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Morocco: lessons in political will

19 September 2018

By Greg Mills, Director of the Brenthurst Foundation

When Ridley Scott was looking for a location for his 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which depicts the disastrous 1993 US mission to capture a Somali warlord, the original site of the event, Mogadishu, was deemed to be far too dangerous. Instead they shot the film in Morocco, with the Sidi Moussa district of Salé being transformed into the Somali capital, and the 17th century medina of neighbouring Rabat becoming Mogadishu’s ‘Bakara Market’.

Photo: Dilapidated housing in Salé

Today they would have to go elsewhere. Combined with an aggressive industrialisation and job creation strategy, the 2001 launch of Morocco’s slum removal initiative, Program National d’Action pour l’Urbaine Fabric, and the subsequent Villes Sans Bidonvilles programme in 2004 have dramatically changed the face of cities across the country; all underpinned by strong growth in the economy averaging 4.3 percent since 1999.

For sub-Saharan Africa, where population numbers will double to two billion by 2040 and where 800 million inhabitants will be added to its cities over the same period, there should be much to contemplate from Morocco’s experience.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Morocco found itself with a growing domestic Islamist terrorist challenge1.  In addition to the standard developmental concerns of reducing poverty and inequality, preventing the spread of terrorism became a key policy issue. The 2003 Casablanca bombings, the deadliest attack in the Kingdom’s history, raised insecurity to a level of national imperative and forced the King to examine its root causes. This set in motion a series of strong changes that have since enabled Morocco, against the odds, to remain secure. The attacks placed human development at the centre of Morocco’s fight against terrorism and gave rise to wide reaching policies that made space for many of the country’s urban innovations of the last 15 years.

The immediate aftermath of those policies was a renewed investment in housing, notably through the Villes sans Bidonvilles (VSB) programme. VSB was initiated as a reform programme to rid Morocco of sub-standard housing by 2010. Administered through the Ministry of Housing and Planning alongside Al Omrane, a state-owned housing utility, VSB endeavoured to improve the quality of life for 327,000 slum households across 83 cities, affecting approximately 1.6 million inhabitants. By 2010, VSB had been able to clear 32 cities, decreasing the slum population from 8.2% of total urban population in 2004 to 3.9%. Today, there are 58 cities that have been declared ‘slum-free’ and the project has been further extended with no clear end date.

VSB has been lauded internationally for its ability to deliver housing to citizens who would have been otherwise excluded. The programme utilised the power of private-public partnerships to increase the level of housing stock available to low-income residents – a lesson worth learning for other African cities facing similar shortages. A yet unmet challenge, however, has been its inability to provide urban services such as schools, hospitals and security across all newly developed communities.


Photo: Social Housing Programme in Tamesna

Another major challenge facing African cities is that of transportation. Here, Rabat and Salé have excelled by developing modern and efficient tram systems.  Opened in 2011, the tram now serves more than 32 million passengers a year.

One of the keys to its success is the concession agreement developed with Transdev, a French company with a 30-year contract to operate the tram. The contract gave Transdev the responsibility over all operational issues of the tram from ticket sales to wagon maintenance, creating employment for 312 workers, the majority of whom are Moroccan.

The contract included specific targets on technical training to ensure skills transfer. Now, only six years later, local engineers keep the tram running smoothly.


Photo: The Rabat-Salé Tramway

The success of the tram demonstrates what can be achieved when the correct political will, international financing and private-public partnerships are brought together to create largescale bankable projects in public services.

The advancement of urban development in Rabat and Salé shows what happens when the development process is conceived and led by local actors. Morocco’s staggering growth over the last twenty years marks the kind of progress that can be achieved through consistent policy and fixed objectives. Morocco proves that history does not determine your future: you can move from Hollywood warzone proxy to a modern city in a generation.

1 With a contingent of approximately 1,500, Morocco is considered one of the main exporters of foreign fighters to ISIS.

In early 2018, The Brenthurst Foundation conducted research in the cities of Rabat and Salé for the Foundation’s Future of African Cities project.




February/March 2020

















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