Global Perspectives and Shared Visions for Advancing Human Development in Morocco

By Eliana Lisuzzo
Program Assistant


A typical day’s work for the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) varies greatly depending on the role of a staff member, the region of Morocco in which they work, and projects that are being planned, prepared to be implemented, or that are currently being administered. During any given day, organic fruit trees are being delivered to and planted in communities; tree nursery infrastructure and cleaning drinking water systems are being constructed; youth and women are being trained in skills building or engaging in activities that result in economic prosperity; communication with our national and international partners, Moroccan government officials, as well as communities is being coordinated to further human development; efforts are being made to secure funding to continue sustainable projects; and HAF staff is utilizing the participatory approach when meeting with community members in various provinces jumpstarting, assisting, or following up with previous projects.


October 9, 2018 was a particularly eventful day for HAF. Our Board of Directors, based in the United States, came to Morocco to not only discuss HAF’s current course of action and project sustainability strategies but also to visit the communities with which HAF works. Board member Doug Seidman, a retired legal aid lawyer who spent 43 years providing free legal services in New York City to people living in poverty, said of his experience: “It was eye opening to see the various sites that we visited to learn firsthand of the challenges and the benefits of the projects that HAF is working on.” Board member Harry Palumbo, a retired international banker and current part time financial consultant, reiterated this point:


“The visits to the two nurseries—one at the Jewish cemetery site, gave me the opportunity to view not only the nursery but also the symbiotic relationship between both the cultural and the agricultural pillar of the organization. The second visit to the National Forest where HAF plants organic fruit trees, again, gave me an overview of not only the nursery but also the partnership with the government of Morocco. Also, our visit to the women’s cooperative focused on our objective of the empowerment of women and the accomplishments of both educational socialization and economic improvement in women’s lives.”




Board member Ellen Paquette is a highly experienced international development professional, having dedicated 28 years to Peace Corps—first as a Volunteer in Liberia (1972-76) and later as Director of Peace Corps Morocco, in addition to having held several other executive Peace Corps roles across Eastern Europe, North Africa and Middle East, Asia, and the South Pacific. She reported feeling “impressed” with HAF and our projects. Describing her thoughts further, Ms. Paquette said:


“I appreciate the diversification of the projects, including women’s empowerment and sustainable water such as irrigation and potable water sources for communities; also HAF’s overall philosophy of helping improve the quality of their lives through community participation. As a current board member and long term supporter of HAF since its inception, I’m very proud to see the continuation and the sustainability of the initial projects, which were all agricultural and tree planting, and HAF reaching incredible vaults: first planting 1 million trees and, then, a higher level of 1 billion trees, nationally.”


After a day of visiting tree nurseries, a women’s cooperative, and a walnut production cooperative in the Marrakech region, HAF’s Board of Directors and staff hosted an event, “Fulfilling Moroccan Development Visions.” This reception, which was dedicated to discussing past, current, and future sustainable development efforts in Morocco, brought together 180 attendees committed to advancing human development in the country. Moroccan local government officials, farming families, cooperative members, current Peace Corps Morocco volunteers, representatives of nonprofit organizations as well as representatives from the U.S. Consulate—including Consul General Jennifer Rasamimanana and Political-Economic Chief Sasha Suderow—gathered from 8:00pm to 10:00pm at Mohammed VI Museum for the Water Civilization in Morocco. As HAF Project Manager Errachid Montassir said, “Organizing events, conferences, and receptions is always a great opportunity to expand the network and come up with many positive results.”


The event began with opening remarks by Ms. Fatima Zahra Laaribi, HAF’s Women’s Empowerment Trainer and Financial Manager. Following, Mr. Abderrahim Gahwan, the President of Ait Taleb Municipality of Rhamna, shared how HAF not only helped his community but also his personal development. For example, he credits learning the participatory approach from HAF for leading him to his position as President and for leading successful projects in Ait Taleb. Similarly, Ms. Rachida Outichki, the President of the Aboghlou Women’s Cooperative of Ourika, discussed how participating in HAF’s women’s empowerment training built her and her female peers’ capacities to talk about themselves and pursue projects. Aboghlou is a successful cooperative that exports calendula (a Moroccan medicinal herb) to L’Oreal in France and sells food products such as couscous.


