Will Morocco’s Youth Be Served by Restarting National Military Service?

Plans to reinstitute national military service for young Moroccan men and women should be a centerpiece for a national discussion on what to do about the country’s discontented youth. But the who, what, where, why, and how remain unanswered.

Part 1 of a two-part article sets out the questions and dilemmas posed by the proposed new law.

The renewal of national conscription announced by King Mohammed VI in a speech following presentation of a draft bill to the Council of Ministers on August 20 has been greeted with confusion and concern. Although there is a backlog of pending legislation, it appears that this bill became a priority in part due to the king’s dissatisfaction with how youth were responding to the government’s lack of momentum in resolving long-standing grievances.

While there are great benefits in building strong values of citizenship, in the U.S. and elsewhere, it may be useful in determining the merits of such a program to consider four topics: What, Why, Who, and How before the law is finalized so that it can be part of a larger strategy that contributes to Morocco’s development rather than a tool for tamping down dissent and promoting false expectations.

WHAT? According to media reports, the initial statement from the Royal Palace said, “Female and male citizens aged between 19 and 25 years are obliged to do military service for 12 months. The military service aims to promote patriotism among the young, within the framework of the correlation between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

It is hardly a coincidence that the proposed law follows several years of demonstrations in different parts of the country mostly led by young people fed up with the slow pace of economic development, alleged high levels of corruption among government officials, and a general lack of confidence in policies designed to give greater authority of decision-making to local authorities.

In his speech, referring to national service, the King once again spoke forcefully about the need for the government to do more to curb unemployment and improve the educational system and vocational training. “We cannot let our education system continue to produce unemployed people, especially in certain branches of study, where graduates – as everyone knows – find it extremely hard to access the job market,” he said.

While the king has made this a centerpiece of his speeches for several years, the government has not been effective in aggressively moving ahead with projects, reforms, and policies that both broadly promote economic development and are inclusive of groups who are politically and economically marginalized. There is plenty of blame to go around – from the inability of Parliament to use its powers to make government ministries more accountable, the impact of corruption on project awarding and implementation, the mismatch between skills acquired in schools and the demands of the market, and the complex challenges of a country in transition from a largely commodity-based economy to one more diverse and rewarding.

WHY? On the surface, there are two goals in renewing military conscription: engendering a commitment to citizenship and building a sense of patriotism. These goals may overlap, but they are not necessarily congruent. For example, where is citizenship focused – on country, king, local community, or elsewhere? Does patriotism shift one towards more conservative values or is it inclusive of all Moroccans, built on a shared-perspective of the country’s priorities? Or is the project, as some critics claim, a means to delay and defuse acculturation that could lead to radicalization or dropping out?

An insight into the government’s strategy, reflecting the king statements, is that in addition to military conscription, “The council also approved the draft framework law on the education, training, and scientific research system, which is part of the high royal guidelines, aimed at adopting a genuine and irreversible reform of the national education system. This law sets out the principles and objectives establishing the system of education, training and scientific research, and those aimed at ensuring synergy between its various components so that they can fulfill their missions of ensuring quality education based on equity and equal opportunities,” according to the North Africa Post.

If the government is seriously committed to programs that will empower youth with values and skills to become more able citizens and economic engines, then the development of a viable, sustainable, and action-based comprehensive strategy for youth development should be based on a broader-based vision integrating military service, national service, and educational reform to achieve these outcomes.

WHO? When the king abolished the previous mandatory military service in 2006, it was said that conscription had led to a climate of apathy and did not meet “the requirements of professionalism and scientific and technological training.” How the proposed law will remedy this is unclear, along with the content of the service, how it will handle male and female recruits? Who will be exempted, and what are the indicators of a successful policy?

With Parliament returning to session, details such as these will be discussed and debated. Hopefully, more public input and recognition will focus on additional concrete benefits that can be achieved from this program beyond its aims of patriotism and good citizenship. It will be a disservice if the politicians end up enacting a program that favors certain socio-economic or ethnic classes either by conscription or exemption.

Other considerations that are being raised include: how will binational Moroccans living in Morocco or abroad be affected, will there be differentiation between university, high school, and primary school graduates? Will literacy play a role in qualifying for the program and will there be a remedial component? Is there any thought to a skills component to the program? These and other questions are some examples of the complexity of bridging the announcement and the implementation of mandatory military service.

HOW? And in all of this, what does the military itself think? Given that this could mean an intake annually of anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 youths, how will it set priorities, expand existing facilities, develop whatever new or revised regulations are needed to manage the program, and will it be sufficiently funded with an initial build-up period rather than thousands showing up without a systematic and comprehensible intake process?

These considerations are already being debated on social media. It will be telling to gauge the role it will play in connecting the opinions of Moroccans with their members of Parliament, whether groups concerned about the proposed law will organize beyond chat rooms, if the government will use social media to build its case for the benefits of compulsory military service for youth, and what coalitions are formed for and against the program under what perspectives.


Part 2 will explore the possibilities of recasting the military service program into a national service program that not only promotes patriotism and citizenship, but also has the capacity to bridge rural and urban constituencies, develop marketable skills, encourage team building and leadership qualities, and add meaning to the lives of the participants, their families, and others.


