Morocco has made impressive strides in poverty reduction since the beginning of the century. Organizations such as the High Atlas Foundation are at the forefront of tackling poverty in rural areas, pushing the country closer to achieving its goals.
High Atlas Foundation
“During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer, I gained a great overview of the potential of agriculture in Morocco, how it could multiply the incomes of rural farming families.”
In 1995, Yossef Ben-Meir envisioned a promising future for development in Morocco. In the first decade of the 21st century, 1.7 million Moroccans lifted themselves out of poverty. The poverty rate substantially dropped from 16.3% in 1998 to 8.9% in 2007. However, the impressive poverty reduction rate of more than 40% did not erase the drastic inequality between the urban and rural populations. By 2014, 40% of the population lived in rural areas, yet accounted for 79.4% of the poor and 62.1% of the vulnerable.
Ben-Meir also witnessed first-hand the lack of access to clean water and the consequent high infant mortality in rural Morocco. Moved by the dire need and the vast potential in the same region, he returned to Morocco a handful of times, taking on roles as a project builder, researcher and Peace Corps director. Eventually, he founded the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) as a nonprofit organization in 2000.
For 22 years, HAF has dedicated itself to developing agriculture and reducing poverty in Morocco. HAF has established organic fruit tree nurseries across seven provinces in Morocco, helping farmers gain agricultural skills. Additionally, HAF offers women literacy courses and professional training, while also linking marginalized communities to governmental and international agencies.
Combating Poverty with Tree Nurseries
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Ben-Meir affirms that the whole agricultural process begins with tree nurseries. Ecosia, a German eco-driven enterprise, primarily funds HAF’s nurseries, which have a total capacity of 2.44 million seeds through 2021. The nurseries grow a rich variety of fruits and nuts, as well as aromatic and medicinal plants. Traditionally, farmers have grown staples like barley and corn, covering 70% of the agricultural land but only yielding 15% of income. Transitioning to these lucrative products effectively improves farmers’ livelihoods and the environment, creating a sustainable outlook for poverty reduction in Morocco.
Ben-Meir told The Borgen Project, “Our tree planting program has 25 formal partnerships. Planting trees is the present and future of HAF’s financial sustainability.”
HAF is known for its participatory development strategies. The organization fully dedicates its revenue and donations to community projects. With a special focus on women’s rights, HAF mobilizes university students and rural women to run regular “Imagine” workshops, empowering women to find their voice, understand their needs and take action.
Another workshop, “Moudawana” family code, informs rural women of their legal rights according to the national landmark reform in 2004 that equalizes men and women in regard to marriage and children.
Ben-Meir articulated, “The participatory approach is embedded in government programs, constitutions, municipal charters and even the family code, enabling incredible fulfillment in community planning, as well as the ability to decide their own future and development. Yet, Morocco’s problem is the lack of that fulfillment.” Upon being asked why the participatory approach is so important to poverty reduction in Morocco.
He added, “We need to train people to be facilitators of community planning, finance the projects, train empowerment trainers and ensure that women are voicing with confidence what they seek in their lives and know what it is.”
Implementing Domestic Policies
As Ben-Meir mentioned, the Moroccan government has provided ample frameworks and strategies in recent years to target regional poverty and promote decentralization. HAF is among the local councils and NGOs striving to implement these policies and fulfill the government’s intent.
Ben-Meir emphasized, “A participatory development organization has only one assurance and that rests upon the people: the projects are what they decided and in their interests.”
So far, HAF has conducted “Imagine” workshops in more than 25 provinces with more than 2,500 women, engaged more than 3,000 university students and impacted more than 50,000 people through its tree program projects, as well as thousands of farmers through capacity-building programs.
Multicultural and Interreligious Development
In 2021, HAF undertook the operation of the USAID Dakira Program, which strengthens multicultural preservation. The objective of the program is to capture the stories of communities’ intercultural past—Jewish, Moroccan and Christian—to take ownership of the revitalization of their own histories.
In a world of increasing migration, intolerance and conflicts, enhancing interreligious and inter-ethnic solidarity in Morocco’s diverse social landscape could prove vital. Since 2012, HAF’s project “House of Light” has united local religious communities through the relationship between land and farming.
With the help of partnerships, HAF identified saints’ burial sites and cemeteries as free-loaned land for the benefit of neighboring farming communities. In the process of clearing, planting and restoring the land, HAF facilitates conversations between local Muslims, Jews and Christians, raising awareness of their history of unity and diversity.
Speaking proudly of their impact, Ben-Meir said, “When trees live 200 years bearing fruit and women’s empowerment has generational impact, only so much of it is quantifiable.”
Due to its unique location and diverse history, Morocco serves as a meeting point for various cultures and identities. As the High Atlas Foundation grows into one of the leading development organizations in the area, its achievements in agricultural work, women’s empowerment and interreligious efforts can serve as an inspirational story for other human development projects on the African continent and among Islamic countries.
– Shixin Zhao