Country Listing

Mauritania Table of Contents


Impediments to Change

In 1987 the pace of modernization remained slow in Mauritania, where much of the population was closely bound to traditional subsistence agriculture and pastoralism and where literacy in French or Arabic was limited to only about 18 percent of the population. Although the modernizing elite shared with the traditional elite and the Mauritanian masses a common history and religion that prevented the state from collapsing, centrifugal forces competed for scarce economic and political resources. These forces ranged from ethnic groups and tribes to occupational and social classes.

An even greater impediment to development and modernization was the cleavage between the Maures and Mauritania's black population, the size of which has never been precisely ascertained and may be either undercounted or overrepresented, depending on one's perspective. Historically, the Maures have discriminated against the black population, which, well into the twentieth century, continued to be a source of slaves (see Maures , ch. 2). Different languages and a fairly uncomplicated geographic split tended to reinforce racial differences. Moreover, the black southern portion of the country, which was predominantly agricultural and until independence had generated much of the country's wealth, lost economic and political influence as mining and fishing investments in the Maure northern portion achieved far greater economic importance beginning in the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, however, the economic pendulum began to swing back again as mining and fishing revenues leveled off or began dropping while the relentless process of desertification had increased the value of black-held lands along the Senegal River. Nevertheless, blacks still complained that the government allocated greater resources to projects benefiting the Maures than to those benefiting blacks.

Data as of June 1988