Is There Any News about Lebanon Besides the Elections?

Depending on the source, and the time of day, prognostications about Lebanon’s parliamentary elections provide even more confirmation that the results will either be a landslide for good or for evil or somewhere in between. We are assured, simultaneously, that the new electoral law eases the way for new entrants into the system and that there is little chance for unaligned candidates to break into the closed loop of Parliamentary districts.

Well, what is going on and why is it important if there is so much conviction and uncertainty at the same time? In a cogent article penned by Hady Amr, who has served in the US Foreign Service and knows Lebanon better than most, the fact that the election will be held after so many delays is in itself an important achievement. After mentioning the positive and not-great conditions surrounding the elections, he notes that “And compared to an Arab world filled with either war, sham elections, or undemocratic regimes, things could clearly be much worse.”

Well one area in which there is a bit of sunshine is the number of women who have entered the contests. Although the number of female candidates from the original list has declined by some 22%, there are still a record number of 86 female candidates competing for Lebanon’s 128 legislative seats in a country where women make up only three percent of the current parliament. Lebanon ranked 137 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and 142 when it comes to political empowerment, as reported in an article in Al-Jazeera. A long way to go for sure and it is hoped that more women in parliament will lead to ground-breaking legislation and role models that start to improve Lebanon’s ranking through empowering more women and girls to enter the public political space.

But the old guard is not going softly to their cabanas on Zaitunya Bay. More than a dozen candidates are directly related to current power brokers and are heavily favored in their districts. In addition, the existing distribution of seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims further excludes new entrants (National Democratic Institute graph http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/LEBANON-ELECTION/010062EN4C9/LEBANON-PARLIAMENT.jpg) demonstrates the overall distribution). As in other countries, access to media is important and is priced out of the range of smaller parties, independents, and those who don’t own or have major influence with existing outlets; so social media is important in reaching out to voters.

The Lebanese Center for Political Studies (LCPS) published a very useful article describing how power brokers and parties work to influence voters and make sure they participate correctly in the election. The system relies of building strong ties with influencers in local communities and ensuring that services target those who can best mobilize votes for particular candidates.

Given that there are a number of competitive races and the heightened interest in the positions of the candidates on domestic issues, party platforms have appeared addressing local concerns. Among those mentioned most often are quality health care, access to a functioning power system, educational reform, waste management, the environment, infrastructure improvements, transparency in government contracting, reducing corruption, and enhanced human rights protections. Clearly on the table but largely unspoken are how to deal with the Syrian refugees, assistance to host communities, eliminating bias in government programs and the army and security services, and internal power balances among Sunnis and Christians.

The most critical issue, if and when Hezbollah will draw Lebanon into a war with Israel, is only mentioned loudly by Hezbollah and its allies, continuing to claim that they represent Lebanon’s best security guarantee. While some have mentioned that Hezbollah will increase its seats in parliament at the expense of Sunni representation, there is a bit of hopefulness that their bloc will not attain the two-thirds needed to have a veto-proof majority in parliament, despite the reality that it only takes one-third plus one to ensure gridlock, as Hezbollah has demonstrated skillfully in the past.

So while Lebanon is on the edge of a ground-breaking election, it continues to teeter on the brink of an unwanted war that the great majority Lebanese wants to avoid. The policy of dissociation, staying out of the affairs of others in the region, will be the first item on the table for the new parliament given the rapid consolidation of Assad’s power in Syria, bringing even more pressure on Lebanon on multiple fronts. Managing this complex agenda will take all of the skills of the executive and legislative leadership in the country.



Feeding the Beast – Time to Separate Politics from Economic Reforms?

Image property of SyrianFreePress@wordpress.com

Jordanians have been waiting months for a new national employment plan that is supposed to revamp the education and training systems to bridge the gap between education and employment; and provide guidance for the integration of Syrian refugees into the country’s workforce. It may appear after the Eid.

There is an interim government in place, tasked with preparations for elections in September, running the country, and implementing an agreed IMF reform agenda. According to the IMF, “These reforms will be focused on the business environment, the energy and water sectors, the financial sector, and the labor market. The reforms will also focus on protecting the most vulnerable segments of the population and in supporting Jordan’s efforts in hosting the Syrian refugees.”

he reforms include strengthening the tax base, controlling public spending, dealing with tax incentives and income tax in general, and ensuring the national safety net for the most vulnerable constituencies. The goal is to improve employment opportunities; encourage transitions from the informal to formal economy and support SME growth; promote cost recovery in the energy and water sectors; and improve the country’s financial system though greater transparency.

King Abdullah then announced an Economic Policies Council “to discuss economic policies, programs and development plans, supporting the government’s efforts aimed at overcoming economic difficulties, investing in opportunities, achieving higher growth rates and enhancing the competitiveness of the national economy.” Few women were in evidence on the Council’s roster.

The announcement of higher prices for water and energy were greeted with some small protest demonstrations and, according to the media, young people involved were demanding jobs. They initially turned down offers of private sector employment, preferring government jobs. Whatever the actual outcome, it was reported that they eventually agreed to work in the private sector…no further details.

