Although Morocco’s Atlas and Rif mountains are home to almost a quarter of the country’s population, the mountain communities have the country’s highest rates of poverty. The difficulty of access means the mountain areas are the last to receive public facilities and services, leaving high rates of illiteracy and maternal and infant mortality. They lag the rest of the country in economic and social development. “People in the mountains suffer from a large gap in development and access to services, in terms of health, education, and revenue,” said Mohamed Ddich, president of the Hadaf community association in the town of Boulemane.
But these problems were long masked, because national policies and statistics referred to rural areas in general without distinguishing the mountain regions. Although residents formed organizations to press for better services, they were isolated from centers of power and from each other.
A project supported by USAID changed that situation profoundly. With a grant from USAID in 2015, a core group of community associations including Ddich’s reached out to form a network among similar groups throughout the mountains. Counterpart International strengthened the groups’ organizational capacity and trained them in how to engage effectively with government and the media to influence decisionmakers. The aid enabled the groups to register as a coalition spanning the mountains –
the Civil Coalition of the Mountain, or CCM – growing to more than 120 member associations.
Noting that the mountain regions weren’t addressed separately in national development plans, the Coalition knocked on government’s door. With support from Counterpart, CCM members wrote a proposed law that would reinforce the mountain residents’ “right to development” and address the shortfall in services. In 2018, Coalition members publicized the proposal in press conferences and forums and presented it to political party leaders and three Cabinet ministers.
Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi pledged to ensure the government elaborates a program to develop the mountain communities. He hailed the Coalition’s role. “I acknowledge the initiative to promote the development of the mountainous areas of the CCM,” El Khalfi said. “Strengthening the involvement of civil society in the evaluation and formulation of projects in this area is important.”
At the local level, the Coalition persuaded two regional government councils to adopt principles from the proposal into regional development plans. Connecting their challenges to situations around the world, CCM signed partnerships with organizations of mountain communities in Africa and Europe.
Meanwhile the Coalition strengthened its capacity for future advocacy by training member associations in gender issues, lobbying, petitions, monitoring and evaluation. The Coalition’s advocacy strategy culminated in the staging of an international forum in 2018 with more than 150 participants and two Cabinet ministers. Ddich noticed a change in the way national figures talked. “When we began, people talked about ‘rural areas’ only. But after our advocacy, there are key players who were sensitized, and they changed their perspective,” Ddich said. “Now people talk about ‘rural areas’ and ‘mountain areas.’”
The project even changed the way mountain residents think of themselves. “We were able to create a regional identity,” Ddich said. “The associations that are now members of this coalition, they didn’t used to have this identity of being the mountain region. Now, when our member associations speak, they speak in a different context – the mountains.” That’s not just a change in terminology, but a change in the residents’ sense of their ability to improve their situation, he added: “When someone is aware, when someone has their own identity, they take ownership of the advocacy messages.”
By the end of the project, the CCM had grown from a group of disparate, unconnected local associations into an authentic coalition, with coordinators at the national level and in five provinces and a unified vision. “Now we are very well positioned in relation to political decisionmakers and leaders in civil society,” Ddich said. CCM’s status enabled it to receive a subsequent grant from the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to train citizen’s advisory bodies in three regions of Morocco in 2019 in leadership, advocacy, and communication while sensitizing them to the challenges facing mountain communities.
Instead of waiting for members of Parliament to advance their proposed law, the Coalition plans to make use of Moroccans’ new right of petition. Under the 2011 constitution, citizens can oblige Parliament to take up an issue if they gather 25,000 signatures. That’s no small task, especially in difficult-to-reach territories where the mountain petition’s supporters are to be found, where illiteracy is high. “If we do this citizens’ petition, we guarantee the force of follow-through,” Ddich said. “It is a mobilization of citizens to ensure their right of participation and their socioeconomic rights are preserved.”