About 30 years ago, a World Bank economic survey mission concluded that “Morocco will continually find itself having to run faster in order to stand still.” [1] A few years later, a Moroccan demographer warned that if the population were to continue to grow at current rates, “all efforts at development, no matter how grandiose, would be inevitably jeopardized.” [2]

Has Morocco managed to achieve a balance between population growth and development? From 1950 to 1990, the population of Morocco nearly tripled from 9 million to 25 million. With the continuation of recent trends in fertility and mortality rates, Morocco will have a population of 37 million in the year 2010. In 1955-1960, the number of persons added to the population each year was 299,000; by 1980-1985 this number had accelerated to 529,000 each year. Between 1955 and 1970, the annual rate of population growth remained high at around 2.8 percent. Only the emigration of European settlers and Moroccan Jews during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the large-scale emigration of Moroccan workers starting in the late 1960s, kept the rate from averaging 3 percent. [3]

More refined measures of fertility and mortality indicate a similar trend. From 1955 to 1970, the total fertility rate remained very high: about seven babies per woman, comparable to a number of other Arab countries. At the same time, life expectancy increased and infant mortality decreased. Morocco was clearly in the first phase of a demographic transition. Beginning in the early 1970s, fertility started to decline systematically, from 48 births per thousand people in 1965-1970 to 35 in 1990. This was counterbalanced, however, by a significant drop in mortality, so that the rate of natural increase declined only moderately in the same period. While the fertility rate per woman had dropped to 4.5 babies per woman in 1990, it is still higher than in Tunisia (3.6), Indonesia (3.1) or China (2.5).

Like other countries with high fertility, Morocco had a young and stable age structure prior to 1971, when nearly half of the population was under age 15. Decreasing fertility reduced the relative proportion of the population under 15 to 40.6 percent in 1989, but the age group 15-24, which includes new entrants to the labor force, has doubled in size from 2.5 million in 1971 to 5 million in 1989. This group had the highest rate of unemployment — 30.9 percent — of all those in the urban labor force in 1989.

Economic Transformation

Morocco’s gross national product per capita was estimated at $960 in 1990. It had grown at an annual average rate of 2.7 percent between 1965 and 1980, but this rate declined to 0.8 percent for the 1980-1988 period. [4] It does not appear that the Moroccan economy has performed any better since 1989. If we take into account the relative purchasing power of the national currencies, Morocco’s gross domestic product per capita in 1988 was equal to $2,376, compared with $2,662 for Algeria, $1,035 for Egypt and $3,170 for Tunisia. [5] When the same measure of the GDP per capita is used, Morocco’s GDP per capita growth rate declined from 4.4 percent in 1973-1980 to 0.6 percent in 1980-1988. [6] One cannot escape the conclusion that Morocco is facing an economic and demographic crisis. By the 1980s, the Moroccan economy was growing at a rate that hardly kept up with population growth. [7]

Not all strata of the population, moreover, shared equally in what growth did occur. In 1984-1985, the poorest 25 percent of households accounted for only 8 percent of total expenditures, whereas the top 25 percent of household accounted for 53 percent of total expenditures; a quarter-century earlier their shares were 10 and 49 percent respectively. [8] In 1984-1985, the poorest 10 percent spent annually about 6,000 dirhams ($682) per household, while the richest 10 percent spent annually 42,000 dirhams ($4,773) per household. [9]

Over this period Morocco experienced major changes in its economic and employment structure. The proportion of workers employed in agriculture decreased dramatically from 78.1 in 1960 to 43.1 percent in 1982. The rural population decreased from 70.7 in 1960 to 53.9 percent in 1989. Agriculture still accounts for a substantial share of employment, but employment has grown more rapidly in industry, construction, transportation, communications and services, and government — sectors that reflect increasing urbanization. From a demographic and economic standpoint, it is significant that about 40 percent of the urban population is concentrated in the Casablanca-Rabat-Sale metropolitan region, the industrial, commercial and administrative pole of Morocco. The population of this region grew from a little less than one million in 1950 to over 4 million in 1989.