Popular resentment towards tougher economic policies is not surprising…the US itself is unable to fund badly needed infrastructure repairs due to political sensitivities. Here in Jordan, the announcement of more economic reforms elicited three responses from local friends I consulted: the government hasn’t been doing its job properly; more meetings are a way to delay implementation of needed changes; and the government must do more to incentivize the private sector.

Women are underutilized in Jordan's development

Women are underutilized in Jordan’s development

Speaking about unemployment, one said that if Jordanians really wanted to work, there are plenty of opportunities to replace the half-million foreign workers in the country. He believes that until the government undertakes effective economic strategies that investors will not take Jordan seriously. He also spoke about the need to more proactively engage the informal sector through certification programs that enable those working outside the system to be licensed and trained to run their own businesses.

Another friend spoke about replacing the many job subsidies offered by the government with a higher minimum wage, better working conditions, and better use of government resources to eliminate waste and inefficient procurement processes. This would enable the government to pay more attention to fighting corruption and promoting effective governance, not to mention put in place more attractive job conditions.

A third source noted challenges to the economy from the impact of regional conflicts which is stifling commerce and scaring investors. He believes that business friendly reforms are the key to attracting more investments and so supports the start-up on the Economic Policies Council and the progress of the Jordan Investment Fund.

What these various perspectives underscore is that Jordan, at least for these sources, has a long way to go to rebuild the ties between decision-makers and the people. There seems to be a shrug when hearing about sacrifices needed when GID officers steal arms meant for anti-Assad fighters and sell them on the black market – their only punishment being kicked out of the service keeping their pensions and ill-gotten gains.

King Abdullah seems to sense that time is against the country. At the first meeting of the Economic Policies Council, he tasked them to “put solutions in place without any [hidden] agendas except serving people and combating poverty and unemployment. These are the interests of the people who are concerned with issues that matter to the country.”

For its part, members of the Council “underlined the indispensability of a participatory approach in the economic decision making and integrity between financial, monetary, investment and labour policies.” Time will tell is this is a call for effective action or another opportunity to avoid proactive and sometimes painful policies.


Tough Love Economic News Requires Array of Strategies

Jordanians are chattering about how the interim government is facing a number of difficult choices, none of which are of its own making. There is painful medicine for Jordanians in the prescription agreed with the IMF this past week, and people felt it immediately in prices paid for energy and power. No one argues that Jordan needs to take immediate steps to stop its slide into even lower growth, and there is little disagreement among leading Jordanian economists about how to move forward. However, medium and long term reforms will not do much to alleviate the pressure felt by consumers.

This is the dilemma facing oil producers and non-oil producers alike: How to bring about long-needed reforms that will ameliorate inadequate planning and decision-making by past leadership. One approach is HRH Mohammed bin Salman – high visibility, high energy, let’s take on entrenched interests approach while continuing to coddle citizens, which Saudi Arabia can afford to do.

On the other, there are Jordan and Morocco, balancing competing economic interests among potentially volatile political constituencies. Their way forward is constrained by internal and external factors that are not easily controlled. Morocco is in a more favorable neighborhood that encourages FDI and a more stable domestic political structure. Jordan faces both short and long-term challenges that are intertwined with all of their neighbors.

An article in The Jordan Times on the reaction to the IMF  tough love agreement noted, “This means there are more hard times ahead for Jordanians…the targets set by the government seem too difficult to achieve within the framework and the time schedule agreed on with the IMF.” The government is in a quandary inherited from the previous administration. With a public debt equal to 93% of the country’s gross domestic product, “and the stubborn problems of poverty and unemployment,” former finance minister Mohammad Abu Hammour blamed the fact that “There have been no real economic reforms over the past years in Jordan. Reforms should have been incremental, because they cannot be done overnight.”

The former minister said that the situation is already gloomy as exports dropped by 10% in 2015, foreign direct investments declined by 35%, and “unemployment rose to the unprecedented 14.2% mark.”

While Arab countries face similar dilemmas – a demographic bulge, inadequate education resulting in a mismatch between education and employment, and stagnant to slowing growth, the political dynamics of each country require avoiding a single remedy formula.

In Saudi Arabia the focus is on economic restructuring to promote jobs for men and women and soak up all those Saudis who are being educated abroad since there are few excellent universities in the Kingdom. This, of course, does not resolve the issue of those young people who are not university bound but still want jobs.

Jordan is different. It has no sovereign funds to bridge its economy to a brighter tomorrow. It hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees that have absorbed any spare capacity to deliver services. And it has to rely on infusions of foreign funds and loans to maintain its operations.

jordan flagSo what should Jordan’s government do? Given the obstacles of growing an economy burdened by providing services to citizens and refugees, here are three paths to follow, each with its own consequences. First, Jordan needs to cut government spending – always tough when there are so many vested interests in the current system. Secondly, Jordan needs to move more proactively to create a more business-friendly environment, promoting transparency, reducing corruption, and building public-private partnerships focused on short to medium term results.