HAF staff took to the podium as well. Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, HAF co-founder and President, led a moving conversation on the progress of development in Morocco and the necessary means to further advance economic prosperity, livelihoods, and gender equality. Dr. Ben-Meir explained how HAF contributes to a vision for development in Morocco occurring now and in the future, but it is the local people who ultimately turn each of their own visions into reality and sustain the impacts. He effectively elicited motivation from Moroccan attendees who, during the “open mic” segment of the event, “wonderfully expressed their visions and brought up good project ideas,” as Mr. Montassir described. Dr. Ben-Meir also encouraged university students and younger generations to continue development in their communities and to implement projects not only for themselves and their families but also for future generations. Said El Bennani, HAF Project Manager in Fes and Ifrane, seconded this notion. “Youth participation in development means a lot. Without youth, we are not working forward in development.” One primary school-aged girl sitting in the audience announced the pride she has in having participated in the annual tree planting event led by HAF this past January.


As HAF board member Bruno Mejean eloquently said, “[Fulfilling Moroccan Development Visions] was very inspiring. It brought together different cultures and backgrounds. From one end of the spectrum—the U.S. board members, with a global vision and global perspective—to the individual students, women cooperative members, and farmers who also attended the presentations. Everybody was focused on the same cause, which is to improve the lives of the Moroccan citizenry.”


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Fulfilling Moroccan Development Visions

By Fatima Zahra Laaribi
HAF Financial Manager and Women’s Empowerment Trainer


The event “Fulfilling Moroccan Development Visions,” held the 9th of October 2018, began with expressions of gratitude to The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) for organizing such an important gathering. Gratitude was extended to all staff members of the Mohammed VI Museum for the Water Civilization in Morocco for hosting the event as well as to all of the distinguished guests, including HAF’s partners in addition to the foundation’s Board of Directors in the United States. HAF was congratulated for facilitating another environmental event in partnership with Siemens Gamesa in the city of Boujdour.


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This event was an important moment that marks the initiation of the discussion and analysis of fulfilling Moroccan development visions. It was a special opportunity to share our personal experiences about development with partners, associations, and communities we have worked with in Morocco. Ms. Fatima Zahra Laaribi, HAF’s Women’s Empowerment Trainer and Financial Manager, shared one of many successful projects for women: Rural Women’s Bold Future. It was a privilege to share the work HAF has achieved with rural women, and to continue to speak with and listen to them.


Ms. Fatima Zahra expressed that women can be—and are—agencies of change, drivers of progress, and decision makers. All they need is a chance to demonstrate their capacities in all aspects of life. Further, it must be realized that when women participate in development, everyone benefits. Ultimately, they are an essential part of change in Morocco. An Arabic proverb says, “The woman is half of the society,” and if half of society prospers, then all of society will as well. Ms. Rachida, the President of Aboghlou women’s cooperative shared her Living Dream—to not only manage a successful cooperative on a local level but also a national one— with the attendees of the event. She candidly shared that although she achieved her goal to become president of a cooperative, she and her members struggle to reach national success. As a result, she has identified her vision for sustainability and outlined short term goals for long term sustainability.




Notably, HAF’s central focus is not only on women. Men have also benefited from HAF’s sustainable development projects—such as establishing organic fruit tree nurseries—and the participatory approach. For example, the men in the rural municipality of Ait Taleb in Rhamna province changed their reality by utilizing the lessons they learned from HAF. In particular, Mr. Gahwan, President of the rural commune, shared during his speech the positive impacts of the participatory approach on both a personal and community level. Initially president of an association, he implemented the participatory approach he learned from HAF, after which he was elected president of the municipality.




