Morocco’s poor left be­hind by growth boom

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

AZROU, Morocco: Mo­hammed Akki left his home in Morocco’s Mid­dle At­las moun­tains to seek reg­u­lar work and a bet­ter life in the town of Azrou, but he still lives on the mar­gins in a coun­try en­joy­ing an in­vest­ment boom. Ev­ery morn­ing, Akki walks miles into Azrou, where he may or may not find work as a day labourer. His ram­shackle house down a muddy lane has no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter and his school-age daugh­ter has to study by can­dle­light.

He is part of a large class of im­pov­er­ished Moroc­cans left be­hind by the rapid de­vel­op­ment that has trans­formed much of the north­west­ern coast­line with multi-bil­lion-dol­lar in­fra­struc­ture projects. “It is in­con­ceiv­able. How can we live in a city but we still need can­dles? We hear slo­gans but there is no trans­parency. We never get any help,” said Akki, stand­ing in his dark kitchen, where a storm lamp lit a few pans hang­ing from nails on the wall.

Morocco’s ram­pant inequal­ity is stir­ring some un­ease in the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal class, par­tic­u­larly af­ter protests in the northern Rif moun­tain re­gion in 2017-18 and the mass demon­stra­tions in neigh­bor­ing Al­ge­ria this year. Signs of public frus­tra­tion in­clude po­lit­i­cal chant­ing by foot­ball fans in Casablanca and a pop­u­lar rap song that de­cried inequal­ity and cas­ti­gated Morocco’s rulers.

“More than poverty, so­cial dis­par­i­ties cre­ate frus­tra­tions that may trig­ger protests. These dis­par­i­ties are of­ten viewed as a re­sult of an il­le­git­i­mate ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth,” said Ahmed Lahlimi, head of Morocco’s of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics agency.

The govern­ment said this month it had al­lo­cated 7.4 bil­lion dirhams ($770 mil­lion) to com­bat­ing so­cial and re­gional dis­par­i­ties this year as part of a longer pro­gram.

King Mo­hammed VI, who sets the pol­icy direc­tion in Morocco, though it is im­ple­mented by an elected govern­ment, is ap­point­ing a com­mis­sion to over­see a new phase of de­vel­op­ment aimed at tack­ling such dis­par­i­ties. Mo­hammed’s two-decade reign has mostly fo­cused on up­grad­ing in­fra­struc­ture needed for busi­ness, such as a high-speed rail link con­nect­ing Casablanca to Tang­ier, now trans­formed into Africa’s busiest port.

Eco­nomic growth av­er­aged 4.5 per­cent from 20002012, but only 3 per­cent since then, a rel­a­tively low fig­ure for an emerg­ing mar­ket. A quar­ter of Moroc­cans are ei­ther poor or at risk of poverty, a re­cent World Bank re­port said, and the king­dom ranks 123rd in the UN’s hu­man de­vel­op­ment in­dex. How­ever, in­vest­ment has helped strengthen a busi­ness class that buys its fur­ni­ture at the Casablanca IKEA and stops for sand­wiches on the high­way into Ra­bat at the near­est branch of the French patis­serie chain Paul.

In Azrou, lo­cated in the Mid­dle At­las moun­tains east of Ra­bat, Akki and his fam­ily spend their evenings in the dark. He and his neigh­bors have to col­lect drinking wa­ter by don­key from a well a mile away. The land he bought a decade ago to build his house cost about the same amount as one of the so­fas on of­fer in the Casablanca IKEA.

Their com­mu­nity, Ait Ham­mou Ouh­mad, is en­tirely pop­u­lated by peo­ple who have left the moun­tains to set­tle near Azrou. They have built their homes cheaply with­out of­fi­cial permits and are un­able to gain ac­cess to govern­ment util­ity ser­vices. Coun­try folk flee­ing the poverty and un­cer­tainty of an agri­cul­tural sec­tor ut­terly de­pen­dent on vari­able rain­fall have swelled the poor dis­tricts of Moroc­can cities.

For the ur­ban poor, foot­ball sta­di­ums have of­fered an out­let to vent anger. “In my coun­try, I am op­pressed,” sang fans of the Casablanca team RCA last year. Mu­sic is an­other out­let. A rap song, “Long live the peo­ple”, a play on the phrase “Long live the king”, has gained 15 mil­lion views on YouTube and in­cludes the line: “Don’t ask me about the wealth. You know who took it.” One of the singers was later de­tained and sen­tenced to a year in prison for in­sult­ing the po­lice on so­cial me­dia, though his lawyer said he be­lieved the song may have prompted his ar­rest.

Agri­cul­ture em­ploys about 40 per­cent of Moroc­can work­ers but a dry year can cut over­all eco­nomic growth by more than a per­cent­age point and leave many with­out work, sta­tis­tics chief Lahlimi said. The aus­tere cir­cum­stances of Akki and his neigh­bours point to the even harsher con­di­tions en­dured by those they left be­hind in the re­mote moun­tain re­gions, many work­ing as shep­herds, of­ten tend­ing flocks that be­long to ab­sen­tee own­ers.

In the high cedar forests of the Mid­dle At­las, where troupes of macaques lurk along the gloomy tree­line, some for­mer no­mads still live in tents roofed with plas­tic sheet­ing on a bar­ren plateau far from the near­est school or hos­pi­tal. Fadma Saf­saf, whose tent and thorn an­i­mal en­clo­sure lie in a wide meadow ringed with cedar for­est, looks af­ter two daugh­ters and a son while her hus­band grazes the flock in the high pas­tures.

Most of the sheep and the tent they live in are owned by a land­lord in France. Their an­nual pay­ment is a quar­ter of the lambs born to the flock each year, Saf­saf said. “We lack wa­ter and elec­tric­ity and suf­fer from snow and ex­treme cold. We lack clothes and shoes,” she said. “We of­ten have ac­cess only to muddy wa­ter. I want to go to the city, but my hus­band does not have a job. What could we do there? My hus­band has no skills,” she said. — Reuters

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