One area that needs more emphasis is on convincing wealthy Jordanians at home and abroad to make significant job-creating investments in their country. Real estate aside, there must be more productive sectors for Jordanian, and Moroccan investors. Jordan and Morocco have wealthy citizens that could contribute to the country’s growth if they were incentivized properly. Investment capital is notoriously risk averse so this will take the most persuasive power of both monarchs.

Local investment funds, properly incentivized, can be quite powerful in the near term for targeting job growth for unemployed university graduates as well as those in the vocational/technical skills groups. When under- and unemployed youth believe that they can get jobs with wages for more than basic necessities, they will take advantage of many programs available to equip them for jobs in commerce and industry…but they must see a way forward.

Jordanian economist Hosam Ayesh summed it up best when he said “Increasing prices of water and electricity as of next year will push up the prices of many commodities. Citizens are always asked to tighten the belt, but shortly, there will be no belt to tighten.” Long days ahead.

What Latin America’s Populist Experiences can Teach Middle East Reformers

Enabling Grassroots Capitalism is Key for Restructuring Societies Equitably

Roger Noriega and Andres Martinez-Fernandez argue in a recent article that populism failed as an economic growth strategy in Latin America because it lacked essential qualities such as transparency and sustainability. Rather than enabling citizens to acquire skills that would equip them to achieve a better quality of life, it perpetuated a system of handouts and elitism that in reality keeps the poor in their historically disadvantaged status.

To Ambassador Noriega, who has decades of experience in the region, revolution and reform based on slogans and distribution of rewards has shown its deficiencies. The introductory summary notes that “Grassroots capitalism is the only solution to poverty, empowering poor and marginalized citizens to make them stakeholders in their country’s economic access.” And that “Policymakers also must address the systematic barriers to equitable growth, including corruption, stifling bureaucracy, crime, and violence.”

This could easily serve as a description of the dysfunctional social and economic development policies plaguing oil-rich and not-so countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The past decade has been unkind to those countries long attached to socialist and paternalistic policies that treat people as clients and beneficiaries rather than citizens valued for their participation in the country’s future.

Reforms that inch a country closer to a citizen-centric model hold the most promise for a holistic model of human development, one that includes capacity-building for institutions as well as individuals. When looking at the MENA region to identify is countries that, like Latin America, are in a transition from a top-down system of economic and political empowerment to something more interactive and less prescriptive, where does one begin?

Morocco can serve as a template for measuring intentions vs. results, since King Mohammed VI is committed to redefining relations between people and government. His early reform of the family law, transparent handling of the abuses of the previous regime, and reduction of the role of the palace as a key economic engine in the economy demonstrate his understanding that Morocco must change if it is to progress.

The challenge of course, as described in the article, is that grassroots capitalism is not a mere refinement of traditional capitalist models. Rather, it empowers and enables people through institutional respect for rule of law, property rights, relevant training and education, and support for individual enterprise and entrepreneurship.

The “emphasis must also be placed on internal reforms that speak to peoples’ priorities…and cultivate a popular consensus around a new brand of grassroots capitalism: policies that generate sustainable growth with free-market solutions; consciously extend economic opportunity and political freedom to the very poor; generate decent jobs and social mobility; incentivize entrepreneurship to unlock the potential of those outside the formal economy; and fortify the rule of law to fight that corruption, crime, and violence that debilitates societies.”

Morocco has started on that path: the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH); educational reform and investments in training and entrepreneurship; advanced regionalization; and improvements in childcare, women’s rights, and equitable access to basic infrastructure are propelling it in the right direction.

The hovering questions “Is there enough time,” and “Will the country stay the course,” can only be answered with confidence if the results of the country’s growth and enhancements to personal and collective rights are shared equitably. A diverse society like Morocco has much at risk without a shared vision of what Morocco will be and how all will benefit. This is where the king’s role as enabler-in-chief is so critical – generating national buy-in to a vision of an equitable, just, inclusive, and fair society that takes none for granted, at any level.

How Can the US Help?

While small government is a virtue to free-market advocates, progress is not free. As Noriega maintains, “If leaders committed to democratic capitalism are to succeed in winning and maintaining public confidence, they must attach greater value to poor and marginalized citizens and integrate them into plans for a better future.” And here is where the US is already helping, by enabling Moroccans to have a voice in their local governments.

counterpart internationalA recent USAID grant to Counterpart International has set up a Civil Society Strengthening Program (CSSP) to be piloted in two cities in Morocco to help, as their information sheet mentions, both “government and civil society work together to ensure a more inclusive government that represents all Morocco’s citizens.” In the northern city of Tetouan, the project works with the Municipal Council on implementing a three-year action plan to “strengthen local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and improve their participation in public affairs.”

The President of the municipality, Mr. Mohamed Idaomar, points out that there is “a real need for the involvement of an effective civil society in order to represent the concerns and the expectations of citizens and to identify priorities of the municipal action plan.”

In a similar way, the agreement between CSSP and the municipality of Temara “focuses on creating a consultative body to represent civil society, promote gender equality and equal opportunities for all citizens, and hold communication meetings with citizens.” USAID will provide technical and logistical support for the municipality to build its capacity for organizing training sessions for municipal staff on how to improve communications with citizens and CSOs.”

