Residents of Ouaklim near the city of Tinghir demonstrate to request construction of a middle school closer to their village, 2015. The banner reads: “The residents of the village of Ouaklim maintain their demand for basic needs in Ouaklim.” Courtesy of the authors.

Citizens of Morocco’s poorest region, Draa-Tafilalet in southeastern Morocco, continue to struggle with a lack of adequate paved roads, electricity, water and internet access. In the fall of 2017, residents of the remote villages of Agerzegua and Tighanimine in Tinghir province marched in protest along the national road toward their municipal government seat in Tinghir to demand essential and basic infrastructure but were stopped by the police who sent them home. While they succeeded in getting a footpath built, they are still awaiting the promised asphalt road. These demonstrations are symptomatic of a larger problem: the population has lost confidence in elected officials and believe protest is the only way their voices will be heard.

Residents of Draa-Tafilalet face marginalization, spatial inequality, poverty and limited access to basic infrastructure despite the fact that the region is resource rich with numerous silver and other mines and the massive Noor solar energy plant. As a result of the state’s extractivist policies, however, the region and its predominantly Amazigh population do not directly benefit from either.[1]

Uneven development is not a new phenomenon in Morocco. While the country has experienced an overall reduction in poverty during the twenty-first century, there is an acceleration in the divergent development paths between regions. Paradoxically, government public policies that ostensibly seek to reduce these disparities are in fact further marginalizing communities. Despite efforts to decentralize power (through the “advanced regionalization” process), the creation of an Interregional Solidarity Fund as well as a Social Improvement Fund, the distribution of resources and investments is thus far only reinforcing existing inequalities on the local level.[2] Additionally, regional budgeting decisions remain subject to approval of the Ministry of Interior. While some regions witness the growth of job opportunities and large infrastructure programs, others seem destined to remain peripheral to the economic advantages found in largely urban spaces.


The Growing Urban-Rural Divide


Contemporary regional inequalities result in part from colonial territorial history. The 1912–1956 French Protectorate produced marked patterns of uneven development across Morocco that continue into the present. French development, both at home and abroad, was predicated on the centralization of power in the capital, resulting in the marginalization of the rest of the country. The pejorative colonial dichotomy of Maroc utile and Maroc inutile divided Morocco into two: One part was deemed to be “useful” and the other was perceived as not. Maroc utile referred to the section of Morocco that spans from El Jadida to Kenitra, across the northern plains to Meknes and south to Marrakech, while Maroc inutile identified the largely mountainous interior of the country as unproductive territory.

One major axis of inequality exacerbated by the French colonial administration is the vast discrepancy in development between urban and rural areas.
One major axis of inequality exacerbated by the French colonial administration is the vast discrepancy in development between urban and rural areas. The urban coastal region of Casablanca-Rabat-Kenitra is the center of gravity for decision-making power and maintains administrative, political, financial and cultural hegemony. The rise of Casablanca as the commercial hub of the country was not inevitable. The French geographer Fernand Joly argued that “without the foreigner, Casablanca would undoubtedly have remained a very small village, at most an important souk.”[3] Michel Écochard, who served as the director of the Department of Urban Planning under the French Protectorate from 1946 to 1952, transformed the urban development of Casablanca and expanded the pace of industrial decentralization into new coastal cities like Agadir and Safi, largely to the detriment of small and medium sized towns in the interior. The rise of new regional centers slightly decentralized development, but it also exacerbated the developmental divide between urban and rural areas. While there certainly are marginalized urban populations whose livelihoods are threatened by recent opulent megaprojects in Casablanca, Tangier and Rabat, those who reside in rural spaces suffer from both economic and spatial marginalization.[4] According to recent data from the High Commission for Planning (HCP), the regions of Casablanca-Settat, Rabat-Salé-Kénitra and Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceima account for two-thirds of growth and 58 percent of GDP, while the poorest region of Draa-Tafilalet accounts for less than 1 percent.[5]

As Morocco’s largest cities launch into the twenty-first century, rural areas suffer as a result of a mass exodus, resource extraction and spatial marginalization. According to the HCP’s 2014 poverty map, 85.4 percent of multidimensionally poor people live in rural areas, including 1.3 million citizens labelled as monetarily poor, and poverty rates across Morocco are three times larger in rural areas than urban ones.[6] Draa-Tafilalet has poverty rates of 14.6 percent while another 16.2 percent of the population is classified as vulnerable. It is the only region in the country without an expressway, train or major university. It is therefore not just a poor region but also a spatially marginalized one, hours from any recognizable urban center and unattractive to investors and workers alike.

