[Update: News came out today that Tangiers residents decided to freeze their utilities payment to French water distribution agency Amendis, a Veolia subsidiary]
On February 19th, ahead of the February 20th protests, Tangiers, a city sitting on the Mediterranean shore of Morocco, broke into violent protests targeting the French water distribution firm Veolia. Similar to other big Moroccan cities, Tangiers has experienced considerable infrastructure growth during the last few years. But the city is also one where income disparities became among the largest in the country. Protesters expressed anger at higher utility bills, and condemned the climate of non-transparency under which Veolia won the water distribution bid.
Then again, on March 18th, ahead of the second largest protests in Morocco, which took place on March 20th, a violent confrontation between natives of the phosphate rich city of Khouribga , and the police imploded. 25 unemployed young natives of Khouribga camped outside of the Office Cherifienne for Phosphates, commonly referred to as OCP, to demand employment. The confrontation led to several injured and the national corporation’s building was vandalized. Morocco controls half the world’s phosphate reserves, a wealth that local populations in Khouribga feel strongly entitled to.
Similar conflicts between locals and businesses have affected the Southern Moroccan city of Ifni many times before the February 20th protests, and continue to take place sporadically. Ifni is home to abundant fishing reserves. But its people are poor, and mostly excluded from access to the wealth around them because of an arbitrary system of fishing permits. Protests in Ifni are often confronted with disproportionate violence. The adversary in Ifni is tenacious; the military, which over the years has raffled most of Morocco’s exclusive fishing permits, and runs lucrative businesses in Morocco’s south at the expense of increasingly angry local communities.
The examples of the protests targeting Veolia, OCP and the monopolistic fishing business in Ifni, amid Morocco’s large democracy protests, informs us that social, political and economic responsibility are at the very core of the recent wave of uprisings in North Africa. If these protests seem logistically independent from the February 20th movement of change, the nature of the demands are very relevant to it.
The February 20th and March 20th protests revealed a recurrent outrage against: inequality, nepotism, and corruption. Yes, Morocco has experienced considerable infrastructure growth during the last decade. However, it is worth asking if these investments were based on a genuine assessment and prioritizing of social needs. Have they succeeded to improve the lives of marginalized communities in needy areas, and improve the standard of living by guaranteeing better access to education, health, jobs? Were the bids for these multimillion dollars projects concluded in a transparent fashion, and with the involvement of community representatives?
Protesters in the February 20th movement lament that most of the investments are concluded in obscure conditions, and bring little to no direct benefits to the majority of Moroccans. They express outrage to investments in unnecessary luxury infrastructure while needs for social infrastructure remain unfulfilled.
To some, democracy and freedom may ring as trendy political slogans, sometimes lacking a clear agenda or plan of action. They may seem as mere concepts that only make sense once countries reach a certain level of economic growth. In reality, the screams for democracy and freedom are not a passing trend. They are not imported foreign notions, or unrealistic dreams, and they are not born from economic growth. Quite the contrary, these concepts are real, universal, and they represent the key to economic growth rather than its consequence.
Democracy and the freedoms associated with it create the basic structure that provides people with the control mechanisms to ensure responsibility, accountability, and transparency in political, economic and social management. As such, without genuine democracy, the initiative for human development, which has already proven its limits in Morocco, cannot be successful. Likewise sustainability is impossible. Currently Morocco is 114th in the United Nations Human Indicators ranking ( behind Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya).
Many local companies like OCP advertise their citizenship on their websites through vague commitments to general corporate social responsibility principles. Yes, such commitment is laudable. However, it does not live up to the requirement of transparency, and does not measure up to producing an online, thorough sustainability report that provides detailed information on OCP’s social, economic and environmental impacts. For example, if the OCP charter, as it was claimed, establishes employment quotas for local community members and their families. Social Responsibility and citizenship require that this charter is at least made available online. Publishing the OCP charter would have helped understand the context of the conflict in khouribga, and potentially helped OCP quell unnecessary criticism.
Responsible business, whether private or public, is democratic business. As such, it is accepted by stakeholders who legitimize it through a social license to operate. This principled approach applies to the government of Morocco, and it also applies to Veolia, OCP and fisheries in the South.
The Feb 19th protests were instrumental in raising the right questions: Are the government, the Makhzen, Veolia, OCP etc, viewed by local communities as businesses with negative social, economic or environmental impacts and if so, why? Could the government, Veolia, and related businesses have been more respected had they involved all the stakeholders, specifically the local communities in a transparent bidding process, and acknowledged their concerns over high utility rates? Could this anger have been avoided had there been a democratic process of engagement, a social impact assessment and a commitment of doing business responsibly?
The answer to the last two questions is definitely yes. Unfortunately, until democracy, and its monitoring mechanisms – responsibility, accountability and transparency- become a way of doing business (whether political, social, economic or commercial), Morocco will continue to misuse its human and natural potentials and resources, and that is not sustainable development.