Later in the evening, Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir delivered a speech about current Moroccan development visions. His speech received good responses and prompted many interactions as people became motivated to concretize the Moroccan development vision. This sparked the great opportunity to talk about youth development. Both Mr. Errachid Montassir and Mr. Said El Bennani, two of HAF’s Project Managers, spoke about the roles youth play in development and the challenges they face today.


The event concluded with encouraging words to plant organic fruit trees this upcoming planting season in communities. HAF announced that, that this year, farming families, schools, and beneficiaries will be provided with organic certified trees at two dirhams each. We look forward to helping communities implement the visions they shared with us and achieve their dreams.




Effective Practices to Sustain Development in Morocco

By Kerstin Opfer


Natural landscapes are declining worldwide. Approximately 30 percent of the world’s natural forests are expected to be lost by the end of this century. Further, 25 percent of all land on earth is currently under threat of desertification, resulting in severe soil erosion and falls in productivity, food security, and biodiversity. Morocco is no exception. Over 90 percent of Morocco’s historical forest cover has already been decimated due to the combined effect of overexploitation, overgrazing, and worsening climate. The disastrous extent of Morocco’s environmental degradation poses a major threat to the country’s flora and fauna. According to the IUCN Red List, over 223 plant and animal species in Morocco are endangered. In addition, severe erosion, water run-off, floods, and soil depletion are critical concerns for human well-being, particularly in the Atlas communities who depend on natural resources and are marginalized with most experiencing systemic poverty.


Under these highly stressful conditions, conservation inherently remains a development issue and their combined mitigation has become an important political objective. As a result, a wide range of projects that provide communities with control over their natural resources and promote socioeconomic benefits were established. However, tackling environmental and societal issues at once can be challenging and many projects have failed to achieve both their conservation and development goals. Identifying a set of effective practices and sharing lessons learned is therefore crucial to successfully conserve natural landscapes and alleviate poverty.


To enable an understanding of effective practices, a Moroccan pro-poor agroforestry program was assessed using a new methodology that allowed the analysis of the linkage between conservation management, community interventions, and their influence on both development outcomes and biodiversity improvements. The evaluation of this program implemented by the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a Moroccan-United States nonprofit organization, was carried out by this author, an independent primary investigator from April to September 2018. The study involved a desk-based review of relevant documents, 34 interviews, and six focus groups with seven staff members and 26 beneficiaries. The data were then analyzed and organized into an assessment booklet. This booklet was used by a group of independent professionals, who scored the performance of the program, determined successful practices as well as gaps, and gave recommendations for further improvement.


The assessment revealed that HAF in Morocco showcases exemplary, highly effective practices and, thus, can serve as a model project that should be lauded internationally. Since 2003, HAF has planted 3.6 million seeds and trees with a remarkable increase in 2018, enabled through establishing four new nurseries in partnership with Morocco’s High Commission of Water and Forests and Ecosia, a social business based in Berlin. Through the distribution of fruit trees, the foundation facilitates the transition from subsistence barley and corn cultivation to surplus organic fruit tree farming. This helps preserve the natural environment by reducing soil erosion and flooding and increasing soil quality and plant regeneration, which is highly relevant for villages that face serious and at times dangerous levels of mountain erosion and desertification, exacerbated by farming of staples and cattle herding. One farmer observed: “Before when we just grew barley and corn, the soil lost quality fast and erosion took our land. Now the trees prevent this from happening. We also have more bees because bees love the flowers.”