In our research interviews, residents of Tinghir often spoke of their province as neglected or abandoned by the state and frequently cited the area’s spatial marginalization as proof of neglect.[7] One member of a local development association in Tinghir province noted that “They don’t care about us. If they cared about development then they would build a tunnel from Marrakech so people can cross the mountains in the winter.”[8] The current road from Marrakech uses the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a treacherous zig-zagging route that takes four hours to traverse just 125 miles from Marrakech to Ouarzazate and then another two-hour drive of 106 miles further to Tinghir. This mountainous road with steep turns sometimes becomes unpassable during the winter months despite recent reconstruction. Our interlocutor envisioned a tunnel between Marrakech and Ouarzazate instead, much like the one connecting Marrakech to Agadir. While the region has witnessed major road upgrades and paving projects since the government’s 2005 National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), there is little political will or urgency to invest in large-scale projects that could radically transform the livelihoods of remote villagers.


Shifting Responsibility for Development to the Regions


Recognizing inequalities between regions as a problem, the Moroccan state is in the midst of a long process of what it calls “advanced regionalization.” The stated objectives of this process are to decentralize power, devolve governance structures and shift development away from the center and to regional councils. Advanced regionalization was announced in November of 2008, but the Consultative Commission on Regionalism was not created until 2010. In response to the countrywide demonstrations in 2011 and political and economic demands of the February 20 Movement, the King rapidly pursued constitutional reforms. The new 2011 constitution outlined a framework for advanced regionalization. In 2015 three laws (111.14, 112.14 and 113.14) were enacted that respectively grant autonomy to the region, prefecture and municipality and form the foundation of regionalization policy.[9] The policy seeks to address “the re-organization of regional political institutions, the relationship between center and periphery, and the boundaries of the future regions.”[10] Yet, as a Moroccan economist in Rabat explained, “the regionalization program is really about the relations of power between the center and the periphery…The policies of the state are actually accentuating poverty and inequality.”[11]

There are several ways in which the advanced regionalization plan has further marginalized the places it claims to help. While it led to a territorial restructuring in 2015 of both the practices of regional administrations and the geographical contours of administrative districts, it accomplished little in terms of shifting power relations and financial resources to local authorities. In fact, one clear impact of the policy is the increased bureaucracy and presence of multiple actors who point fingers at each other while no one is held accountable for coordination. Each region has a council with an elected president charged with the financial management and implementation of regional projects. While officially the elected president of the regional assembly is now responsible for budgetary spending instead of the royally appointed regional governor, the power of the councils to produce tangible change is limited by the guardianship (tutelle) principle.[12] Guardianship means that although decentralization has led to a nominal distribution of power to regions, most of the budget remains controlled centrally and nothing can be completed without the approval of the Ministry of Interior, thereby limiting the autonomy of the regional councils.[13] Despite their lack of power and financial resources, regions are now held responsible for their own development, a shift of responsibility from the center onto already stretched localities. In order to lead to real changes, the Ministry of Interior would have to loosen its grip on the territories and radically transform the practices of guardianship that undermine regional autonomy.

The Ministry of Interior uses guardianship as its central mechanism to keep a tight leash on peripheral and marginalized territories like the Draa-Tafilalet that have historically been hostile toward the state and have erupted in protest in recent years.[14] This system stems from the postcolonial appointment of officials from the Ministry of Interior as guardians of the villages and collective lands. In interviews with one of these representatives in a municipality within the region, he regularly employed the language of “guardianship” to describe his role in governing his territory, one more indicator of the endurance of a centralized colonial system.

While officially the policy of advanced regionalization ended guardianship over local and regional authorities, in practice the legacy of tutelage, patronage and supervision continue to undermine local authorities and deprive them of autonomy.
While officially the policy of advanced regionalization ended guardianship over local and regional authorities, in practice the legacy of tutelage, patronage and supervision continue to undermine local authorities and deprive them of autonomy.[15] Advanced regionalization legally gave the regions financial autonomy, but both the decisions and the budgets of the regional councils remain subject to the approval of the Ministry of Interior. For example, in the small provincial city of Boumalne, local representatives of the Ministry of Interior often intervene to modify the development plans of elected officials. Thus, many observers describe advanced regionalization as a form of administrative decentralization or deconcentration, not of regional autonomy or self-determination.

