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World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought – June 17

World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought – June 17

by Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir
June 17, 2014

For 2014 on this day, held under UN auspices, the chosen theme is the incorporation of sustainable land management policies and practices into our collective response to climate change.

In this context - and when considering the great mountain ranges as well as desert regions that exist in Morocco - we wish to highlight conditions replete with the potential for prosperity yet which currently manifest systemic poverty and pose serious risks to the region and the nation if positive action is delayed for much longer.

My twenty years of not being able to walk away from the transformative possibilities implied – and often brought to reality - by project implementation in rural Morocco arises from precisely this dichotomy between real development opportunities that would multiply the economy in a sustainable manner and act as an engine of social change, and continuing subsistence conditions that see schools without running water, education cut short for most and a multitude of dreams left barely vocalized.

For Morocco and for all nations, operating in a multiplicity of geographical contexts, the great and most dependable hope for a vast breakthrough in sustainable development relies on communities being given the opportunity to determine, plan and implement priority local projects in which they are stakeholders and from which they receive direct benefit. Dozens of High Atlas Foundation projects – in agriculture, education, health and training – in the mountainous and dry regions of Morocco attest to such communal participation fully enabling project sustainability. Globally, the development field recognizes the indelible link between community-driven projects and the actual achievement of social goals.

In addition to the people themselves being receptive to and running with participatory development when given the chance, another, just as vital, factor needs to be in place. This is already the case in the Kingdom, where the government actively seeks popular participation in such development to meet human needs, to actualize participatory democracy and have people’s representatives completely dedicated to this goal. National parameters have been put in place through the example of the National Initiative for Human Development, the Communal Charter, decentralization and other initiatives to foster conditions for a bottom-up burst in local, sustainable growth. This goes to the heart of why Morocco is so important to the region – and in global terms – and explains the country’s hopeful and still uncertain experience in the Arab Spring.

Thus, just in terms of national potential that now exists, popular development within a highly supportive Moroccan context can achieve scale within the entire nation, across the 11,000 villages and countless urban neighborhoods. In theory the direct engagement of the people in their own sustainable human development can occur across Morocco not only without legal barriers, but on the contrary, with this requirement on the part of municipalities and national programs enshrined in law. However the dire problem for Morocco remains in actual implementation - in the fall-out level caused by lack of popular engagement in local development and in the low level sustainable application which occurs in far too many places.

In the mountains, communities’ key ideas to combat the alarming extent of erosion include water-efficient irrigation systems laid across terraces built to mountain summits, supporting organic trees and plants that feed the nation and the world. This in turn leads to reinvestment in safe drinking water, schools, women’s empowerment and the realization of the priorities of the people.

There is, as we are acutely aware, great urgency to address both desertification exacerbated by climate change and the problem, similar in many ways, of dry eroding lands. This urgency exists because the effects of such land degradation touch upon all aspects of life; they are integrated with matters of peace and stability and of our common future.

Morocco has a multicultural national identity that is protected, celebrated and codified. National unity and diversity opens needed pathways to human development. It is a source of great benefit and potential within Morocco and additionally carries global meaning. This raises the stakes worldwide for the success of Morocco’s people-propelled development model – such success being both by way of embracing difference and for the marginalized.

Major questions remain for Morocco that will have a profound bearing on its place among the nations of the region. How soon and how well can the training (for local civil, public and citizen members), critical to catalyze participatory planning by local communities, be delivered? When and to what extent can the projects they identify be implemented?

Strategic programs and successful cases certainly exist (including those focusing on building the capacities for civil management using accountable systems). However, the required level of consistent, widely-applied efficacy does not yet exist and apparently will take time to materialize. Nevertheless this could rise markedly across the board at any time if catalyzed with a process involving communal meetings.

The High Atlas Foundation started its participatory development mission in Morocco and with mountain communities, whose land is becoming markedly dryer by the year. The impact of our work is for them, and with all those involved in implementing community determination, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring.

Ultimately Morocco’s success, built around the participatory approach to development and addressing deep environmental concerns, could be of great advantage in the future in a tumultuous region. The model sought by the Kingdom is both a national imperative and a global guide, encompassing local control of shared new growth and resource management, partnerships at the national level (with multi-sector support) and full recognition and inclusion of all people.

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Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas Foundation and a sociologist.

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