While these are small steps, taken together, they continue to move Morocco towards a more responsive, equitable, and just society, based on all hands working together.

Working Through Challenges, Morocco Maintains Focus on Progress

At a time when countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as the EU and US are struggling to balance civil liberties and heightened security measures, it is helpful to look at other factors contributing to a country’s stability and progress. This was the overall theme in articles published by www.the-report.com earlier this year, in conjunction with the International New York Times.

The series featured interviews with leaders in Morocco’s public and private sector, and articles covering some of the more visible development projects that are changing the face and tempo of the country.

For example, the interview with the Head of Government, Abdelilah Benkiran, provided a much needed antidote to the fixation on the role of religion in the Islamic-led government. Disagreements both major and minor (read abortion and gay rights to ads for alcoholic beverages on television) take up most of the media space with little insight, in the English-language press, about the PJD’s overall philosophy of governance. One message that sounded almost libertarian: “I believe that the government should disengage itself from all of the sectors that the private sector or civil society would take better charge of,” says Benkiran, “and refocus the available resources towards the citizens, the sectors and the regions that need them most.”

Given the current contentious climate in Morocco over a new media/press law, rights for juveniles, treatment of immigrants and migrants, enhanced rights for women, implementation of programs that equalize treatment of the Amazigh language, and the place of English in the educational system, recognizing private-public sector partnerships in concrete terms may go a long way to building consensus on policies to move forward.

Another article in the report looked at education and progress in economic development, which are closely linked because of the challenge to Morocco’s educational system to turn out qualified human resources. As the report notes, “With top-down educational reform now the focus of ambitious investment programs to transform the labour market, the country is ready to realise its potential both as regional hub and global competitor.” International donors, various ministries, NGOs, and civil society top the list of major players in redefining and empowering education and training in Morocco.

The series also surveyed efforts by the government to improve the quality of its workforce development strategies. “A major element in delivering Vision 2030, a roadmap to wholesale education improvements, are efforts to broaden Morocco’s talent pool via a significant increase in the number of scholarships and closer alignment with vocational training to better prepare its graduates for the job market.” Only by addressing the education sector broadly, from improving retention rates after primary school to improving the quality of products generated by universities, will concrete progress be achieved.

This raises additional concerns beyond the various players in the training and educational system, such as providing the technical infrastructure to support efforts that sustain institutional players and are also vital to the continued growth of entrepreneurism. “With the National Broadband Plan aiming to achieve broadband coverage for 100 percent of the population by 2022, Morocco’s nascent tech start-ups are ready to rise.” Extensive broadband is essential for the growth of technology and knowledge industries as well as its role as an enabler for existing industries to retool and reach new markets.

“Today, Morocco is the continent’s second-largest pharmaceutical exporter, with seven to eight percent of production now leaving the country, largely southward.  Following the expansion of its …state-of-the art manufacturing plant, however, Laprophan is looking not just to boost exports to Africa but also to the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.”

Morocco’s story would not be complete without acknowledging its vision to become a regional leader. “Today, although there is still much to be done, the country has nevertheless achieved the privileged status of a stable, peaceful Arab nation, governed smoothly by a democratically elected Islamist party. The successful transition from traditional kingdom to a modern global player, envied throughout the Arab and Muslim world, means that today more than ever Morocco is a key force in the region.”

The article focusing on Africa points out that “Numerous institutional and societal advances have laid the foundation for this stability, while economic reforms have succeeded in improving the day-to-day life of the Moroccan people and positioned the country comfortably and sustainably in the global arena.”

When looking south, one can’t help but be impressed with the results of King Mohammed VI’s “economic diplomacy.” “Today, 55 percent of Royal Air Maroc’s traffic goes to African countries, making Casablanca a regional hub. Morocco is also now the best-connected African country by sea routes, according to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report, and has seen a 20 percent increase in 2015 in the number of containers going through its ports.”

In a related interview, US Ambassador to Morocco Dwight Bush, provided three reasons why he is optimistic about Morocco. The first is its open and progressive business climate. The second is security throughout the country that has resulted “principally because you have a moderate, progressive Islamic state headed by King Mohammed VI who has a vision of his country, his people and their participation both internally and on the continent to try to help other countries to come along as well.”

The third item for Ambassador Bush mentions is Morocco’s political progress. “From a political perspective, Morocco has been ahead of many others in the region.” He sums up his view in what is a fitting conclusion to the series. “The hope is that Morocco continues to show by example how to work effectively to move the country forward, recognizing that you have needs for security as well as liberties and freedoms. And so in addition to our commercial and investment orientation, we work with the Moroccans to expand civil society and political institutions.”

It is a series worth exploring in detail.

To Smooth the Storm, Morocco Pushes On

Articles, favorable and not, continually assess Morocco’s strategic responses to the Arab Uprisings, which King Mohammed VI took on head first by quickly promoting a new Constitution (2011); holding elections for a new Parliament to be led by the party with the most seats, in this case the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (PJD); and speaking out often about the need for more citizen participation in the affairs of government. He has also reiterated his commitment to better education outcomes, more equitable economic development, and greater personal and institutional freedoms (e.g., for the media and the judiciary).

Those who defend the regime say this process began with the installation in the late 1990s of an opposition leader as Prime Minister and awareness by King Hassan II, the current King’s father, that unchallenged royal “business as usual” would not survive another decade. They blame the slow pace of change on the birthing pains of a parliamentary democracy, where every current has the ability to prolong debate and question ministers.

Critics of the regime, both Moroccan and otherwise, are of two minds—either the government has been co-opted and still remains too friendly to the royal palace, slowing down needed reforms, or it is a conspiracy in which a slow pace maintains stability and reforms that threaten existing power centers are stalled. They point to the level of human rights abuses, negative government responses to criticism at home and abroad, and lack of large-scale job creation as indicators of failures.

The reality fluctuates between “the government is beholden to the palace and won’t rock the boat” and “the King is a visionary who supports, and indeed calls for, more progress than is being made.” Realistically, the question is: what can Morocco do and what is the reality behind its moderate and mostly successful leadership in the region?

A difficult yet necessary point of departure are the redlines in Moroccan discourse: the monarchy, territorial integrity (read: the Western Sahara/South/Southern Provinces), and Islam. Negative comments on any of these issues have led to bloggers being jailed, newspapers being fined and harassed, and strong criticism levied by government spokespersons.

How does Morocco’s handling of these core topics contribute to understanding the debate around the country’s progress?

Let’s begin with the monarchy. The King still is the symbolic and real leader in military, political, and religious affairs. But the new constitution gave real powers to the Parliament, which is still evolving as an institutional force. Intense debate and discourse take place, and the media follows and stokes partisans on all sides of the issues. So while Parliament might only get a grade of C+ or C-, it is far more decisive than similar bodies in any of its neighbors.

Which brings us to the Sahara. Morocco remains steadfast in its claim to the South, committing billions of dollars to its development in the next 10 years. Some observers note a level of heightened security, some even call it excessive, when it comes to dealing with outsiders such as human rights organizations, left-wing European politicians, and NGOs with similar orientations. This is a difficult challenge for the government, which is working to balance safeguarding freedoms of speech and assembly with progress in implementing regionalization.

Islam is a special category in Morocco’s heritage. As a descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, the King has special obligations towards the religion. In response to critics who challenge the King’s religious role, one could ask: Would they prefer an Iranian or Saudi-style religious domain? The King’s promotion of Maliki Islam’s moderate principles throughout Africa and elsewhere, his exemplary handling of issues regarding the Jewish heritage of Morocco, and his continued interest in the status of Jerusalem are only some of Morocco’s assets when it comes to Islam.

Much has been made of Morocco’s imam and mourchidates training programs to counter violent extremism and the King’s promotion of women’s rights. Using Islam as a touchstone for Morocco’s progress illustrates the King’s awareness of the sensitive ground on which he is treading.

Morocco has much to offer, not as a model, but as a workshop in which democratic and social development challenges are being articulated, refined, and implemented. How it succeeds, in light of both external and internal obstacles, depends largely on the King’s ability to inspire Parliament and the Moroccan people to adopt progressive steps that enhance and enable the future. If Parliament takes advantage of the constitution and gradually builds an institutional foundation for government, and political parties mature as issue-driven entities, Morocco will succeed where others are failing.

Second Millennium Challenge Compact with Morocco Gathers Steam

Initial Contracts Being Signed; Formal Approval Needed by Moroccan Chamber of Deputies

There is good news coming from Washington and Rabat as the second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact with Morocco – valued in excess of $517 million ($450 US, $67.5 Morocco) — is taking off. The partnership between Morocco and the US that makes the MCC compact feasible is the result of years of collaboration across a range of projects funded by various US agencies. The mutual respect and trust engendered serves both as a model for other programs and a legacy of a friendship of shared values and interests in human, economic, and social development. The link to the compact site is http://compact2.cg.gov.ma , and the actual compact document is at https://assets.mcc.gov/documents/compact-morocco-employability-and-land.pdf

The process began in November with a “technical” signing that enables the release of funds for initial activities. The MCC press release notes that “Signature of the compact allows MCC and the GoM to begin the work necessary to ensure a successful and timely implementation of the program such as hiring staff and beginning key studies.  A larger, public ceremony to celebrate the commencement of compact activities is planned for spring 2016.”

With this “technical” signing, some $21.4 will million to be spent in the coming months to set up: financial management and procurement activities; basic administrative functions, including staffing, offices, equipment, and other items; finalizing monitoring and evaluation activities; hiring consultants for preparatory studies and activities; and other steps needed while awaiting final approval by the Chamber of Deputies.

In Morocco, the GoM will set up its MCC counterpart (in the office of the Head of Government); to establish its accounting and budgeting process; ensure that it “will not reduce the normal and expected resources that it would otherwise receive or budget from sources other than MCC for the activities contemplated under this Compact and the Program”; and continue to contribute its committed funding to existing programs that will be part of the compact.

 How the Process Works

Once Morocco was approved as a candidate for a second MCC grant, extensive consultations with stakeholders and a study by the African Development Bank identified weaknesses in workforce development and land management as obstacles to greater economic momentum. This resulted in a two-phase compact focusing on “Education and Training for Employability,” assigned $220 million; and $170.5 million allocated to “Land Productivity,” which concentrates on more effective management and investment practices for agricultural and industrial land. The rest of the grant is for monitoring and evaluation, program administration, in addition to contributions from the GoM.

Signing for the Moroccan side was the Head of Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, while Jonathan Bloom, Deputy Vice President, Africa, represented the MCC. It was attended by representatives of the seven Ministries, who, along with a private sector representative and two from civil society, will make up the Moroccan board of directors for the compact.

Once program areas are identified, “terms of reference” are developed to describe the goals of each program in sufficient detail that companies and organizations can submit comments – through “call for ideas” conferences –and eventually bid on services. The initial “call for ideas” conference results in public RFPs (Request for Proposal) in which competitive bids and project descriptions are submitted.

This process often results in new initiatives that had not been considered initially. One example is the Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) program to focus on support for new and existing public-private training centers, with companies taking the lead in the training and placement of trainees. The goal is to deeply involve the private sector in curriculum development, standards for qualifications, and eventual employment.

Land development is a much trickier proposition, as titling and management issues “inhibit access to and productive uses of rural and industrial land, thus diminishing investment and the consequent demand for labor.” “In rural areas, the project develops a faster, fairer, replicable process for moving the country’s collective irrigated land into the hands of smallholder farmers. In the industrial sector, the project develops a new model for industrial zone development” enabling the government to streamline how it brings industrial land to investors.

Overall estimated beneficiaries of the program are: more than 1.7 million graduates from improved and skills-centered secondary schools; 275,000 from the workforce development efforts; more than 80,000 farmers benefiting from improved rural land management; and some 96,000 benefiting from upgraded industrial land policies.

In addition, the MCC compact emphasizes sustainability across all sectors. Secondary Education “will pilot an Integrated School Improvement Model that will demonstrate how to achieve cost-effective, quality education, and a plan will be developed during the Compact for expansion of this model post-Compact. The Private Sector-Driven TVET grant facility is intended and designed to continue functioning after the Compact. GoM co-financing during the Compact will continue afterwards and enable the grant facility to continue.” Throughout the program, GoM and MCC “will collaborate to ensure that interventions aimed at mainstreaming social and gender inclusion will include mechanisms that promote sustainability beyond the Compact Term.”

There are many additional details available on the website, and more will emerge as future “call for ideas” conferences are announced. At this point, MCC is pleased with the enthusiasm and responses to the initial conferences from both Moroccan and US entities. Hopefully, the Chamber of Deputies will approve the overall compact in time for a formal signing in conjunction with the US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue in Rabat in April

Morocco Gains Important Support for Reform Agenda

World Bank Group and Millennium Challenge Corporation Stay the Course

As Morocco moves ahead with implementing the results of its historic regionalization elections held in September, international organizations continue to support measures to increase government accountability and capacity to manage. This is particularly critical at this time, when a massive transition is underway to redefine how local government and regional bodies will interact to better serve the needs of their constituents. Not only are regional bodies now directly elected, but Morocco has also reduced the number of regions from 16 to 12 provinces in an effort to focus decision-making at the regional level with support from the central government for national projects.

This is matched on the national level by the geographic redistribution of new economic development zones to bring more balance to the overall growth of the country, decentralizing overextended industrial urban areas such as Casablanca while creating incentives for greater mobility to populate these new areas. It is a comprehensive and multifaceted strategy that will take years to implement, yet Morocco shows no signs of weakening its resolve to make it happen.

I have often wondered how multilateral organizations such as the World Bank Group and bilateral assistance program such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) undertake their program formulations in specific sectors, especially if the goal is some years in the future. Two recent cases give some insights into their processes for building a suite of project recommendations with funding parameters unique to each country’s conditions.

World Bank Sustains Accountability Projects

It was recently announced that the World Bank would provide a $200 million loan to Morocco to promote government efficiency, transparency, and accountability. It is called the Transparency and Accountability Policy Loan (DPL) and is the second segment in a longer-term program to enable the government of Morocco to achieve its governance goals as outlined in the 2011 Constitution. What is not explained in the press release on the program is how the World Bank, working with the government of Morocco, decided that this project was a priority over others that might have a more immediate impact, such as drafting new health policies, or developing higher standards for teachers in the public school systems.

World Bank Continues to Support Morocco's Reforms

World Bank Continues to Support Morocco’s Reforms

Going back over the World Bank’s regional “Reading Room,” I found two studies highlighted in this blog. The first, “Trust, Voice, and Incentives: Learning from Local Success Stories in Service Delivery in the Middle East and North Africa,” concluded “that a cycle of poor performance has emerged in much of the region as a result of state institutions lacking both internal and external accountability mechanisms.” Thus the seed was sown for initiating projects focused on improved government accountability both in terms of internal functions and staffing, and mechanisms for delivering services.