While agriculture is still first in its contribution to employment, it is now fourth in importance in its share of the GDP. [10] At the other extreme, the mining and energy sector employs less than 2 percent of Moroccans but contributes 10 percent to the GDP. Phosphate exports are a significant but volatile part of the economy, depending on world prices. After 1971, while industry’s share of employment grew, its share of the GDP remained at about the same level. This suggests the continued importance of small-scale and artisan manufacturing in the Moroccan economy.

While Morocco has been transformed from a predominantly rural economy to one that is increasingly urban, the annual fluctuations in the GDP continue to depend on the effects of drought on agricultural production. [11] Rural areas and traditional agriculture remain disadvantaged sectors. In 1984-1985, per capita expenditures and income in rural areas were still only half as high as in urban areas. There were also wide regional differences in per capita agricultural income, ranging from 35,000 dirhams per agricultural household to less than 1,000 dirhams. [12] This has contributed to a substantial and increasing rural exodus to the towns and cities. [13]

As Will Swearingen points out, Morocco’s traditional agricultural sector, growing cereals on rain-fed land, “still includes roughly 70 percent of Morocco’s cultivated land and well over 90 percent of its farmers.” Yet this sector “has remained largely untouched by government development efforts and has been progressively deteriorating.” [14] Between 1955-1960 and 1981-1984, the annual per capita cereal grain production declined sharply and steadily from about 300 to about 150 kilograms on average. [15] This figure rebounded to an average of nearly 280 for the period 1985-1989, but the vulnerability of cereals production to climatic and other conditions suggests this may be temporary. 1990-1991 was a record harvest, but 1991-1992 was the worst in a decade. [16]

The marked inequality in land distribution may also be a factor. Agricultural surveys of the early 1960s and 1970s indicate that three quarters of rural households own less than two hectares each and account for only 16 percent of all arable land; about one third of rural households have no land at all or extremely small parcels. [17] The government’s water policy stresses dam construction and the extension of irrigated land, mainly benefiting the modern agricultural sector and production for export, such as citrus — “a tiny privileged segment of the agricultural community,” concludes Swearingen. [18] Since cereals constitute an important element of the Moroccan diet, the government has had to rely increasingly on cereal grain imports. The agricultural balance of trade, which was positive from 1969 to 1973, became increasingly negative after 1973, reaching 2 billion dirhams in 1982. [19]

To finance this agricultural trade imbalance, as well as development projects and the military, Morocco has become increasingly dependent on external loans. The World Bank has loaned more money to Morocco than to any other Middle Eastern or North Africa country, but, as in other developing countries, it established a number of conditions, such as privatization and the reduction of import duties. Morocco’s debt increased spectacularly from about $700 million, or 18 percent of the GNP, in 1970 to $9 billion, or 60.8 percent of the GNP, in 1982. By 1990, it reached $23.5 billion, almost equal to the GNP in that year. [20] Morocco’s solvency has been put into the hands of its many creditors. [21]

Beginning in 1983, a number of measures were adopted to stabilize the Moroccan economy. These included reduction in public investments, salary freezes, removing price controls and reduction of subsidies, all of which affected the living standards of Moroccans. [22] Education expenditures per student were reduced by 5.4 percent, and per capita health expenditures by 6.1 percent. Per capita military expenditures were reduced by 3.1 percent. [23]

Social Transformation

In spite of the mixed picture on economic growth, Morocco has experienced important social change since 1960, notably in education. There has been a marked improvement in literacy for both men and women in Morocco since 1960. While the progress for women is particularly impressive, nearly six out of ten Moroccans were still illiterate in 1989, and rural-urban and gender gaps remain. Even in 1982, illiteracy was still universal among rural women. This is an aspect of what might be called a “rural development crisis,” of which an “agricultural crisis” is only a part.

Primary level enrollment ratios for both males and females increased substantially between 1975 and 1980, but then slowed from 1980 to 1988. Even in 1988 primary education was far from universal. Enrollment rates at the secondary and tertiary levels increased steadily from 1975 to 1988. Although the need for primary education was greatest, only 36 percent of expenditures were devoted to it. [24] Morocco needs an increasingly educated labor force, but the economic sectors that can absorb higher education graduates are not growing fast enough, leading to increasing unemployment among the better educated.

