/ 25 June 2008

Poverty time bomb ticks in Morocco

Anger over poverty is simmering in Morocco, where popular protests against the high cost of living and unemployment occur regularly, sometimes leading to clashes and injuries.

”It is more and more difficult for the poorest to manage,” sociologist Jamal Khalil warned.

Poverty has long been known to be a time bomb threatening the kingdom’s stability, but liberal economic reforms have been unable to solve problems rooted in social as well as economic structures, and a sixth of the 30-million population still lives below the official poverty level.

At first sight, Morocco’s economic performance does not look bad, with the gross domestic product (GDP) expected to grow by up to 6,8% this year.

About 1,2-million jobs have been created over five years, and Morocco is managing to control its economic mechanisms such as a budget deficit running at about 3%, Economy Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said recently.

Yet growth remains largely dependent on the volatile factor of rainfall, with agriculture still contributing 15% of the GDP and employing 45% of the population.

While the government has launched a ”Green Plan” to improve agricultural productivity, some experts feel semi-arid Morocco should question its entire ”agricultural vocation”.

The most dynamic economic sectors include tourism which earned Morocco $4,6-billion (€3-billion] in 2005.

Large-scale infrastructure projects such as the new port in Tangier stand in a stark contrast to remote rural areas, where people living without electricity still trek long distances with donkeys to fetch water.

Rural poverty sparked an exodus to urban areas whose population has now surpassed the rural one.

Yet with unemployment officially running at 9,6%, young men of rural origin find themselves loitering in city slums where they can fall prey to Islamist extremists or people-smugglers selling dangerous sea crossings to rich Europe.

The unemployed also include tens of thousands of university graduates, who demonstrate alongside citizens affected by recent food price hikes linked to international fuel prices.

Discontent has spread, with citizens’ associations staging rallies to demand better living conditions and trade unions calling strikes.

Factors such as lack of transparency, of judicial guarantees and fear of political instability have discouraged foreign investment, while large parts of the economy remain stifled by the control exercised over them by the political elite.

”Entire sectors” of the economy serve as sources of income for the privileged class without being submitted to free market rules, economist Najib Akesbi said.

King Mohammed VI and his family control most farmland and the main companies in the industrial, services, commercial, distribution and export sectors, mainly through the gigantic ONA conglomerate, Akesbi told the Spanish daily La Vanguardia.

The lack of sufficient economic dynamism has led to large-scale emigration, with Moroccans living in Europe and elsewhere sending home a whopping $5,7-billion in 2007.

Another major source of foreign currency is the illegal cannabis cultivation, which persists in the impoverished northern Rif region despite successful campaigns to eradicate it in nearby provinces.

Morocco remains one of the world’s top hashish producers, with an estimated 60 000 hectares under cultivation.

Powerful drug lords bribe politicians, officials and police officers to be able to take their produce by speedboats over to Spain, a gateway to the European market.

”The fight against drugs cannot yield great results as long as there is no economic alternative for the north and Europe continues buying hashish,” said former agriculture minister Ismail Alaoui, leader of the leftist Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) which belongs to the governing coalition. – Sapa-DPA