By Jordana Merran
Thirty-nine years ago today, on November 6, 1975, some 350,000 Moroccan citizens and nearly 20,000 Moroccan troops walked several miles into what was then known as Spanish Sahara in a peaceful demonstration in support of Morocco’s efforts to take back its southern provinces from the Spanish colonizer and the Polisario rebel movement. The “Green March” marked a turning point in modern Moroccan history: the country’s southern provinces would finally be returned to the homeland. On February 26, 1976 Spain’s formal mandate over the territory ended and it handed administrative power on to Morocco.
Of course the real work—of turning Spain’s sparse and arid (mostly military) settlements into thriving communities—lay ahead, and indeed much work needed to be done: in 1975, the Sahara region had the lowest rating for human development in the country, with pervasive illiteracy and nearly 50% of the population living below the poverty line.
Morocco immediately made it a priority to develop the southern provinces, to raise it to the level of others parts of the Kingdom and ensure the well-being and security of the population. Within a year of the Green March, the government had established a provincial department of education to enroll every child 6 years and older in school and enlarge secondary and professional education. At the same time, Morocco began establishing heath and medical services infrastructure, building hospitals, recruiting personnel, promoting educational and vaccination campaigns, and distributing medicine.
Decades later, the economic and social development of the southern provinces has remained one of the government’s highest priorities. In March 2002, King Mohammed VI established The Agency for the Promotion and Social and Economic Development of the Southern Provinces of the Kingdom to oversee the development of the territory. From 2004 to 2008, the agency was granted approximately $900 million for more than 200 development projects ranging from affordable housing to road construction to tourism development. In a speech a decade later, King Mohammed VI again reaffirmed Morocco’s commitment to the Sahara by charging the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) with drafting a development plan for the region specific to the people’s needs. Over the course of 2013, CESE met with more than 1,500 individuals, including elected officials, central and regional government authorities, civil society representatives, as well as trade unions and business leaders, to develop recommendations for boosting development. CESE’s recommendations called for another $17 billion investment in the next 10 years.
This amount would be on top of the $2.5 billion that Morocco has invested since 1976, which paved the way (literally!) for the construction of two airports, four maritime ports, thousands of miles of roads, and a connectivity rate of 82% and 81% for water and electricity, respectively. Significant projects have been completed, including the sea water desalination plant in Laâyoune, the Laâyoune power station, Dakhla harbor, and a new telecommunications station. This is in addition to the wide‐array of health care facilities, stadiums, mosques, schools, libraries, theaters, and cultural centers that the government has built to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants.
And the numbers show that it has improved. In 20 years, poverty diminished 66%, two times faster than at the national level. Meanwhile, the percentage of children enrolled in school is 97%, the highest in the Kingdom.
Needless to say, Morocco is as serious about its southern provinces, and the well-being of the people living there, now as it was 39 years ago.