Two other important social changes are women’s participation in the labor force and changes in marriage age, both of which have implications for family structure and for fertility. The rate of women’s labor force participation in urban areas has increased steadily from 12.9 in 1960 to 26.2 in 1990. [25] A high and increasing proportion of urban working women (by 1986 about two thirds of them) were in domestic work or in the textile industry. [26] The proportion of urban working women in the top professional, technical and administrative white-collar occupations also increased noticeably, to 22 percent in 1986, though this is lower than in some other Arab countries. [27] Urban women are increasingly working outside the home, but mainly in lower-status and lower-paid jobs. They have also experienced increasing unemployment and underemployment. [28]

The other change with important implications for fertility is the rising age at marriage. While women in their twenties were nearly all married in 1960, by 1990 only half of the women in ages 20-24 and two thirds of those 25-29 were ever married. There was also a noticeable decline in the propensity to marry among women in ages 15-19. Between 1960 and 1982, the average age at marriage rose from 17 to nearly 24 for women in urban areas and nearly 21 in rural areas.

Demographic Implications

Population growth has challenged the Moroccan government and society to provide employment to youths 15 to 24, the new entrants to the labor force, whose numbers doubled between 1971 and 1989. Economic growth in the late 1970s and 1980s failed to meet this challenge. Between 1977 and 1989, unemployment rates among persons ages 14-25 increased from 16.3 to 30.9 percent. (Unemployment also increased for ages above 25.)

Another challenge is the rapid growth of pre-primary and primary school ages 5-14, from 4.5 million in 1971 to 6.2 million in 1989. [29] While the number of children reaching the primary school entry age of 7 increased by 71,000 between 1976 and 1980, the number of new enrollments in primary school subsequently decreased by 32,000. By the school years 1984-1985 and 1985-1986, partly because 30 percent of new places in school had to be reserved for grade repeaters, only about half of the country’s 7-year olds found space in school. [30]

While population growth may be a challenge to economic growth, both social and economic changes have had a marked impact on fertility and mortality, the two major components of population growth. The other component is emigration. Between 1971 and 1982, there was an estimated net emigration of about 404,000, of whom 152,000 were women. The number of Moroccans residing in Western Europe, mainly France, increased from 136,000 to 776,000. Emigrants’ remittances increased from $70 million in 1970 to $2 billion in 1990, or 8 percent of the GNP. [31]

About 55 percent of the fertility decline is attributable to the increase in marriage age and 45 percent to increasing contraceptive use. (Contraceptive use increased from 19 percent in 1979-1980 to 36 percent in 1987.) [32] Urban fertility decreased more rapidly than rural, so that the gap between the two has increased markedly: by 1987, the fertility of urban areas had dropped sharply to 3.9 babies per woman while that of rural areas had declined only to 6. [33] Since breastfeeding tended to be shorter among urban women, overall fertility did not decline as much as it otherwise might have. The total fertility rate drops from 5.2 babies for women with the lowest educational level to 2.3 babies for those with the highest educational level. [34] Even a primary education appears to stimulate contraceptive usage and postponement of marriage. [35]

The increase in female literacy has contributed significantly to lowering infant and child mortality. In urban areas, a 1982 study indicated it was the only statistically significant variable. In rural areas, other significant variables included age at marriage, labor force participation and wealth as measured by the amount of arable land available to the rural household. [36] In urban areas, the education of the wife, and in rural areas, the education of the husband is inversely related to infant and child mortality. In both urban and rural areas, infant and child mortality is affected by the availability and use of clean water, toilets and sewage, and time to go to health facilities. [37] These factors all depend on economic and social development. Any economic crisis is thus likely to slow down the reduction of infant and child mortality.

