Morocco, tensions of progress

Morocco has avoided the violence and instability of neighbours to the west. But to build a more inclusive economy it still has a hard route to navigate.

Francis Ghilès
20 August 2015

Morocco may have a more favourable international profile today than at any time in its modern history. That is partly a matter of contrast. Around the region to its west and south, states have descended into instability and civil strife, and in some cases towards brutal civil war. Against such bleakness, Morocco stands out for its stability, economic growth and relative liberalism. It has weathered the fallout from the Arab revolts better than many elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet repression of the media and independent bloggers is greater today than before 2011. Nor is it easy to have a substantively open debate, not least on economic issues.

Morocco's achievements in recent decades cannot be discounted. In the 1970s, the longevity of the monarchical system was open to doubt after two attempts on the life of King Hassan II. In 1983, the country defaulted on its international debt, leaving the IMF to steer it through a structural-adjustment process.

Since Mohammed VI succeeded his father in 1999, changes initiated before the turn of the century have taken their course. The country’s transport infrastructure has improved. Some of its major state and private companies have become more nimble international players than hitherto, helping to project the country’s influence into west Africa - and beyond the southern Atlantic into Brazil. A new class of private entrepreneurs is shaking up what used to be a very complacent establishment. Foreign debt is now well below the levels of the 1990s. Average annual personal income has reached $3,300.

These encouraging trends are the direct result of the liberalising of the economy - not least in the all-important telecom sector with the huge success of the privatisation of the GSM in 1999 and modern regulation of this area of business which followed, and the kingdom integrating faster into world flows of trade and investment. At the same time, progress has been slowed since 2011, in part because of the fallout of the developed world's financial crisis. And internal government debt has increased, crowding out would-be domestic borrowers.

Moreover, there are four enduring structural constraints which need to be addressed if faster economic growth - a prerequisite to creating desperately needed new jobs - is to be sustained and become self-reinforcing. These are:

* a very low level of overall education, which leaves no dent in the yawning divide between a well-educated elite and the third of all Moroccans who remain illiterate

* an unreformed civil service, particularly at the local level, where average pay is low because the state seems incapable of offering good enough salaries to attract well-trained people

* a justice system where pervasive corruption is beyond control

* a lack of trust in the ability of a younger generation of Moroccan entrepreneurs to launch new companies, and a consequent lack of financial or institutional support for them.

The last problem is worth emphasising. In Morocco as in many less developed countries, existing rules of engagement are usually waived for major international investors (such as Renault, Safran and Bombardier). But this also means that local talent, particularly when projects are small and medium-size, often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. There are exceptions, not least in the automotive sector. But too often, the state gives the impression of helping those entrepreneurs it wishes to, not necessarily those who are the most deserving of help. This patronage system must give way much faster to a more modern type of decision-making if Morocco wishes to encourage the emergence of a strong autonomous private sector, likely to aid social, cultural and economic dynamism. That is why the system, though stable, still seems unsteady.

The broader context

These challenges need to be set in the broader context of  the ongoing debate about what "development" now means in a country such as Morocco. Until a generation ago, it was widely assumed among specialists that the best way to speed economic progress was for countries to skip some of the process of modernisation by copying those countries further along the path. That view has now been discarded. But in Morocco, some projects still operate on the premise that development can be accelerated by importing "best practice" models from more advanced countries. In the case of Morocco the primary model was, until a decade or so ago, France. That is changing fast as a new generation looks further afield and a more pragmatic Anglo-Saxon attitude takes root.

But members of this rising generation, and the organisations they represent, still face obstacles in establishing their legitimacy. They can do so in two ways. The first is to show evidence of clear accomplishment, such as the basic ability to fulfil their intended role in an effective manner. The second is to point out that their organisation resembles similar ones around the world, which are seen (including from Morocco) as legitimate, and claim that that very similarity makes their institutions legitimate by proxy.

The latter approach - sometimes referred to as "isomorphic mimicry" - has been followed by the judicial system, the stock exchange and parts of the education system in Morocco. It is subtle, but carries dangers. For it creates a gap, even trap, between visible institutions and the actors’ ethics in day-to-day affairs.