The frustrated residents of marginalized places often feel that the only way to get anything done is to protest. Street protests have become the most popular mechanism for voicing grievances and have at times resulted in new development interventions in neglected areas. The residents of Ozighimt, the most remote village in the commune of Ighil Mgoun, suffered greatly from their spatial marginalization and the lack of any paved road. They walked one day each way to reach the souk in the center of the commune. After years of requesting a road, over 200 residents of the Ozighimt protested three different times in Rabat—in 2002, 2014 and 2015—to demand a paved road and finally in 2017 they got one. Another successful example of street protest occurred in the commune of Ouaklim near the city of Tinghir. Residents demonstrated for a month in 2015–2016 in front of the education directorate to secure construction of a new middle school closer to their village because the one in the center of the commune was too far away. For residents of marginalized places, political protest seems like the only way to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and political stalemates. For them, little benefit is derived from the advanced regionalization program.


Local Politics of Development


Across Draa-Tafilalet there have been a series of political conflicts between the political parties and members of the regional council. The president of the region is a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD), but for the past three years his party has not held a majority in the council. The opposition votes against his budget for the region, which results in an inability to move forward with any local development plans. It is the only region in the country with this stalemate. The Ministry of Interior, despite having an iron grip over the region, has not intervened in the matter. It is possible that the next election in 2021 will result in a different outcome, but the result thus far is a four-year delay in development for a region that has already suffered from socioeconomic inequality and political marginalization. As with the regional councils, local elected officials, particularly in rural areas, do not have the tools or competence to plan, fundraise for or implement local development projects even when politics do not get in the way. Across Morocco, nearly 15 percent of elected officials have never been to school, 29 percent completed primary school, 30 percent have a high school diploma and only 26 percent went on to pursue higher education.[16] Given the developmental discrepancies between urban and rural areas, it is likely that the level of educational attainment of elected officials in rural areas is significantly lower than these nationwide statistics.

The politics of distribution is replicated within civil society, where associations are given grants based on their political affiliations rather than need, capabilities or other criteria. In focus groups we conducted with local associations, they articulated their frustration with the reality that politics dictated which projects moved forward and which ones were not funded. For example, the Mgoun valley is known for its prolific production of rose products, highlighted in the annual Rose Festival. Unlike other festivals, however, the region does not participate in the financing of it because the president of the commune of Kalaat Mgouna belongs to a political party that is opposed to the political party of the regional president. Development projects are often held hostage to patronage politics, as local elected officials from opposing parties prioritize villages that voted for them rather than fund projects based on local need.

Development projects are often held hostage to patronage politics, as local elected officials from opposing parties prioritize villages that voted for them rather than fund projects based on local need.
This process puts regions like Draa-Tafilalet in a perpetual stalemate: the incompetence, lack of human resources and political maneuverings of elected local officials reinforce the Ministry of Interior’s belief that the region is incapable of ruling itself and therefore must remain under its tutelage.

Beyond a lack of autonomy and political stalemates, the region suffers from the classic negative impacts of development experienced around the world: The development apparatus brings financial resources to a region but also leads to more actors competing for access to these limited resources as local elites vie for power. With so many actors and no coordination, bureaucratic processes balloon and the replication of efforts means that very little of these resources end up in the hands of those who need them. This scenario is a classic story of the development of underdevelopment at the hands of those in power, be it governments, international aid organizations or multilateral institutions. In Morocco, there are numerous regional agencies charged with development: social development agencies, agricultural development agencies and the Rural Development Fund (FDR), which has been tasked with improving the living conditions of the population of rural and mountainous areas. For the period from 2017–2023, the budget of the FDR is $5.56 billion (50 billion DHM).[17] Since 2012, the FDR has been tasked with coordinating and financing a wide range of development projects including income-generating activities, irrigation, agricultural development and combating climate change, as well as building infrastructure, paving roads and upgrading rural schools, community centers and health centers. While the region has reaped the benefit of some of these projects, the vast majority of resources remain tied up in unneeded projects or divvied up among local elites.


