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Moroccan King Mohammed VI has returned to sub-Saharan Africa — beginning his tour in Senegal, with destinations in the today to follow including Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. From an American standpoint, his ongoing efforts to intensify cooperation with the region present new opportunities: In the realm of commerce, Morocco maintains a free trade agreement with the United States and is poised to serve as a gateway to Africa. In terms of security, the kingdom’s partnership with African states in the struggle against terrorism provides a framework for enhanced cooperation with Washington.
Reports on the visit thus far has stressed growing business ties between Africa and its Southern neighbors, the transfer of skills, projects to improve governance, and the development of infrastructure. They point to improved rates of economic growth for most of the countries involved.
But there is another dimension to engaging the continent without which all these opportunities will be missed: Sustainable development in the African south is inextricable from social issues. The continent’s talented populations and vast youth demographic have the potential to make the continent a global powerhouse — but not unless present-day ills are healed. Ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten to tear apart some of the most important economies. Consider Nigerione of the largest countries in the world — with a polity so troubled and a state so dysfunctional that it turns to one of the poorest countries in the world, Chad, to help counter terrorism within its borders. The latest report by UNESCO, in considering the situation in sub-Saharan Africa with respect to the objectives of the “Education for All” agenda, draws heartbreaking conclusion: The region includes sixteen of the 20 countries ranked lowest in terms of progress over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, women’s status is deteriorating in some countries. Health services in parts of the region do not meet the basic needs of their populations — as the world discovered during the Ebola outbreak. More mundane tragedies happen every day, like infant mortality and the death of mothers at childbirth. Other tragedies have been diagnosed as stemming from religious taboos and conservative social norms: In 2008, of the millions of abortions performed in Africa, according to the World Health Organization, only 3% were performed with proper medical care. Thus human development is a central component and a prime directive for progress in Africa.
In the years coinciding with King Mohammed VI’s reign, a growing number of countries in the region have shown an interest in learning from the Moroccan experience on all these fronts. They are apparently responding to the kingdom’s National Human Development Initiative (NHDI), which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. In an effort to improve the status of nearly 10 million poor Moroccans, half of whom live in rural areas, $6 billion have been invested to date, in support of more than 719 anti-poverty measures and projects. On a recent visit to Morocco, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon dubbed the Initiative an import ant model for other African countries seeking to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Accordingly, numerous governments on the continent today are negotiating the transfer of experience for Morocco, seeking to adapt the method to suit their needs. For example, an agreement between Morocco and Gabon has been signed to institutionalize the exchange of experience between the NHDI and the nascent “Human Investment strategy in Gabon” (SIHG). In terms of health services, the monarch has shown solidarity with his Southern neighbors — and signaled the desire for heightened South-South cooperation — by launching a host of programs to assist disadvantaged populations in Africa. A substantial donation of medicine and medical devices was made to one of the main hospitals in Dakar, for example — a day after the signing of a series of bilateral cooperation agreements, strengthens the human and social dimension of the Moroccan-Senegalese partnership.
Africa can be an engine of global growth, economists say — but not without placing people at the center of development efforts. By engaging Morocco in its ambitious efforts to support and engage the African South, the United States can help ensure that the region achieves its potential.