In Morocco, the monarchy carries considerable political and economic clout. Mohammed VI is considered legitimate by most of his people. His situation is more comfortable than that of many of his peers in the region. The very centrality of the monarchy, which embodies both the "deep" and the "ornamental" state (as defined by the 19th-century British constitutional writer Walter Bagehot), has a profound effect of the way the government and parliament function, indeed on the view the Moroccans have of themselves and foreigners have of Morocco. It influences the debates on the country’s future course. It sometimes stifles debate in the elite, unless and until the king gives the lead: when that happens, the debate becomes legitimate.

When the monarch expresses no views, many Moroccans are most reluctant to express theirs. Nor are the king’s close advisers shy of using the weapon of lèse majesté when they want to avoid a debate or prevent one from going “too far”. Be that as it may, the monarchy’s role as a referee and driver of reform - or brake upon it - remains essential.  The whole challenge lies in the ability of Moroccan rulers to dissociate monarchy as a stabilising institution from the makhzen as source of bad governance and unfair policies.

In international terms, Morocco currently is the darling of lending agencies and of agencies  such as the United States 's Millennium Challege Corporation (MCC). This favour has as much to do with western regional-security concerns than with the country’s economic performance. The kingdom, irrespective of its precise rate of growth or boldness in tackling economic reform, retains precious support because it is perceived as an oasis of stability in a turbulent region.

Morocco has further burnished its reputation as a provider of security. This extends to religious security as it trains imams who return to their native, west African and francophone, countries to preach a moderate version of the faith. Its security services are respected by their peers in the west - though not always by ordinary Moroccans. This reputation underpins Morocco’s interests in the Western Sahara as, even in the context of legal dispute and United Nations mediation, few countries in the region wish to see any change in a status quo which has prevailed for four decades.

The sinews of growth

The development of motorways means that from Tangier in the north to Agadir in the south, le Maroc utile (as the French would put it) has grown way beyond the 150 kilometres it occupied along the Atlantic coast between Kenitra and Casablanca in the mid-1990s. This has encouraged private and public investment in a much broader geographical area than before. The railways have also been modernised. Critics however say that building a fast TGV train from Tangier to Casablanca is a misuse of scarce funds - a rich man’s toy and the result of undue French meddling.

Equally important has been the creation of the intercontinental Tanger-Med port. This has given as a huge boost to the economy of Tangier, attracted large foreign investments such as Renault which will produce around 300,000 cars this year. Peugeot is following in Renault’s footsteps and will invest €500 million ($550m) in a new car plant with the aim of producing 100,000 cars.

After independence in 1956, Morocco turned its back on the Rif. The previous monarch had no liking for the region for deep-seated historical reasons. His son has sought to reach out to what was traditionally both a poor region and one not close to the Alaouite dynasty. A good road along the northern coast has the added advantage of opening up the country’s poor Mediterranean region and integrating its economy nationally.

The port of Casablanca, the country’s economic capital, is being modernised. Further south, Safi and Jorf Lasfar are benefitting from the large increase in exports of phosphate rock and derivatives. A new slurry pipeline, carrying the wet rock by tunnel from the phosphate mines in Khouribga to the export terminal at Jorf, will have the further advantage of reducing pollution. As Morocco sits on an estimated 75% of world phosphate-rock reserves, the growth potential of this region is huge. Other units in Jorf and Safi produce fertilisers.

The development of such ports symbolise Morocco’s decision to develop export markets in Brazil and Africa. India however remains the phosphate company OCP Group’s main export market. A liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is being built at Jorf Lasfar. Morocco today imports all the gas it needs from neighbouring Algeria, but the need to diversify suppliers is deemed strategically and economically important.

The new horizons

The turn to Africa and Brazil has equally been viewed in Rabat as a strategic necessity, for any hope that relations with oil-and-gas rich Algeria could improve has evaporated. The cost of closed frontiers in the Maghreb - at least two points of growth every year according to the IMF - is no longer a fashionable topic of debate. Yet trading with developing economies presents its own challenges. In the first quarter of 2015, emerging markets slumped to their weakest performance since the 2008-09 banking crisis. They no longer offer a dependable boost to world trade. The flood of money which made its way into emerging markets in the period of low interest rates that followed the crisis are slowing to a trickle if not reversing.

The weakness of growth in countries such as Russia, Brazil, China and India has a greater global impact today than seven years ago. The contribution of these countries to growth, and particularly trade growth, outstripped their weight in the global economy. Thus, the Brics accounted for 15% of world trade between 2000 and 2014, but contributed 23% of its growth during the same period. The loss of this outsized contribution is being keenly felt.

Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa are probably too small to be affected. It can be argued that the need to grow more food - the key reason for buying more phosphate rock and fertilisers - remains as great as ever. Furthermore a company like the OCP Group is seeking to bring African producers of raw materials and feedstock  together, bypassing the traditional role of western companies in the value-added chain: phosphates from Morocco, gas and potash from other African countries could be marshalled to manufacture fertilisers in Africa at an affordable price for local farmers. Fertiliser prices on the continent are among the highest in the world and, as a result, farmers use a fraction of what their peers elsewhere use. Meanwhile the percentage of arable land is declining while the population is surging.

It's not hard to find positive news on the economic front. The OCP Group - formerly known as Office Chérifien des Phosphates - has undergone a managerial revolution since 2006, from a sleepy state company to a more nimble international one. Beyond its traditional customers, India foremost among them, it has made serious strides in Brazil. In the banking sector too, Morocco has come a long way since 1983. Its two leading banks, Banque Marocaine du Commerce Extérieur and Attijariwafa Bank, have built networks in western Europe and more recently in Africa. And a younger cadre of entrepreneurs is creating companies in sectors which barely existed even a few years ago.

The education challenge

Yet those structural constraints remain and reinforce each other: education, sclerotic bureaucracy, low pay, regional inequality, poor education, corruption in the justice system, lack of trust in enterprise. Many have been around for a long time, but the condition of education and administration in particular is increasingly a focus for all the rest.

Morocco's elite is very well educated, with many of the scions of senior civil service or private industrial families attending foreign secondary schools in Rabat and Casablanca and going on to elite schools in France and, increasingly, Britain and the US. Many Moroccan graduates choose to pursue international careers because they feel too restricted in their native country.

But overall, the level of education of the overall Moroccan population remains very poor. This challenge is as old as independence, but an unwillingness to confront the consequences is costing the country dear. A generation ago, this mattered less; but as Morocco begins to move up the value chain, opesn its economy more, and strives to conquer new markets, it is turning into a major handicap. The likes of Attijariwafa Bank and Tanger-Med need highly trained specialists who speak fluent English. They often depend on foreigners to fill the gap. (Indeed, many French graduates are keen to work in Morocco as opportunities can be fewer in France.)

The need for a major push to train better qualified teachers and offer ordinary Moroccans a much improved education is becoming ever more pressing. Quality education in primary and secondary schools, let alone at universities is more often than not private, and costs a lot. Nothing feeds popular resentment so much as the sight of chauffeur-driven plush cars collecting well-dressed youngsters outside the French schools.

The forward state

A connected matter is the need for modernisation of the state itself. In the wake of the financial crisis of 1983, King Hassan launched a previous such initative, which was articulated by eminent public servants like Azzedine Guessous at the trade ministry, Mohammed Berrada at finance, and Abdellatif Jouahi who held several posts. Three decades later, however, the Moroccan state has again become cumbersome as successive governments have failed to offer serious inducements to recruit well-educated younger Moroccans.

Many civil servants are badly educated and paid, a sure recipe for widespread corruption. But corruption also results from what can only be described as a dual system of lawmaking: the laws are voted by parliament but the décrets d’application are issued by the senior civil service - which interprets laws in a manner which is not always faithful to the spirit of the law. The statut avancé being negotiated by Morocco with the European Union should offer a solution, but resistance comes from both the senior civil service in the kingdom and European private and state company interests who find they can manipulate Morocco’s system to their advantage. An arbitrary legal environment also penalises, making reform of the court system another imperative. More widely, Moroccan leaders need to break down class and other social barriers.

All too often the government likes to rely on reports by outside consultants such as McKinsey but such organisations bear no responsibility towards the Moroccan people or parliament for what they do. Selling advice is a lucrative business though not always in the best interests of the client. Here again, Morocco needs to trust its own sons - and, crucially, daughters - more than it has traditionally done. When outside advisers are called in by the phosphate company the OCP Group, they meet their match in people who can understand what they are about. No better symbol of how far Morocco has come can be found than the quarterly Economia review: its analysis of social, economic and management issues matches the best in the west.

Morocco needs this kind of confidence, which can only come from being able to develop its own finest qualities while also meeting those of its partners. That will not be easy. The administrative elite has far too much power for the good of the country, and too many of its members are still reluctant to have open debates, abide by clear and transparent rules, and encourage rather than distrust Morocco's bright young entrepreneurs. But again, no country in the region is better qualified to improve its governance, and with it the quality of its people's lives.

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