By Yossef Ben-Meir*
It is in the interest of Morocco at this time to significantly help advance the process of enabling the population of Western Sahara to experience autonomy in the socio-economic development sector. Specifically, the Moroccan government ought to catalyze and support broad participation of the people of Western Sahara in the planning and management of local development projects. This will bring into reality important ideas the Moroccan government recently set forth in their proposal to the U.N. Security Council for autonomy for the Sahara region, and help create a resolution to the 30 year-old conflict that is consistent with Morocco's overall objectives and that of the population of Western Sahara.
The participation of local community members in the determination and implementation of projects that meet their vital needs is an expression federalist democracy and autonomy. Morocco making possible this empowering form of community development will help clarify for the people of Western Sahara a relationship they can forge with Rabat that genuinely helps further their self-described local and regional goals. Also, if communities in Western Sahara achieve socio-economic development based on their own ideas for development, and they see the Moroccan government playing an indispensable supportive role, then this will aid Morocco in a future referendum on autonomy. Indeed, Morocco should create the conditions whereby the Western Saharan population perceives "autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty" (Morocco's stated position) as providing the best opportunity to significantly advance community interests and development. Morocco's support (in the form of investment, training, and providing an enabling political environment) of participation in development would improve its relationships with Western Saharan communities and advance reconciliation, since the process builds social capital.
Based on a cost-benefit projection taken from a rural development initiative for a remote area in Morocco, a twenty-five million dollar budget over a two-year project duration will enable approximately 100,000 people to determine and implement development projects that generate wide-ranging socio-economic benefits (jobs, income, education, and health). The process begins by transferring skills to local people (teachers, government and non-government personnel, and community leaders and members) in organizing and facilitating community planning meetings that are based on dialogue and that encourage all interested groups and individuals to take part.
Morocco's autonomy proposal suggests a transition phase, as did some earlier proposals to help resolve the conflict. Morocco should spare no effort during a transition, or even now having submitted their autonomy plan to the Security Council that drew a supportive resolution in response, to promote participation in development in Western Sahara. This will strengthen Morocco's bond to the region through the local population's increased desire to do so. Participatory community development in the Western Sahara spearheaded by Morocco can create a new reality that will lead to the fulfillment of Morocco's essential interests while allowing for conditions of self-determination sought by Saharan people.
* Yossef Ben-Meir teaches sociology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He is a former Peace Corps Morocco volunteer and associate director, and currently serves as president of the High Atlas Foundation - a non profit organization that supports rural development in Morocco. The position described in the article is the author's and not the organizations he is associated with.