Furthermore, the foundation was able to impact approximately 10,000 households by increasing their agricultural skills and income. In the Tifnoute Valley of the Taroudant province, for example, the foundation distributed between 10 and 100 cherry trees per farmer. They now generate $21 to $105 from each cherry tree, depending on the water availability, harshness of winters, production rates of previous years, and other factors. On average, this is ten times as much as farmers were able to earn from barley and corn. One farmer stated:


“Before we grew trees, we had to work hard to grow corn and barley. If I counted everything together and sold all the barley and corn without keeping anything for myself, I only gained $53 a year. A few years after the foundation gave me trees I was able to sell the fruits for $528 to $1,055 depending on how much my trees produced. With the income generated, I improved my family’s life.”


In addition, the increased income enabled communities to reinvest their profits in further communal ventures like school infrastructure, health care, or youth enterprises.

Key to this success is the foundation’s holistic strategy to meaningful community engagement. Through utilizing the participatory approach, the foundation involves communities in every step of the program, entrusts them with the authority to make decisions, and increases their capacity to be agents of change. This secures early community buy-in, prevents programs from being driven by external interests, and guarantees the program is designed with a thorough understanding of local context. Furthermore, through women empowerment workshops, skills-building, literacy classes, and other community-determined initiatives such as improving school infrastructure and enriching education, HAF addresses poverty from all angles. Thereby HAF acknowledges that poverty can manifest not only through shortfalls of income and food but also through a lack of access to education, equality, empowerment, and opportunity. One woman said:


This tree and plant nursery changed our lives. Before the nursery we were just at home. Now with the help of the foundation we are able to work in the nursery, learn new skills, earn our own money, and help to provide for our families. This makes our life so much easier and men are starting to respect us. We are very proud of what we do even when we encounter problems. We learned how to face the problems together, search for solutions, and keep going.


The ongoing deterioration of landscapes and the significant dependency of rural poor on natural resources illustrate the need to considerably change conservation thinking. The High Atlas Foundation proves that meaningful community engagement through participatory methods is essential to sustainable, long-term success. A farmer concluded, “I have great expectations for the future. The trees we planted will be good for the environment, prevent soil erosion, and the project will benefit the communities and the associations in this area.” Therefore, community engagement should never be an afterthought or rhetorical, but should be fundamentally integrated into every conservation and development project. By sharing their lessons learned and effective practices, the High Atlas Foundation offers excellent potential for informing the global conservation and development community of how to develop impactful and beneficial programs.


Kerstin Opfer holds a Master in Conservation and Rural Development at the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, and has travelled, worked, and lived in Morocco for over four years.



Discussing problems and brainstorming solutions with a Women’s Cooperative in the Ourika Valley, Morocco.



Fruit tree plantations in the Tifnoute Valley, High Atlas Mountains.


Rural and Urban Economic Development Through Women’s Empowerment


By Eliana Lisuzzo
HAF Project Assistant


The High Atlas Foundation (HAF)—headed by a distinguished Board of Directors, Advisory Board, and operational team of both Moroccans and Americans—is a U.S. and Moroccan 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that was created by former Peace Corps Volunteers in 2000. HAF facilitates and builds people’s capacities in participatory democratic approaches to catalyze economic growth and endorse grassroots development in disadvantaged communities in Morocco. We have successfully worked in 23 provinces in Morocco by effectively building trust with the government and local people by responding to the self-prioritized economic development needs of communities and civil society.

HAF cultivates networks of empowered women agents of change to achieve economic growth and abilities. By conducting workshops that integrate a rights-based approach (RBA) to Moroccan family law (Moudawana), HAF fosters women’s self-discovery, a necessary step in the process of increasing female participation in the economy. HAF implements its Imagine women’s empowerment workshops, innovated in conjunction with the U.S.-based Empowerment Institute, which now incorporates both the RBA and economic planning approaches. These workshops focus on helping women achieve their self-identified economic goals through cooperative development. Women become educated on their rights and their potential outside of their strict traditional boundaries. Otherwise, as we have observed, their decision-making may be detached from their own economic needs and interests.