Two Moroccos


If the past few years are any indication, the old colonial idea of “two Moroccos” has become increasingly a reality as regions experience dramatically different development landscapes: one of high-speed trains, factories, expressways and globalized development, and the other that suffers spatial isolation and a lack of development with subpar roads and infrastructure, a dearth of economic opportunities and an impending climate crisis striking subsistence farming and pastoralism. Despite a national development strategy supported by the King and various other initiatives, there is a very strong disconnect between those national strategies and the initiatives undertaken by a variety of ministries and local development actors. The lack of coordination and local competencies, a weak civil society, the continued influence of guardianship and control of the Ministry of Interior over the territories plus the prevalence of patronage politics collectively work to reinforce differential development trajectories of regions and exacerbate existing inequalities.

While protest can be effective in pressuring the government, it is not always effective in instigating actual and sustainable change. Across Morocco, there remain deeply entrenched inequalities and patterns of uneven development that even the best laid regionalization plans would not be able to undo. Lasting change is contingent upon a fundamental restructuring of power relations and financial might that goes beyond the government’s bureaucratic visions.


[Mona Atia is associate professor of geography and international affairs and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University. Said Samlali is a doctoral candidate in geography at the Mohammed V University in Rabat and the president of the Association Ighil for the Development of Mountainous Populations.]





[1] See Zakia Salime, “Life at the Margins of Morocco’s Noor Solar Energy Project,” Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021); Zakia Salime, “Protest Camp as Counter-Archive at a Moroccan Silver Mine,Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019); and Atman Aoui, Moulay Ahmed el Amrani, Karen Rignall, “Global Aspirations and Local Realities of Solar Energy in Morocco,” Middle East Report 296 (Fall 2020).

[2] Sylvia I. Bergh, The Politics of Development in Morocco: Local Governance and Participation in North Africa (London: IB Taurus, 2017).

[3] Fernand Joly, “Casablanca, Elements for a Study of Urban Geography,” Les Cahiers d’Outre-mer (1948), pp. 121–22. [French]

[4] Koenraad Bogaert, “Globalized Authoritarianism and the New Moroccan City,” Middle East Report 287 (Summer 2018) and Sami Zemni, “Tunisia’s Marginalized Redefine the Political,Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).

[5] Jalil Choukri, “L’économie marocaine continue de créer des disparités régionales,” Medias24, September 11, 2019.

[6] 142 Rapport du CESE, “Développement du monde rural: Espace des zones montagneuses,” Saisine 21 (2017). HCP defines the poverty rate as “the proportion of poor people in the population, or even the percentage of individual members of a household whose per capita expenditure is below the relative poverty line. In 2007, this threshold was DH 3,834 per person per year in urban areas and DH 3,569 per person per year in rural areas.” HCP uses the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative definition of multidimensional poverty, which incudes acces to basic social services including water, electricity, sanitiation, housing condition, education and health in addition to income.

[7] The authors completed the research referenced in this article between 2014–2018 across villages in three communes within the province of Tinghir, with support from the National Science Foundation Award #1352435.

[8] Author interview, March 23, 2015.

[9] Raquel Ojeda García and Angela Suárez Collado, “The Project of Advanced Regionalisation in Morocco: Analysis of a Lampedusian Reform,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42/1 (2015).

[10] Ibid, p. 52.

[11] Interview with authors, October 2, 2014.

[12] Sylvia I. Bergh, “Public Sector Governance Reforms and ‘Advanced Regionalization’ in Morocco: What Role for the European Union?” European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Borderlands Project 56 (2016).

[13] Hassane El Arafi, “Étude sur les recettes et les dépenses des collectivités territoriales au Maroc,” Ministry of Finance/TGR (June 2018).

[14] Bernhard Venema, “The Vitality of Local Political Institutions in the Middle Atlas, Morocco,” Ethnology, 41/2 (2002).

[15] Sophie Pignon and Stéphane Braconnier, “Regionalization in Morocco: Progress to be Consolidated,” Bird & Bird (Feburary 2017).

[16] Sara El Majhad, “Qui sont nos élus?Aujourd’hui Le Maroc, September 16, 2015.

[17]M Akhannouch: Le Fonds de développement rural et des zones de montagne vise à combler le déficit en termes d’infrastructure et de services sociaux à travers la réalisation de 20.800 projets,” Royaume du Maroc, Ministère de la Culture, de la Jeunesse et des Sports, June 19, 2019.



How to cite this article:

Mona Atia, Said Samlali "Government Efforts to Reduce Inequality in Morocco Are Only Making Matters Worse," Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This