Morocco’s poor left behind by development boom

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 neighbouring 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 programme.

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% from 2000-2012, but only 3% 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 U.N.’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.

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