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Anti-slavery struggle in Mauritania reveals the limitations of aid

Many girls work as servants in slavery-like conditions despite anti-slavery laws. Photo from 2011. (Credit: Flickr/Magharebia)

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — A recent online campaign targeting the government of Mauritania illustrates the limited ability of foreign donors to use aid to resolve complex political problems on the African continent.

Slavery is reportedly rife in Mauritania, a largely desert country of fewer than 4 million inhabitants in northwestern Africa. Even hardened U.S. diplomats have been horrified by the practices they encountered in the country. According to a widely cited 2012 story by CNN, fully 10 percent to 20 percent of Mauritania’s population, 340,000 to 680,000 people in total, live in slavery. Mirroring other narratives produced by foreign journalists, the CNN report contains heart-breaking accounts of rape and other abuses, and criticizes the international community for not exerting sufficient pressure on a government that appears unwilling to effectively address the issue.

A few weeks ago, anti-slavery activists sought to step up that pressure by launching a petition via the online activist organization Avaaz that quickly went viral, attracting more than a million signatures from people around the world. It opened with the following lines:

“I became a slave at age 5. Every day I looked after the herd. Every night I was raped by my master. I always thought, without understanding, that this was normal. In Mauritania, where I’m from, hundreds of thousands of people are still held this way today.”

The petition calls on Mauritania’s president to end slavery and free the country’s most prominent anti-slavery activist, Biram Dah Abeid, who is has been behind bars since November 2014 and is recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Interestingly, the petition also calls on the European Union to “suspend European Development Fund payments [to Mauritania]unless these actions are taken.”

The million signatures by well-meaning Westerners seem to have had little impact on the ground here in Mauritania. To nobody’s surprise, the judge tasked with the case decided to keep Abeid locked away, while in the very same week the government cynically passing yet another anti-slavery law that nobody expects it to enforce.

Biram Dah Abeid. Photo from 2013. (Credit: Flickr/Front Line Defenders)

Biram Dah Abeid. Photo from 2013. (Credit: Flickr/Front Line Defenders)

A few days after Abeid’s appeal was rejected, a diverse international coalition of activist groups led by Freedom House wrote an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the U.S. government to “publically condemn” the decision to keep Abeid behind bars. In contrast to the Avaaz petition, the joint letter did not call for a suspension of aid. Instead, it asked Kerry to “reconsider Mauritania’s AGOA eligibility on human rights grounds,” referring to the America Growth and Opportunity Act, under which Mauritania enjoys certain trade preferences. IRA-Mauritanie, the anti-slavery group led by Abeid, was a co-signatory to the letter.

Meanwhile, another co-signatory to the letter, the Abolition Institute, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to earmark millions of aid dollars for social, educational and vocational programs “to assist former slaves in reintegrating into society,” and urging the Obama administration to “review all military and non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania” and international donors to make “partnerships” conditional on progress on the anti-slavery front.

Beyond the world of online petitions and carefully worded press releases, the flow of European aid continues regardless, as does the United States’ security cooperation. And the U.S. aid for local anti-slavery groups is, as the Sean Tenner, the co-founder of the Abolition Institute put it in an email, “still all in the bureaucratic pipeline.”

All in all, a perfect narrative out of Africa: a vile government, a heroic freedom fighter, ignorant-yet-noble savages in urgent need of saving and Western bureaucracies betraying the wishes of the moral majority back home by failing to rush to the rescue.

However, upon closer inspection, a more complex picture emerges. Abeid fits the model of a heroic freedom fighter, but as a former presidential candidate, he is also a political leader – and a highly controversial one to boot. By framing slavery as a black-vs.-white issue, Abeid’s polarizing rhetoric strikes fear of violent racial unrest into the hearts of many among Mauritania’s socio-politically dominant White Moor minority. It also glosses over the inconvenient fact that all major ethnic groups in Mauritania, whatever their skin color, have historically been involved in trading and owning slaves.

Clear-cut cases of chattel slavery are less frequent than activist groups (and Western journalists citing them) claim. The figures bandied about vary widely and typically lack a solid evidence base, ranging from CNN’s high estimate of 680,000 to low guesses of a few thousand individuals living in extremely remote areas. The U.S. State Dept. 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report claims that “slavery continues to affect a significant portion of the country’s population in both rural and urban settings,” but provides no estimates of the numbers involved.

Indeed, defining what constitutes slavery is surprisingly difficult in the Mauritanian context. People described as slaves are rarely, if ever, physically restrained from leaving; the bonds keeping them tied to their masters are psychological and economic rather than physical in nature. Thus, the United Nations speak of “slavery-like practices,” while Mariella Villasante Cervello, an anthropologist who specializes in Mauritania, prefers the term “extreme forms of dependence.” Mauritania’s recent anti-slavery law, drafted with the input of more moderate anti-slavery and human-rights groups, has arguably muddied the waters even further by broadening the definition of slavery to include forced marriage and other crimes.

Within Mauritanian political discourse, the term ‘slavery’ is often used not in the narrow technical sense of chattel slavery, but as a highly emotional catch-phrase for the – often though not always racially tinged – profound injustices and inequalities that cut across the state, economy and society. Abeid himself was arrested during a peaceful campaign against what his group calls government-sponsored ‘land slavery’ (esclavage foncier). The process in question has nothing to do with slavery per se, but rather denotes a privatization process that many dark-skinned Mauritanians in the south of the country see as merely the latest episode in a long-standing pattern in which racist White Moors rob their riches and trample their rights at the barrel of a gun.

Many other practices branded as ‘slavery’ by some Mauritanians, such as extremely exploitative sharecropping arrangements, are also common in other impoverished parts of the world – such as the Hazarajat of Afghanistan, where landlords keep up to 7/8 of the harvest – without being identified as slavery by locals or outside observers. In conditions of abject poverty, the line between a domestic servant working in exchange for food and board and a slave can become blurred; in practice, with no prospects of an alternative livelihood, neither is free to leave.

A key problem faced by anti-slavery groups in Mauritania is to convince enslaved individuals to walk away. In a country plagued by unemployment and hunger, freed slaves have nowhere to go and no way to independently support themselves – hence the earmarking of U.S. aid funds to “assist former slaves in reintegrating into society” rather than for freeing slaves per se.

The European Union was always extremely unlikely to suspend aid to a government that has successfully positioned itself as a key ally in the war on terror in the region, and it remains unclear how the well-meaning directives issued by members of Congress thousands of miles away will eventually play out in Mauritania. While a few million earmarked dollars from the U.S. may help some people if well spent, this aid money will not have a transformative impact on the structural factors – first and foremost the capture of state by a racist and kleptocratic elite – that perpetuate slavery and slavery-like conditions in this poverty-stricken African country.

Mauritanian anti-slavery activists welcome attention and support from abroad. At the same time, they are acutely aware of the limited ability of foreign donor agencies to solve deeply entrenched political, economic and social problems by tearing up or writing checks. “It’s foreign groups that demand aid cut-offs, not us,” Ousmane Anne, an activist with IRA-Mauritanie, told me. “IRA puts people first. We have never asked foreign governments to cut or block aid to Mauritania. As we see it, that wouldn’t be patriotic.”


About Author

Till Bruckner

Till Bruckner is an international development expert with a lively interest in transparency, accountability and the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our everyday lives. He works part-time as advocacy manager for Transparify, an initiative promoting integrity in policy research and advocacy worldwide. He is currently based in Mauritania. Till maintains a regular blog at the Huffington Post: