What’s All the Fuss about in the Sahara?

King’s Green March Speech Changes Tempo and Terms of Development

As I remarked in my last blog, there is a new energy in Morocco about the future of the (Western) Sahara as a result of King Mohammed VI’s visit, the extensive projects that were announced, and the commitments he made to the region’s development. Of course, there was the anticipated negative clamoring from the Polisario Front and its supporters, who have done next to nothing to improve the lives of the refugees under their control. It is ironic that they condemned Morocco’s role in the South at a time when the King is ratcheting up the government’s commitment to bring both “deep regionalization” and significant growth to the area.

According to news accounts, these projects will create tens of thousands of jobs, improve local infrastructure, and upgrade access to services for local communities. As importantly, as a result of regionalization, Moroccans living in the Southern Provinces [the South] of Sakia El Hamra Laayoune, Dakhla Oued Ed-Dahab, and Guemim Oued Noon, will have extensive authority running local affairs.

Among the most significant projects are the expansion and construction of a new port facility in Dakhla that will enable greater access by cruise ships to this very attractive area; extension of rail lines from Marrakech to Lagouira (La Güera) south of Dakhla, on the way to Mauritania, opening additional economic links to Africa; enhanced commuter access through new bus facilities; a four-lane highway between Tiznit and Dakhla, opening up the area as a distribution and logistics hub; a centralized training center to support local industries; an entertainment and sports complex; and a new headquarters for the Agency for the Development of the South.

In terms of additional infrastructure, plans include expanded road networks, upgrades to existing air transport facilities, improved community centers, hospitals, clinics, and schools, and a university. The long-term goal is to both enhance the South as a regional center for commerce and industry and make it a viable hub for servicing African markets and projects.

It is estimated that some $7 billion will be spent in the next 10 years in the South, making it a key destination for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), especially given the country’s preference for private-public-partnerships (PPPs) as a vehicle for large-scale projects – utilizing both technology and finance from reputable partners.

King Speaks to the People and the World

In his speech, King Mohammed was clear about his intentions. “We want to make a radical break with the manner in which Sahara issues have been dealt with so far: a break with the rentier economy and privileges, a break with poor private sector involvement and a break with the mentality of centralized administration.”

He attributed this shift in strategy to a realization that the status quo was not sufficient to achieve the full potential of the South. “I am keen to make sure we provide our fellow citizens in the southern provinces with all the necessary means to enable them to manage their own affairs and show they are capable of developing their region.” The King was clear that his vision for the South transcended politics and would build a strong business-based identity for the region, “to enhance the influence of the Sahara region as an economic hub and a crucial link between Morocco and its African roots.”

Among other projects, the King listed “major solar and wind energy projects,” and connecting Dakhla to the national grid – a critical ingredient in rationalizing the cost of power and the capacity to link to projects in Africa.

Other major projects that were included in the King’s remarks were “major seawater desalination plant in Dakhla and the establishment of industrial zones and facilities in Laayoun, El Marsa and Boujdour,” supported by the necessary legal framework that is business-friendly, encourages local and international investors, and attracts financing needed for these large projects.

He also addressed those who complain of Morocco’s use of resources in the South: “I should like to stress, in this connection, that revenue from natural resources will continue to be invested in the region, for the benefit of the local populations and in consultation and coordination with them.”

The King called for legislation that outlines the reciprocal responsibilities of the national and local governments and “to ensure citizen participation through platforms and mechanisms for permanent dialogue and consultation so that the citizens may fully subscribe to programs and be involved in their implementation. I therefore expect the inhabitants of our southern provinces and their representatives to live up to their responsibilities, now that we have set in place the institutional and development-related mechanisms for them to manage their affairs and cater for their needs.”

This is revolutionary stuff for Arab countries…struggling to recast the social contract that for generations defined the relationship between government and citizens. The King is advocating for a substantive recalibration of citizen participation within the framework of a responsive and accountable government. And he is backing up his vision with concrete steps that will change the face of the Sahara within an economic, social, and political framework that augers well for the future of Morocco.

Sensing Change in Morocco

What to do with Emerging People Power

Just back from 12 days in Morocco tucked in before Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been back for two years, and if I’d believed some press accounts, I would have expected to find a country straining to find its direction. Yet after more than a dozen meetings, informal chats, and leading a graduate seminar for the Executive MBA program at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI), I can say that those who are overwrought about Morocco’s future should focus more on enabling than second-guessing its intentions.

I have to admit that I’m lucky the in the reach of discussions that I had. People I spoke with came from the government, private sector, NGO and civil society communities, and specialized agencies, as well as the US embassy. There is a common thread of understanding that Morocco must do more, and an equally strong commitment to doing it right. Without surplus funds that bolster economic and fiscal policies in other countries, Morocco has to act decisively and in concert with the global investment community to fund ambitious projects ranging from transportation infrastructure and renewable energies to upgrading its public education system and creating sustainable jobs equitably.

Arriving soon after the King’s Green March speech of November 6, I was struck by how strongly Moroccans supported His Majesty’s messages on territorial integrity, regionalization, and economic development initiatives. There is clearly a great deal of respect for the King, which may go a long way to explaining why there is more emphasis among people I spoke with on getting things done without waiting for the government. There continues to be a general lack of faith in many of the political parties (some 31 contested in the last election) and a concern that the House of Deputies is more a house of disputation than collaboration. I know, it sounds familiar…price of democracy some were saying…no rubber stamps in this process!

King Mohammed VI Celebrates 40th Anniversary of Green March

King Mohammed VI Celebrates 40th Anniversary of Green March

The most common themes discussed were: Morocco’s intentions to fully develop the South (Western Sahara) and proceed with “deep” regionalization; concerns about the need for detailed implementation of regionalization, as well as more capacity-building for local officials, and guidelines describing the respective roles of the elected regional presidents and the walis (appointed by the King); the state of public education, which needs more resources and trained personnel; successes in the manufacturing and renewable resource sectors; and the overwhelming necessity to create more jobs without burdening the state.

These are complex issues; often they overlap and are part of a larger challenge. Where should interventions be prioritized in the education sector in the short term to accelerate qualified job seekers? Do you start with those in the job market, upcoming graduates, dropouts, or those with experience and no degrees? All are concerns, and Morocco is trying to offer multifaceted responses.

Another issue: I was told that middle class Moroccans are increasingly burdened by sending their children to private schools so that they can aspire to higher education abroad or at top schools in Morocco, several of which are English-speaking. This leads to a conundrum on several levels: how do you break the cultural perspective that everyone must have a university degree to be someone? How does one promote technical and vocational training as a path to a good-paying and respectable life? For those children who are qualified for higher education, what is the path to a quality program that rewards achievement and supports future schooling?

Morocco is still struggling with issues regarding languages of instruction – Amazigh (Berber), Arabic, French, and English requirements are not yet clearly defined in school programs, a task made more complicated by the prioritizing of resources to the Amazigh program and by lack of qualified English teachers. Hopefully a new collaboration between AMIDEAST and the Minister of National Education will soon start certifying qualified English language instructors.

Parliament is working on a number of critical bills to help facilitate business development through easier financing; enable broad judicial reforms throughout the system; and deal with thorny issues such as land registration and a national media protocol. It appeared from my brief observations that there is increased emphasis on basic economic and rights issues that are at the top of the country’s agenda. There are also discussions about changing regulations to allow more public-private partnerships, which requires revising current incentive guidelines.

The much anticipated opening this December of Noor I, the flagship CSP solar power facility near Ourzazate, was obviously a hot topic, as it exemplifies the country’s commitment to renewables, which I heard repeated in numerous conversations. From ADEREE to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to several entrepreneurs looking for new venture opportunities, there is a buzz about how to leverage Morocco’s growth in renewables into hundreds of jobs in servicing installations both gigantic and household. This is clearly a growth sector throughout the country.

I also want to say a few words about my students – all professionals in fields ranging from engineering to finance to administration, in the public and private sectors. Spending upwards of 12 hours a day with them renewed my confidence in Morocco’s future. They see their country’s shortcomings all too well, as they experience them daily. Yet they are determined, even when personally paying for the degree, to make a difference in their lives and their country. They are sacrificing a lot to become proficient in skills that are a stretch for those emerging from traditional educational systems. I want to acknowledge their hearts…strong and able to grow when challenged.

If Morocco listens, it will hear the future in their voices.

What’s at Stake in 2015 for Morocco?

Will the reform agenda, growth targets, and regional security goals be attained?

In the past few months, I have written several blogs marking the progress of Morocco’s bilateral relationship with the US, including highlights from 2014 ranging from expanded security cooperation and several high level business conferences, to highly visible and successful participation in the US-Africa Leaders Summit and Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with King Mohammed VI.

While these are useful hallmarks for 2014, they are in some ways benchmarks for viewing challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. There is much to be done if Morocco is to maintain its momentum as a liberalizing and secure country.

When looking to 2015, three key categories of issues stand out. The first of course are issues related to the Western Sahara including the MINURSO renewal, disruptive actions of the Polisario Front supported by Algeria, and the potential for US foreign assistance to be extended to Sahara to advance human development.

Closely related to this are regional security and stability concerns including combating violent extremism through internal and external efforts; counteracting the ISIS threat inherent in militants returning from war-torn areas in the Levant; and supporting stronger regional economic ties to boost employment.

Finally, Morocco has quite a diverse domestic reform agenda, which includes legislation addressing key constitutional issues and continued efforts to expand its commercial and investment opportunities, promote entrepreneurship, and advance its role as a business platform for Africa.

Although the agenda is quite complex and requires heightened cooperation and collaboration among government, the private sector, and civil society, the seeds have been planted for potentially beneficial outcomes. And regardless of what some pundits claim, Morocco alone, among the Maghreb countries, has the domestic leadership stability to take risks to advance its agenda.

Western Sahara

The annual renewal of the MINURSO mandate by the UN Security Council, required to enable it to continue its mission as observers in the Western Sahara in support of a sustainable resolution to the conflict, is anything but routine. Despite recent attempts to impose a human rights monitoring role on MINURSO, Morocco has been able to demonstrate that it takes its role in the territory quite seriously and extends human rights protections throughout all of Morocco. This has enabled Morocco’s friends on the Security Council to promote extensive collaboration between Morocco and UN agencies on this issue and avoid inserting a human rights monitoring role in the MINURSO mandate.

Despite Morocco’s steps to improve the lives of the people in the South, the Polisario Front, fully supported by Algeria, continues an extensive campaign to challenge Morocco’s presence in the area, with some of its members aligning themselves to trafficking, smuggling, and militant elements who are a significant threat throughout the region. Algeria plays its part by maintaining the closure of its border with Morocco, opposing Morocco’s diplomatic initiatives, and refusal to engage in broader conversations on security and economic development.

Perhaps the prospects for positive results from hydrocarbon exploration in the area will encourage the parties to seriously engage in dialogue regarding how to best insure the future of the southern region, which depends on support from Rabat for its economic, social, and infrastructure growth. A significant step by the US government, which mandates US foreign assistance funding in the Sahara, may prove to be a catalyst to promoting the long-sought acknowledgement by Sahrawis enclosed in the Polisario camps in Algeria that their futures are better secured in a thriving, committed Morocco.

Working on a Secure, Stable Future for the Region

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco's King Mohammed VI

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI

King Mohammed VI has repeatedly called for a multidimensional approach to combating violent extremism at home, including job training, family counseling, and emphasizing religious moderation. This same approach defines Morocco’s approach to regional security and stability – training imams in moderate religious discourse; broadening economic growth to be more inclusive and sustainable; and working with governments and private sectors to support greater attention to enfranchising marginalized and excluded minorities.

Morocco’s role in the coalitions against ISIS and al-Qaeda demonstrates the strong position that the country has taken to challenge extremism and militants bent on destruction and mayhem. Hosting coalition meetings, sending forces to the UAE for military technical assistance, and participating in airstrikes against ISIS are a few of the more visible steps taken by Morocco this past year.

As importantly, the government of Morocco, under the King’s leadership, has entered into more than 80 agreements with its African neighbors to expand economic opportunities and diminish the attraction of militant recruitment.

Growing the Region, Changing Lives for the Better

Domestically, Parliament and the government have a full slate of bills that will implement significant changes in how the country operates. Chief among these is the restructuring of the judicial system to make it independent of outside forces. Other efforts of note include finalizing the new law on associations, which will define guidelines for registering civil society organizations and other associations; and passing the law that eliminates the use of military tribunals for political offenses.

Mourchidate working in community center

Key 2015 Event: Local Elections

Another event to watch is how the government and political parties conduct themselves in the upcoming local elections. Heralded as a concrete step towards regionalization, the elections are already contentious since Parliament has not yet passed the empowering electoral law for the elections to proceed, the myriad possibilities of alliances among parties, the role of  international organizations encouraging a more competitive and open process, and the implications of the various results scenarios.

Hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) was only the latest showcase in Morocco’s commitment to domestic and regional economic growth. The country is moving to maximize its parallel strategy of growing investments in diverse sectors while promoting workforce education and training that results in market-ready labor. Where Morocco is getting it right is emphasizing programs beyond IT to agriculture, hospitality and financial services, skills trade, and special efforts for youth and women.

2015 can be another breakout year for Morocco. Falling energy prices are reducing the drag of energy imports on the economy. Subsidies are being phased out or re-targeted for maximum savings and impact; and the business environment continues to improve for both domestic and international companies. The year may be long and difficult, full of domestic, regional, and international challenges. Yet there seems to be a growing commitment to see the future as an opportunity, which is the key ingredient for success.

Investing in Natural Resources in the Western Sahara

How Morocco is Meeting International Standards for Resource Management

The most challenging decision facing companies interested in doing business the Western Sahara is gaining sufficient awareness of how external realities and internal facts on the ground affect the business environment in which they will be working. For the Western Sahara, this means that one must understand the overall milieu in Morocco, how this impacts the Sahara, and what, if any, special considerations affect potential operations in the south.

The Business Environment

When one takes a close look at what’s going on in Morocco, two large issues stand out: the need for jobs and the demand for transparency. Morocco has a young population whose education, job, and social needs must be met. But the government, which imports more than 95 percent of its energy needs and spends up to seven percent of GDP on subsidies for food, energy, and social services, does not have unlimited resources to stimulate job creation. This is, in fact, an opportunity for companies, which can play a key role in setting economic growth strategies through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Local and international private sectors have much to offer. Their knowledge of global and local markets, the competition, and the costs of doing business affect everything from labor/employment/training priorities to what is needed from governments in terms of infrastructure and investment incentives. Morocco values PPPs because they bring technical expertise and funding to projects that might otherwise be delayed or never get off the ground.

With regard to the Western Sahara, business opportunities have been limited to date, despite claims by some of its extensive on and off shore resources. Without expanded infrastructure, robust development of existing and potential resources remains limited. The previous Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact in Morocco addressed some issues for ramping up the fishing industry but did not extend its work to the Sahara. It is hoped that the increased pace of exploration for gas and oil will encourage more companies—if outcomes are successful—to look at supply chains and value-added industries and services as viable prospects for doing business in the Western Sahara.

As importantly, Morocco knows what it has to do to reassure the international business community on issues of transparency. The joint declaration of principles concerning hydrocarbon exploration and production, proposed revision to labor statutes, overall judicial reforms, environmental codes, and related regulations, all demonstrate that Morocco is committed to best practices in terms of local consultation, empowering beneficiaries equitably, and protecting investments.

Fairness and Equity in Resource Management

Morocco has adopted a policy towards governing the Sahara and management of its resources that is serious, realistic, and credible. In 2006, it proposed autonomy for the region, the only fresh thinking to date on resolving the political conflict. Also, as part of the overall Moroccan reform process that started in the late 90s, the people of the Sahara fully participate in local and national elections, have their own representatives locally and in Parliament, and are included in national development programs such as the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH) and the Millennium Development Goals’ social, economic, and human development programs.

Title page of the CESE report

CESE Study which sets the model for Morocco in the Sahara

To develop a new regional model for sustainable development throughout the country, King Mohammed VI tasked the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) to undertake extensive consultations with stakeholders in the south, and with analysts, experts, and researchers to draw up recommendations, which resulted in three key assessments:

Despite the expenditure of around $2.5 billion over the past decade, much more has to be done to achieve the vision of economic growth and robust local governance.

A new model and budget for sustainable and participatory development in the region is needed to build capacity for representative and effective local governance, economic and social growth—a model centered on a culture of human rights, honoring ethnic diversity, and treating all citizens equally.

The participatory democracy model must have at its core inputs of local stakeholders and potential beneficiaries for the use of local on- and off-shore natural resources. This commitment is already evident: in the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement, and Joint Declaration of Principles regarding energy exploration and production, both of which commit to returning benefits to the local population; in upgraded programs for supporting small- and medium-sized businesses; in market-linked training programs; and in the broad range of legislation to be enacted to implement the recommendations of the CESE report, budgeted at some $18 billion over the next 10 years.

Why Invest in the Sahara

As noted, not only has Morocco already invested some $2.5 billion in the infrastructure and social services in the Sahara, it is poised to spend $18 billion more in the next 10 years, whether or not oil and gas are found in commercial quantities. This means opportunities in light manufacturing, port and transport facilities, value-added fish and food processing, and infrastructure projects, among others.

The south of Morocco is part of the government’s substantial program of investments in renewable energies. This will generate a broad array of supply-chain opportunities for new businesses and services. To support this growth, the government hass in place specific training incentives to bring local hires up to market-ready standards.

Morocco banks on solar power

Solar Array in Morocco

In terms of managing the natural resources in the south, then, a key element is managing expectations about what is yet to be realized. Rathern than waiting to see what happens in the hydrocarbon sector, companies can look at what can be done within the broad parameters of recommendations from the CESE report. With Congress’ lifting of restrictions on US funding in the south as part of the 2014 Appropriations law, EX-IM Bank, OPIC, and other US agencies should be redefining their missions in the Sahara.

Ironically, several analysts have already opined that oil and gas discoveries in the Sahara may actually speed a peaceful resolution of the conflict in a win-win outcome. Under its commitment to benefit the local inhabitants and its adoption of the CESE recommendations, Morocco has made a credible case for ending the humanitarian crisis in the Tindouf camps by bringing the refugees home, and empowering the local population through the sustainable, participatory democracy envisioned in the CESE reports.

If all politics is local, then Morocco should focus on details of effective governance

Given that Morocco is on schedule to produce recommendations for implementing regionalization in its southern provinces, it is a good time to reflect on what is involved in regionalization, once it is defined in law.

There are at least four intersecting lines of authority involved in the devolution of power from the central government to locally elected officials:

  • The division of political/administrative decision-making among the central government, the regional authorities (currently 16 regions and 61/62 provinces), and local governments.
  • Prioritizing and managing the country’s economic investments, including infrastructure, economic development projects, tourism, agriculture, economic growth, entrepreneurship, and higher education.
  • Coordinating the provision of citizen services, including health, education (at all levels, including technical and vocational training), retirement, disability, and environmental services and monitoring.
  • Supporting all of these lines are mechanisms dealing with taxation, human and natural resources, accounting and reporting, and coordinated monitoring and evaluation of government performance.

Managing the transition to regionalization

This brief list gives a flavor of the complexity of moving ahead with regionalization. It is important to recognize that given this complexity, it may take up to a decade before full regionalization in any one area of Morocco is completely implemented.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of international experience that can help Morocco to meet the challenges of devolving authority and building the institutional and human capacity needed.

A good place to start to gather experience on the road ahead is at the 2nd World Summit of Local Leaders and the 4th Congress of United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) being hosted in Rabat this week.  With delegates attending from more than 100 countries, “The Summit is envisaged to be a unique opportunity to present and discuss concrete local solutions to world challenges. It will also be the occasion to define policy, shape action and set future strategic goals for the new international development agenda.”

Local governments throughout the world, and in places such as Morocco where the urban population now exceeds 70 percent of the population, are increasingly tasked with spearheading new delivery systems for social services, reducing congestion and pollution, balancing budgets through creating new and more efficient revenue sources, and integrating their initiatives and responsibilities within a larger, national fabric.

King Mohammed VI made Morocco’s commitment to this vision clear.  Addressing the UCLG Congress leaders, he acknowledged the “tremendous responsibility incumbent upon local and regional actors” for “building good governance within their territorial boundaries.”

He declared “It is no longer acceptable today that central governments should have exclusive authority in defining development strategies for local communities.”

Ensuring “local authorities have the necessary legal, financial and human resources” to “fulfill their mission,” the King said, “needs to be placed at the heart of local public policy.”

The Rabat meetings will enable local and regional leaders, multilateral partners, analysts and researchers, and specialists in the complexities of urban society to review and make recommendations regarding the next set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within the framework of Habitat III, set to begin in 2016.

It is a prime opportunity for Moroccans to discuss the opportunities and challenges of moving forward with decentralization while ensuring quality of life for its citizens.

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Morocco’s CESE Project: Regionalization empowering local populations

This is the second in a series on the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) project to produce a report “assessing effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights in the southern provinces – laying the groundwork for regionalization in the south and throughout Morocco.

Morocco’s 2011 Constitution called for “regionalization,” or devolving administrative powers including budgets, hiring, taxation, municipal functions, and similar responsibilities to locally elected officials. It turns out that this approach is not a new idea for King Mohammed VI. One of his first actions upon ascending the throne in 1999 was to move forward with the partial devolution of political decision-making from the capital Rabat to the provincial governors, a program that had been announced in 1997. Although this was a partial reform to share decision-making between the government based in Rabat and the provincial governors, it was considered quite innovative, if only marginally successful due to delays in its implementation. It set a clear precedent and showed that the King had every intention to change how Morocco is governed.

A preferred modus operandi for the King is to reach consensus on contentious issues—such as the 2004 reform of the family law—through debate and consultation. In the same way, regionalization was put on the public agenda as early as 2006 with the resurrection of the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), which was charged with coming up with a autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara built around decentralization. That was followed quickly by the Moroccan Autonomy Initiative in 2007, which called for decentralizing authority to the people and institutions of the Western Sahara to manage their own affairs while remaining under Moroccan sovereignty.

The next step was to further elaborate on the principles of decentralization. In a November 2008 speech, the King stated that the aim of decentralization is to “enable good local governance . . . respond more closely to the citizen’s needs, and boost integrated . . . development.” King Mohammed has been especially keen in multiple speeches to emphasize citizen participation in government, which reflects the need to engage communities in ongoing dialogue about managing how government is to serve the people.

In a November 2009 speech and then again in June 2010, the King indicated that the southern provinces will be the first region to experience the benefits of regionalization. In the Advisory Council’s final report in March 2011, decentralization was defined within the context of how institutions and responsibilities could be allocated in a new model of local government. All of this activity was superseded by King Mohammed’s March 9, 2011 speech, in which he announced the forming of a commission to draft a new constitution, and he made specific mention of decentralization as a key means of empowering the people.

As Youssef Ben-Meir, head of the High Atlas Foundation, wrote in 2010, regionalization/decentralization is more than institution-building or shifting responsibilities from one level of bureaucracy to another.  “… A range of important managerial capabilities must be developed among local public and private organizations through training, education, and experience. Successful decentralization programs build administrative capabilities of local government, civil organizations, and community groups, as well as their technical skills and capacities to apply participatory planning, resolve conflicts, and manage resources.”

While the 2011 Constitution may lay the groundwork for regionalization, and the Parliament may pass the enabling legislation taking into consideration the CESE report recommendations, an equally daunting yet more critical task is capacity-building for those who will be tasked on a daily basis with making regionalization work on the ground. That is the core challenge of decentralization and should be its most enduring legacy.

Morocco’s CESE Project: The Makings of Democracy

This is the third in a series of blog posts on Morocco’s Economic, Social, & Environmental Council (CESE) project to assess “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural & environmental rights in the southern provinces – laying the groundwork for regionalization in the south & throughout Morocco.”

For its 2013 International Day of Democracy—Sunday, September 15—the United Nations promoted the theme of “Strengthening Voices through Democracy,” to “shine a spotlight on the importance of people’s voices, both expressed directly and through their elected representatives, in today’s political, economic, social, developmental, environmental and technological debates.”

That’s exactly what Morocco’s regionalization plan wants to do.

Although consultation has long been a feature of King Mohammed VI’s strategy for building public support for major initiatives such as the family law and autonomy proposal, those were largely top-down plans. The Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) is taking a different vector: it starts from the testimonies of hundreds of Moroccans about very specific concerns that they have about every conceivable issue of governance—from environmental issues to gender equality and the role of state agencies in human and social development. These testimonies are then correlated with research studies that collect data on the issues and literally generate report cards on how the government is doing. Contrast this to the uncertain and often failed policy processes in other Arab countries and one begins to appreciate the forward-leaning approach embodied in this uniquely Moroccan synthesis.

CESE’s Commitment to Engaging the People

While there is much anticipation for the CESE mid-term report due shortly, the initial report gives clear indicators of where Morocco is headed on the issue of local governance and reform. The CESE team encourages improvement in civil dialogue (p.30), and speaks of the importance of building “trust among the populations of the southern regions and fostering confident ties between the populations in these regions and public institutions (p.32).” Recognizing the benefits of regionalization, the report notes, “This aspiration to participation [in local governance] should be leveraged in a positive manner by…addressing…citizens’ trust in the government’s ability to respect and guarantee their human rights (p.35).”

When addressing transparency in the consultation process, the report points out that “stakeholders information and consultation, and their participation in the design, achievement and evaluation of the objectives and policies pursued by an organization, whether public or private, is a lever for improving decision-making processes and for strengthening both the perception and exercise of democracy (p.132).” CESE emphasizes the role of civil society in the information-sharing process, noting that this “principle is enshrined in the Constitution (Article 156), which significantly strengthened the principles of representative and participatory democracy (p.132).”

Making Moroccan Regionalization—and Democracy—a Success

Knowing that democracy-building is an important priority for US foreign affairs, and that former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the current Secretary John Kerry and President Barack Obama have all shown a keen interest in Morocco’s progress, I spoke to a senior official at the International Republican Institute (IRI) to better understand how the US can support Morocco’s drive for democratic reforms.  I asked him how he would define “success” for regionalization and the CESE project.

He responded by breaking it out at the national, provincial, and local levels. At the national level, there has to be clear definition of the powers to be shared and how they are to be implemented and evaluated over time. At the provincial level, there must be a clear understanding of the roles of leaders such as the governor and agency heads so that they accept their responsibilities to the central government, to local officials, and to the citizens in their provinces. At the local level, encompassing locally elected municipal officials and local agency representatives, the concrete impact of regionalization must be monitored and officials held accountable for meeting the needs of the people.

The key, he believes, is setting in motion mechanisms for enabling citizens to fully participate in local decision-making. With its broad experience in promoting democracy and good governance, the US can provide Morocco with examples that have worked in other countries. Town meetings, consultations with civil society, and grassroots organizing are some of the means for engaging citizen groups and building trust. The bottom line is to continue to create trust between citizens and local officials, thus reinforcing support for social and economic development. Empowering citizens goes beyond statements to specific opportunities to run for local office, testify at council meetings, hold town meetings for engaging citizens and officials on issues such as the budget processes and program priorities, ensuring transparency on setting local ordinances, and similar outreach. All of these are elements of a recurring theme: capacity building for officials, civil society, and change agents at all three levels responsible for implementing regionalization.

So far, Morocco is getting it right…a transparent, consultative process among all stakeholders to build mutual respect and trust in a regionalization program that will vest responsibility and resources for local decisions in the affected communities. It is a revolution of real consequences for the entire region.

Engaging Stakeholders in Defining Future of Morocco’s So. Provinces

Having completed the second iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, the CESE traveled to Dakhla, the major tourism center in the region, to sound out the local population on its drafted recommendations.

Having completed 2nd iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, CESE traveled to Dakhla to sound out local population on its drafted recommendations.

 This is the fourth  in a series of blog posts on Morocco’s Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) project to assess “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural & environmental rights in the southern provinces – laying the groundwork for regionalization in the south and throughout Morocco.”


During my recent visit to Morocco, I was curious to discover if people, particularly those who are politically aware, were following what the country is doing to define its strategic vision for the Southern Provinces.

As with any unscientific sample, I may not have captured a complete cross-section of Moroccan perspectives, but that didn’t diminish the interesting responses I encountered. Two key themes are intertwined in the proposed vision: regionalization — that is, devolving power from the central government to locally elected officials — and citizen participation, which leads to greater accountability in that governing process.

Opinions ranged from a small minority of shrugged shoulders, with little or no knowledge of the work of the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE), to those who strongly support moving towards autonomy for the south through regionalization. People in the know were emphatic that the change in Council leadership to Nizar Baraka, the former finance minister, would mean continuity in the serious and detailed work of CESE.

The Stakeholders Take Center Stage

Having completed the second iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, the CESE traveled to Dakhla, the major tourism center in the region, to sound out the local population on its drafted recommendations.

Quite a cross-section of Sahrawis and other Moroccans attended, representing local government officials, civil society, tribal federations, professionals, and citizens, whose opinions covered the spectrum of positions on Morocco’s role in the Southern Provinces. Supporters and dissidents had the opportunity to learn if the testimonies they had given at earlier town hall meetings had been integrated into the preliminary recommendations.

Much to CESE’s credit, there appeared to be general agreement that the representations were fairly stated. The audience took the time to ask questions, present clarifications and examples of concerns, and take issue with or support the report’s findings. It was a somber yet enthusiastic gathering, which demonstrated that in the sometimes confusing transition to democracy, Morocco is moving in a constructive and healing direction.

The notions of healing and justice, along with fairness and transparency, were repeated often during the exchanges. Citizens who were skeptical that the report would be taken seriously even though it was commissioned by King Mohammed VI, were emphatic that it was long past time for locally elected officials to have the responsibility and resources to provide social and government services without bias. Those who were encouraged by the report’s initial conclusions praised its emphasis on transparency, accountability, and rule of law as markers for how the region should be governed. There was general agreement that short-term changes were critical to build credibility and indicate the seriousness of the regionalization project.

Next Steps

If one thing is clear from the Arab uprisings, it is that the transition to greater democracy and economic and political reforms can be quite challenging, as well as destabilizing. Morocco has avoided the conflict and bloodshed that has afflicted others in the region, yet it is clear from those with whom I spoke that there is a need for game-changing actions sooner rather than later. The introduction of judicial reform legislation, the anticipation of the new government in formation, which should make economic reforms less difficult to adopt, and the general acceptance of evolution rather than revolution as the way forward are all helpful ingredients in Morocco’s particular recipe for change.

It is interesting to observe, from the perspective of how US democracy evolved, that regardless of the cultural environment or diversity of the population, citizens today still aspire to the same goals: rule of law, justice, equality, and respect without discrimination. And achieving them requires patience, perseverance, and active participation by those citizens over the long haul.

The CESE report lays down serious markers for where Morocco should be heading, and it was done by Moroccans, for Moroccans. Nice.

Morocco’s CESE project: Capacity building key for regionalization

In late 2012, the Economic, Social, and Environment Council (CESE) was charged by King Mohammed VI with assessing “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the southern provinces.”It released its first report in March of this year. Another interim report is expected shortly, and by the end of 2013, the Council will complete a comprehensive assessment of the governance of Morocco’s southern provinces, which include the Western Sahara.

CESE is addressing five challenges: “boosting the economy; consolidating social cohesion and promoting culture; enhancing social inclusion and consolidating the fight against poverty; ensuring effective protection of the environment and sustainable territorial development; and defining responsible, inclusive governance.”

Morocco has done something unique in that it has instituted reforms from above rather successfully through gradual but serious steps.

The importance of the CESE project cannot be overstated. At a time when governments in the region are in turmoil over defining constitutional powers, mechanisms for decision-making, and embracing principles of governance, Morocco is an example of a path that can be taken through the shared commitment of a country’s leadership and its citizens. Once again King Mohammed is pushing a major policy shift by encouraging debate and consultation among all stakeholders, including the opposition, to learn from the past so that Morocco’s strategies are firmly grounded in what Moroccans value.

This is the same thinking that led to the Human Development Report, which evaluated the first 50 years of Morocco’s development after it regained full independence in 1956. Based on its recommendations, King Mohammed undertook the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), a multi-billion dollar effort that is the country’s cornerstone program to reduce poverty, end the marginalization of target populations, and promote sustainable economic development.

The CESE project has the same ground-breaking implications, since the King has made it clear its recommendations will result in guidelines for the regionalization strategy to devolve political and economic decision-making power to locally elected officials. As a colleague recently remarked to me, “Morocco has done something unique in that it has instituted reforms from above rather successfully through gradual but serious steps.” To complement this approach, the King is now focusing on capacity-building at the local levels to prepare the country for regionalization, and the CESE is the point of the spear.

What the CESE is doing and saying

In its initial report in March 2013, the CESE provided extensive coverage of the more than 50 meetings it held in the south, hearing testimony from more than 1,000 stakeholders representing “local elected officials, representatives of professional chambers, business leaders, trade union representatives, chiefs of external branch offices, and representatives of dozens of civil society organizations involved in human and social rights.”

In addition, extensive research on human development indicators is being collected and analyzed to determine the performance of government programs in the southern regions. These meetings are supported by a CESE citizens’ web-based forum called Al Moubadara Lakum to gather studies, recommendations, projects, analyses, and ideas about the “format of the new development model for the southern provinces.” In addition, CESE has called for proposals from researchers and doctoral students in fields related to this project.

To any objective observer, the report included criticism of the government as well as praise. Progress in health, education, and basic services was contrasted with deficient public administration, the predominance of security considerations in the approach to political rights, and the ineffective engagement of civil society. A key observation by the CESE team is that “among other shortcomings and limitations to address is a wake-up call for a change in the mindset, behaviors, and habits of policymakers and elites in charge of ensuring the development of the southern provinces.”

This calls for a progressive outlook of incremental change that mirrors the King’s proposed new relationship for governance. The report includes strong statements on human rights with specific references to seminal UN documents and the 2011 Constitution regarding the protection and pre-eminence of human and civil rights. In one salient statement, the report notes that, “Underpinning the expectations in the south in terms of social well-being, the realization and exercise of freedoms, and transparent, responsible attitudes by government authorities and their representatives is an aspiration for the advent of a mature civil society which is recognized and empowered to run local affairs.”

The CESE will release policy recommendations in the final report later this year, and its intentions are clear: to chart a path for Morocco’s regionalization that is based on a reformulated partnership among the people, the government, and the King. This is the legacy the King is committed to, and he will continue to take steps to ensure its achievement.