Published on The Trade Post

Mauritanian Report Launch Highlights the Transformative Potential of Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment

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Last month the Mauritania Diagnostic Trade Integration Study (DTIS) Update was launched before an audience of Government, donors, private sector and civil society representatives, as well as national media. The report, prepared by the World Bank Group with support from the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and the Mauritanian Ministry of Trade, covers key sectors of the economy, including a macro-diagnostic of growth and trade and an analysis of fisheries, agriculture and services (ICT, transport and tourism), largely based on empirical evidence and fact-finding missions. This report is also the first of its kind to include an explicit gender perspective and link it to trade issues in Mauritania, underlining the important role played by small-scale women traders and entrepreneurs in the national economy.

As a reflection of the Government of Mauritania’s strong support for the DTIS, five ministers were in attendance at the dissemination, including Ministers for Fisheries, Agriculture, Livestock and Transport, while H. E. the Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism, Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass, opened the debate with a keynote speech, noting that the report could pave the way for Mauritania to better integrate into and benefit from international trade. She also praised the DTIS’ vision of a diversified, sustainable and inclusive growth that reduces inequality and boosts job creation, in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Following opening remarks from EIF focal point Mohamed Ould Hitt and Mr. Pedro Martinez-Vargas, representative of the E.U. delegation to Mauritania, the World Bank lead consultant Prof. Olivier Cadot presented the main findings of the report, emphasizing the importance of transitioning from a model of short-term rents to long-term macroeconomic stability, in light of volatile growth patterns and the economy’s significant exposure to external shocks. Indeed, all-time low international iron prices (one of Mauritania’s key industries) and the sluggish rebound of the world economy following the global crisis may seriously jeopardize the country’s recent and impressive growth performance.
Presenting in Mauritania

Against this backdrop, the role of trade diversification and its integration into Mauritania’s development agenda could be determinative. The country’s proximity advantage to the EU offers the opportunity to develop a reliable, high-quality supply of fresh fisheries and agricultural products to lucrative markets. As the DTIS emphasizes, a challenging environment does not take away from Mauritania’s considerable export potential, including in animal and gum Arabic products to new markets in the sub-region. Fisheries and agriculture remain key sectors and therefore have particularly strong potential to reduce poverty, with the DTIS highlighting the need to transition to high value-added products and increase the capacity of the sectors’ research and supervisory public bodies. In terms of the business environment, meanwhile, the Government recently addressed the problem by reforming key legislation in relation to foreign investment, by taking a leading role within the African Union to promote the Fishing Industry Transparency Initiative (FITI) and by creating the Free Zone in its northern fishing city of Nouadhibou.

Harnessing ICT, meanwhile, was identified as a key vehicle to modernize the Mauritanian economy, as well as to facilitate firms’ entry to foreign markets and expand access to information on foreign markets and credit. The recent upgrading of customs infrastructure and the liberalization of road transport, meanwhile, are expected to stimulate the cross-border movement of goods, reinforcing export sectors’ ability to drive growth and reduce poverty in Mauritania — the twin goals of the DTIS Update.

In addition, though recent developments in regional security may have diminished the role for tourism in the short-term, the report outlines a long-term strategy for the sector, including upgrading of infrastructure, accommodation and regulations, including visa fee structures. Preparing to target niche markets will not only take advantage of Mauritania’s sizeable cultural heritage and vast desert lands, it will also ensure the country is ready to present itself as a viable tourist destination once regional security conditions improve. At the same time, the report acknowledges that the current travel advisory will continue to act as a binding constraint to the sector’s expansion.

Trade is also a proven path to employment for many women in Mauritania, whose role in international trade has provided them with unprecedented economic independence through their work in agricultural cooperatives, fisheries, food-processing, retail and textiles. Trade has increased employment opportunities for women across all social classes, particularly in the Senegal River Valley zone along the border with Senegal and Mali, boosting incomes and providing women with greater security. By circumventing oversaturated local markets in southern Mauritania, small-scale traders are able to secure higher prices for their products abroad. Buying and selling produce abroad has also allowed women to food security in their communities — one of Mauritania’s primary development challenges.

Indeed, much of the trading activity in Mauritania conducted by women was found to be motivated by a need to provide for their families, with profits generally invested in their children’s education and health. Due to a series of cultural and economic factors, however, women traders in Mauritania were found to be less organized than their male counterparts and they continue to depend on men to facilitate their operations and to access information. Since women tend to operate in foreign markets as small-scale traders, furthermore, their activity is predominately of an informal nature and is therefore not registered by customs.

During a dedicated afternoon session on women and cross-border trade, facilitating women’s access to credit, land, capacity-building and information on their legal rights and public support programs were highlighted as key paths to trade. The session concluded with the drawing up of policy recommendations to encourage and facilitate women’s economic activity. These included an endorsement of positive discrimination in order to increase women’s subdued access to credit and land, training and capacity-building and finally, data collection of informal activity, particularly along the Mauritanian-Senegalese border, in order to quantify women’s contribution to the Mauritanian economy and regional trade.

The DTIS Update could prove to be a landmark document for Mauritanian trade policy. Removing the binding constraints to enterprises operating in the key identified sectors will require deep changes in governance to boost overall competitiveness, enhance productivity and eventually attract reliable investors. The validation of the report’s Action Matrix by the Government — a model of rules-based governance, transparency and non-interference in the marketplace — as well as the high-profile and inclusive nature of last month’s dissemination event, are encouraging signs of the authorities’ commitment to leverage trade in order to generate structural transformation, sustainable growth and poverty reduction, for the benefit of current and future generations.

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