: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15219&LangID=E