This is of particular concern to King Mohammed VI, who consistently calls for a government responsive to its citizens and encourages increased efforts on behalf of constituent services. The initial emphasis in the DPL program was a set of reforms to heighten citizen awareness of and access to government services. This included greater on-line access to government ministries and information on services provided, increased openness on the national budget and budgeting process, and more details of the operations of Parliament in drafting and discussing bills.

According to the World Bank, “The second DPL provides further momentum through deepened support to policies for fiscal transparency and citizens’ access to information and the right to petition. The new operation also promotes increased efficiency in the overall handling of public funds, with a focus on better financial management at the central and local government, as well as state owned enterprises.”

A critical feature of the program, dubbed “Governance,” or “Hakama” in Arabic, is capacity building for administrators, managers, and information centers to make sure that staff acquires the skills needed to implement the reform protocols. As Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank Country Director for the Maghreb commented, “What matters now, however, is that Moroccans see the results of change, and that reforms lead to greater participation of citizens in public life.”

The World Bank is joined in this effort by the EU and the African Development Bank, which together have invested a further $250 million in support of the program and its reform agenda. Training and technical assistance is being provided to the central and local governments, and to parliament, in the areas of performance budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, fiscal decentralization, and citizen engagement.

MCC Initials Second Compact with Morocco

The second World Bank report, “Jobs or Privileges: Unleashing the Employment Potential of the Middle East and North Africa,” feeds directly into its programs in support of workforce development in Morocco and complements the recently announced second MCC compact with Morocco in the amount of close to $450 million.

MCC Board Votes Second Compact with Morocco

MCC Board Votes Second Compact with Morocco

According to the report’s editor, “This report argues that Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries face a critical choice in their quest for higher private sector growth and more jobs: promote competition, equal opportunities for all entrepreneurs and dismantle existing privileges to specific firms or risk perpetuating the current equilibrium of low job creation.” It is this nexus that is addressed in part by the MCC compact.

Recently released results of the “Call for Ideas” regarding the Morocco Private Sector Engagement Work Stream section of the second compact emphasize the need for equitable access to workforce development programs. It promotes public-private partnerships as the most efficient way to meet the goals of the program. The overall goal is two-fold – to improve the delivery of training services, especially in technical and vocational training, and to increase the effectiveness of intermediary services that link workers to jobs in the marketplace. It is anticipated that requests for proposals will be released in 2016.

Morocco is marshalling impressive national and international support for its economic growth and job creation strategies. Adapting lessons learned in other countries and utilizing a broad range of creative options are valuable mechanisms for accelerating the investments in people, training, and projects that will advance Morocco’s efforts.

Morocco, Elections, and Hi Tech – What is the Common Link?

It’s election season in Morocco, and the political parties are working hard to get out the vote. What makes these elections so special is that they are the first to be held under the 2011 Constitution’s provision for enhanced regionalization, by which local and regional authorities will have new budgetary and administrative powers previously held by the central government. In addition, for the first time, representatives of the regional councils will be directly elected, giving their constituents a stronger voice in managing local issues.

According to local observers, the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees municipal and regional matters, has developed an innovative text messaging form to link voters to their designated polling stations, ending the confusion of previous years where printed lists at each station had to be consulted for the right locations.

In addition, the political parties hunting for success on September 4th in the more than 31,000 seats being contested locally and 678 seats on the regional councils are using social media widely to spread their appeals. Given that there are at least 30 registered political parties vying for seats, it is no surprise that the ratio of candidates to positions is quite high – more than 4:1 in local elections and more than 10:1 for the regional councils. Parties have created on-line videos on YouTube, are live-streaming rallies and events, and broadening their outreach beyond their traditional districts.

One of the factors piquing voter interest is a new on-line program that brings questions from citizens directly to members of parliament, eventually to be extended to other elected officials. Developed by Andrew Mandelbaum, formerly of the US Institute for Peace and the National Democratic Institute, who speaks French, Arabic, and Moroccan colloquial Arabic, the site comes out of his long experience in governance programs in Morocco. He is concerned that “Citizens really rarely see a member of parliament actually answer to their needs and they have very few ways to transmit their needs to elected officials.” ­­­­

nouabook1Given his concern with this “trust gap,” he teamed up with Hind Kabaj, a Moroccan with previous US experience, to create SimSim-Participation Citoyenne’s website Nouabook.com, which means “My MPs” in the local dialect. To date, they have been able to introduce this free service throughout Morocco, garnering hundreds of inquiries that were transmitted directly to the MPs. What was surprising was the number of MPs who have responded and recognize the value of this form of citizen engagement.

While democracy is definitely in its developmental stage in Morocco, and there are few predictions about voter turnout or outcomes, there is a growing sense that Moroccans will heed the King’s recent call that “Citizens should vote for competent, credible candidates, who are committed to serving the public good…Voting is a right and a national duty, a major responsibility that has to be shouldered. It is a tool in your hands; you either use it to change the daily management of your affairs or to maintain the status quo, good or bad.”

Strong words that underscore the King’s commitment to proactively moving Morocco forward on its transition as a liberalizing democracy.