Washington — The High Atlas Foundation doesn’t have a big budget, but it achieves some impressive results in helping the rural poor of Morocco improve their lives, thanks to its unwavering dedication to community participation.
Founded in 2000 by former U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Morocco — specifically, in the region of the High Atlas Mountains — the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization has grass-roots development programs that have, for example, planted 320,000 fruit and nut-bearing trees benefiting approximately 30,000 people and provided clean drinking water that has helped halve infant mortality. It also responds to community requests for training programs and initiatives for youth and women’s empowerment.
The High Atlas Foundation has spent countless hours organizing community meetings (now in six provinces) in which ordinary Moroccans can participate in developing and implementing projects to improve their communities. And therein lies the key to the foundation’s growing success, says Yossef Ben-Meir, its co-founder and president and a former Peace Corps volunteer.
“Essentially, the foundation is really about community consensus building,” Ben-Meir said. “It takes a great amount of time, and it’s incredibly difficult to achieve. But you really need to develop trust [within the community]. That means your project team and the representatives of your organization need to have a regular presence in these remote, very difficult areas. … It’s really a matter of endurance and not giving up.” But it’s that persistence, he said, that has earned his organization national, provincial, local and international support.
Take High Atlas Foundation’s 1 Million Tree Campaign as an example. About 70 percent of the land devoted to agriculture in Morocco is routinely planted in barley or corn, but those crops only generate 10 to 15 percent of all agricultural revenue, Ben-Meir said. While it takes time for fruit and nut trees to reach bearing age, Morocco’s poor farmers recognize that it no longer makes sense to grow the traditional staples, he said. To help farming communities make the switch to agricultural products with potential for higher income, Ben-Meir’s foundation has helped organize co-op tree nurseries, and the Moroccan government has worked with local municipalities to donate land for the purpose.
Half a U.S. dollar buys and transports a single sapling and transfers critical skills to community members who maintain the nurseries, but 100 fruit-bearing trees can increase a family’s income fivefold or more, according to Ben-Meir. “Because we’ve been doing this for over 10 years, we already see truckloads of new yields of fruits and nuts going to markets,” he said.
There are indirect benefits as well, he said. “In remote areas, by planting trees, the communities build the roads and improve the infrastructure to get the produce from their trees to market.”
The foundation’s success on a small budget is due to the fact that all the labor for its projects has been provided by individuals within local communities and the foundation’s volunteers. Money for materials has come from donations. But the increasing scope of High Atlas Foundation programs is requiring the group to have paid staff, Ben-Meir said.
The former Peace Corps members who established the High Atlas Foundation are now outnumbered by Moroccans, Ben-Meir said. “Even so, we never lost the volunteer aspect of the organization,” he said.