Until the 1980s, the Moroccan economy grew more rapidly than the population, but not all Moroccans shared equally in this growth. There was increasing inequality between segments of the Moroccan population, especially between urban and rural areas. Rapidly rising external debt substantially slowed down economic growth in the 1980s. Some Moroccan economists echo the earlier views that population growth is threatening the achievement of educational, employment and health goals. For Rhazaoui, Morocco’s rapid population growth “poses major problems in terms of education, training and employment.” He attributes failure of the economy to keep up with population growth to “structural problems that are both economic and political in character.” [38]

Morocco in the 1980s has experienced important but paradoxical demographic and social changes. Fertility has dropped substantially, to under three babies per woman in urban areas. Between 1960 and 1990, nearly 20 years has been added to the expectation of life at birth. In the same period, infant mortality was reduced by half, but still stood out at about 70 infant deaths per 1,000 births in the late 1980s. As with fertility, infant mortality is lower in urban areas.

Increasing age at marriage, smaller families, increasing labor force participation, and increasing access to secondary and higher education have changed the status of urban Moroccan women. If a woman works, however, some of these options have not necessarily improved her economic or social status.

Literacy, nearly absent in Morocco in 1960, has made some impressive gains, particularly among men. But women have not kept up with men, and rural women are still almost all illiterate. The rise in net primary enrollments should help reduce illiteracy in the future, but the economic difficulties of the 1980s are slowing down these gains.

As a result of the economic crisis, Morocco in the 1980s was meeting educational, health, employment and other needs at a slower pace. The slowing down in population growth that started in the late 1970s may help to increase this pace, but only if the economic crisis is resolved. This is the real challenge.