Since 2011, HAF has engaged in cooperative-development to advance women’s financial independence, expand networks, and support changing women's economic roles in their communities. HAF’s women’s empowerment programs address these challenges in helping women to achieve self-confidence, independence, self-identified goals, and economic participation. These capacity-building programs have been funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Further, the programs have been implemented with our university partners: 1) Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at University Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah in Fes; 2) Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at University Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech; 3) Center for Human and Social Studies and Research at University Mohammed I in Oujda; and 4) Young Moroccan Leaders of the Hassan II Agronomic and Veteran Institute in Rabat. Our university partnerships have led to the establishment of Centers for Sustainable Development and spaces for participatory democratic citizenry, which respond to the development needs of each local context.  To date at the Centers, we have trained approximately 1,000 students, building their skills in facilitating participatory planning and decision-making in communities, and have provided experiential learning in decentralized socioeconomic development management.

Since 2016, 40 women university students have participated and are trained in facilitating the women’s empowerment workshops that include the integrated self-discovery, rights based, and economic cooperative development components. As students from Marrakech University mentioned, "We see the issue of using rights, including economic, as a shared responsibility or even as national mission." Moreover, students were well informed of the different articles of Moudawana which incorporate economic development, and are highly motivated to shift their knowledge to others. During the same period since 2016, 380 rural women experienced HAF’s women’s empowerment workshops in the regions of Marrakech, Al Haouz, Essaouira, Mohammedia, Oujda, and Boujdour.

In 2016-17, utilizing a combination of both quantitative and qualitative tools (mixed methods), a survey tool was designed and adapted by HAF to capture data in the form of leading women’s group discussions. The survey, delivered in Darija or Tashelheit, had four main parts: general information (age, level of education, and distance of their home village to the city); assets; needs and personal perspectives on different socioeconomic subjects; and participatory planning of economic actions. The purpose was to investigate barriers preventing women from possessing the knowledge and accessing resources to transcend their traditional roles and engage in economic development. Women reported that lack of independence due to social norms prevents them from leaving their villages and thus from pursuing financial opportunities. Moreover, traditional gender roles uphold men as the designated breadwinners in society. One woman reported, “Gender has its own responsibilities, men are responsible for money, we take care of the house, cook, clean, help the children.” While most women expressed frustration with these limitations, some women were unable to imagine having such independence. Lastly, women lack the opportunities, such as training, to learn and enhance their existing skills in order to become financially independent. Through our rigorous collection of data and evaluation, HAF ultimately found that the barriers to economic participation women face are: 1) lack of access to education, 2) social norms, and 3) technical reasons such as lack of training or access to information. Further, an ongoing challenge in rural communities is ensuring that women are included in decision-making. Hence, they lack the confidence to express their point of view, their needs, or wishes.




Successful results of HAF’s empowerment workshops include the Aboghlou women’s cooperative, established in partnership with the PUR Project. Aboghlou has now become  a self-sustaining and profit-making cooperative, employing STEM knowledge and produced over 200kg of dried calendula (a popular Moroccan medicinal herb) that was exported to L’Oreal in France. There are similar examples of thriving cooperatives that have resulted from our program. After participating in the workshop, one group secured bureaucratic support to start their own cooperative and earn income. As they had the relevant knowledge to start a crafts cooperative, they became highly motivated to start the process after the program. Notably, women who are members of a cooperative indicated that this provided them an opportunity to exit the village, become more equal to men, and more financially independent.

A 2017 evaluation report by an external researcher[1] indicates HAF’s project strengthens women's capabilities including independence, gaining STEM and other skills and knowledge, and capacities to improve their realities. Women in cooperatives reported that they have found communication and utilizing the participatory democratic procedures in identifying economic solutions for development to be important. A group of 35 women addressed illiteracy by hiring a female university student and starting a literacy program in their village; and 65% of participants have joined parent associations and are actively involved in efforts to improve local schools for their children’s benefit.

In 2018, HAF and MEPI also implemented the initiative in the Oujda-Oriental region. A women’s cooperative founder in the village of Zagzal who participated in the training reported that attending was vital in learning about the legal components of running a cooperative as well as how to market her products and cooperative to both customers and other women who may be interested in becoming a member. A women’s cooperative in Esasouira that sells argan products was able to plant 2,000 new trees thanks to a partnership with HAF and Fre skincare. In addition to the income that these trees will generate, the partnership provided training in women’s empowerment, educating the members about their rights, and provided school supplies for their children, to help combat the high dropout rates that are still pervasive in rural Morocco. The cooperative’s founder explained that earning the income brings women purpose in their lives and enables them to invest their earnings in their homes and in their children. In Boujdour, HAF helped establish a cooperative for single mothers and constructed gender-segregated bathrooms and clean drinking water systems at seven schools.

HAF has four experienced empowerment facilitators and is currently training three more. HAF’s established partnerships with Moroccan institutions of Higher Education Communities are fundamental in making possible the widespread implementation of this project with students who receive training and then support implementing with women in rural communities in four regions. Moreover, HAF has 25 paid staff members, and may have five Moroccan and/or international volunteers working from its main office in Marrakech at any given time. In addition, HAF has regional managers whose roles are to assist in the process of local economic development through cooperatives, civil associations, and municipal councils.


[1] Kramarski, G. (2018) “Promoting Human Rights to Support Development in Morocco,” Jerusalem Post.


HAF Integrates Cultural Preservation and Human Development

By Eliana Lisuzzo
HAF Project Assistant

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is a United States-Moroccan nonprofit organization committed to facilitating community-identified initiatives that catalyze sustainable human development in Morocco. One initiative we are extremely proud of is Cemetery Preservation in Essaouira that rehabilitates Jewish cemeteries and makes them more welcoming for families and visitors, to encourage respect of passersby, and to educate the next generation in the spirit of this rich past. In 2013, then U.S. Consul-General Mr. Brian Shukan said about our efforts, "By making the cemeteries most welcoming, encouraging more visitors to discover these cemeteries for the first time and helping the current generation to remember its rich roots of their peaceful coexistence, this project will help preserve the illustrious past of Essaouira for future generations."


Another project in which HAF works to preserve Jewish Heritage is our interfaith initiative, HOUSE OF LIFE, which simultaneously alleviates poverty. We implemented the pilot for this project in Akrich. HOUSE OF LIFE facilitates the free loan of land adjoining Jewish burial sites in order to establish organic tree and medicinal nurseries for the benefit of farming communities. This initiative resulted in the cultivation of 120,000 almond, fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees. HOUSE OF LIFE not only addresses poverty but also establishes attractive cultural sites that increases Jewish tourism, as many Jewish people seek blessings from the Jewish saint Rabbi Ha Cohen, and make a pilgrimage to the cemetery to pray at his tomb. We have been granted six more sites near Jewish saints to grow nurseries, consequently advancing cultural preservation and people's development. Like WMF, we are committed to maintaining Jewish cultural sites, particularly in places with limited resources, and motivating others to do the same. We raise public awareness and interest in Jewish heritage and strengthen the local community's capacities to conserve the sites. 
In addition, HAF has worked towards preserving other cultural sites such as the Christian Franciscan Church in Essaouira. After restoration, the city government transferred the church to local civil society to serve as a location for public workshops, family education, and a meeting point for interfaith relations and development stakeholders. This project helps preserve Morocco's cultural past, and reflects the Moroccan model of social integration. For more information regarding HAF's cultural projects and other human development initiatives in Morocco, review our website:

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HAF in Morocco

High Atlas Foundation
4 Rue Qadi AyaadAl Manar 4A - 3rd floor - Appt. 12 El Harti, Guéliz, MARRAKESH 40.000 - Morocco

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Directions to HAF Marrakech Office


High Atlas Foundation
High Atlas Foundation 511 Sixth Avenue, #K110, NEW YORK, NY 10011

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