[1] Quoted in Georges Sabagh, “Population and Economic Development in Morocco,” Journal of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 4 (1980), p. 41.
[2] Ibid.
[3] This net emigration of Moroccans reached 400,000 between 1972 and 1982. Direction de la Statistique, Situation demographique regionale au Maroc (Rabat: Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Demographiques, 1988), p. 278.
[4] World Bank, World Development Report 1992 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 218; United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1991 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
[5] In 1988 prices. Robert Summers and Alan Heston, “The Penn World Tables (Mark 5): An Expanded Set of International Comparisons, 1950-1988,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 106 (1991), pp. 350-51.
[6] Ibid., p. 356.
[7] In real terms, per capita average consumption increased at an annual rate of 4 percent between 1959 and 1970, but only 1.1 percent between 1970 and 1985. The contrast between the two periods is even greater in urban areas, where the rates declined from 5.2 percent to 0.4 percent (and in rural areas from 2.4 to 0.9 percent). This information is from three surveys carried out in 1959-1960, 1970-1971 and 1984-1985. Direction de la Statistique, Consommation et depenses des menages 1984-85 (Rabat, 1987), p. 35.
[8] Ibid., p. 42; and Service Central des Statistiques, La consommation et les depenses des menages marocains musulmans (Resultats de l’enquete 1959-69) (Rabat, 1961), p. 114.
[9] Ibid., p. 41. In 1984, $1 was about equal to 8.8 dirhams.
[10] This gap would be greater if we would exclude the higher contribution of modern agriculture to the GDP. According to one estimate, the modern sector contributes one quarter of the value of all crops. Economic Intelligence Unit, Morocco Country Profile 1992-93.
[11] Variations in the agricultural share of the GDP are much more pronounced than those of the GDP. National Accounts: Main Aggregates and Detailed Tables, 1989, Part II (New York: United Nations, 1991), p. 1198; and Division de la Statistique, Annuaire Statistique du Maroc 1990 (Rabat, 1990), p. 510.
[12] Situation demographique regionale au Maroc, p. 115. Provinces with the highest income include Ben Slimane, Casablanca, Mohammedia and Meknes, all centers of modern agriculture.
[13] According to estimates by CERED, the net migration to cities increased from about 743,000 in 1960-1971 to 1.26 million in 1971-1982. Ibid., p.232.
[14] Will D. Swearingen, “Morocco’s Agricultural Crisis,” in I. William Zartman, ed., The Political Economy of Morocco (New York: Praeger, 1987), p. 162.
[15] Will D. Swearingen, Morocco’s Mirages: Agricultural Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 183.
[16] Economist Intelligence Unit, Morocco Country Report 1992 4, p. 14.
[17] Larbi Hanane and Rachid Sbihi, Economie marocaine (Rabat, 1986), p. 131. See also N. Bouderbala, N. M. Chraibi and P. Pascon, La question agraire au Maroc (Rabat: Centre Universitaire de la Recherche Scientifique, 1978).
[18] Potential cereal production on irrigated land will satisfy only 5.9 percent of Moroccan consumption. On the other hand, it can potentially provide 50 percent of the needs for sugar and oil. Jean-Jacques Perennes, “Le Maroc a portee du million d’hectares irrigues: Elements pour un bilan,” Monde Arab el Maghreb-Machrek 137 (1992); Swearingen, p. 184.
[19] Swearingen, p. 176.
[20] World Development Bank Report 1992, p. 258.
[21] Ahmed Rhazaoui, “Recent Economic Trends: Managing the Indebtedness,” in Zartman, p. 142; see also Joe Stork, “North Africa Faces the 1990s,” Middle East Report 163 (March-April 1990).
[22] Consommation et depenses, p. 12.
[23] Agnes Chevallier and Veronique Kessler, Economies en developpement et defis demographiques: Algerie-Egypte-Maroc-Tunisie (Paris: La Documentation Francaise, 1989), p. 89.
[24] UNDP, p. 149.
[25] Since the method of assessing labor force participation of women in rural areas has varied over time, the data on labor force participation are given only for urban areas. The labor force participation rate of rural women nearly quadrupled between the census of 1982 and the 1986-1987 sample survey. Direction de la Statistique, Femmes et Conditions feminine au Maroc (Rabat: CERED, 1989), p. 100.
[26] The percent of women in domestic work or employed in the textile industry increased from 44.6 percent in 1960 to 66.5 percent in 1986. The employment of women in the textile industry soared from 13.4 percent in 1960 to 40.3 percent in 1986.
[27] For rural and urban women combined, the percent in the top occupational categories was 13.0 for Morocco in 1982, as compared to 32.0 in Algeria in 1977, 39.5 in Egypt in 1986, 41.0 in Iraq in 1987, 59.1 percent in Jordan in 19.79, 30.1 percent in Syria in 1981, and 11.4 percent in Tunisia in 1984. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and League of Arab States, United Arab Statistical Abstract, 1980-1988 (Baghdad, 1990), pp. 75-77; and Annuaire Statistique du Maroc 1990, p. 24.
[28] In 1986, in urban areas, women had an unemployment rate of 20.4 percent and an underemployment rate of 24.7 percent. Unemployment is highest for women with a secondary education. Ibid.; and Femmes et conditions feminine au Maroc, p. 103.
[29] Annuaire Statistique du Maroc 1991, p. 14.
[30] Direction de la Statistique, Education et recondite (Rabat: CERED, 1988).
[31] Situation demographique regionale au Maroc, p. 278; and World Development Report 1992, pp. 222, 252.
[32] Direction de la Statistique, Aspects recents de la politique de population au Maroc (Rabat: CERED, 1990).
[33] Enquete demographique nationale. In 1962, fertility was almost as high in urban as in rural areas. Georges Sabagh, “Analyse de l’influence du niveau d’instruction sur la fecondite au Maroc,” Revue Tunisienne de Sciences Sociales 6, pp. 263-274.
[34] “Morocco 1987: Results from the Demographic and Health Survey,” Studies in Family Planning 21 (1990), p. 122.
[35] Education et fecondite. For an analysis of the effects of women’s education on fertility in 1962, see Sabagh, op cit.
[36] Situation demographique regionale au Maroc, pp. 129-31; and “Morocco 1987”
[37] A. Chaouai, I. Timaeus and S. Aoun, “Mortalite des jeunes enfants et caracteristiques medico-sanitaires et socio-economiques au Maroc”; and M. Al-Jem, I. Timaeus and S. Aoun, “La mortalite au Maroc d’apres les resultats de L’EPNS,” in Allan G . Hill, ed., Determinants of Health and Mortality in Africa (New York: Population Council, 1990), pp. 209-38 and 183-208.
[38] Rhazaoui, pp. 144, 157.

How to cite this article:

Georges Sabagh "The Challenge of Population Growth in Morocco," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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