Monday, August 13, 2012

The U.S. Millennium Challenge and Morocco’s Fez Medina Project - UPDATE

Morocco’s Fez Medina project is an ambitious and challenging undertaking that includes renovating four 14th- and 15th-century fondouks in the ancient medina of Fez, as well as a public square called Place Lalla Yeddouna, and renovating or reconstructing approximately 20 buildings surrounding Place Lalla Yeddouna. While there has been progress, challenges still lie ahead.

The sites will eventually house production and sales facilities for some of Fez’s world-renowned artisans, as well as boutiques, cafes, restaurants, a hotel and other services — all intended to improve livelihoods for artisans and to revitalize the medina, where an estimated 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. One site, Fondouk Barka, has been reserved for use by women artisans.

Morocco’s Fez Medina project is part of the country’s compact with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and is a good example of the way MCC works with its partner countries to manage completion risks associated with the five-year clock on its compacts, MCC said in a July 27 press release.

Any country working under an MCC compact hears the persistent ticking of the clock running on the compact’s deadline, which starts the moment implementation begins (which MCC refers to as “entry into force”). It seems to get louder as the compact’s end approaches.

MCC and partner countries design projects with the five-year timeline in mind, and the time limit creates strong incentives to complete compact activities on time. But despite the care that goes into compact development, things do not always go according to plan.


There have been many challenges. The Medina, a living vestige of the past, is a walled, carless urban area founded in the ninth century that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981. It is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Equipment and materials must be maneuvered through narrow passageways sometimes less than 2 meters wide, usually by donkey. Change is not always welcome — or easy — and time can seem to move slowly.

When the project was first proposed, none of the requisite market, feasibility or socio-environmental studies had been done. Architectural designs did not exist, and some of the sites were occupied by people who would have to be relocated according to MCC’s rigorous resettlement guidelines. The government of Morocco had been trying for more than two decades to rehabilitate Place Lalla Yeddouna, but it faced stiff opposition to relocating some of the polluting activities, which were creating environmental, health and safety hazards.

Conceptual design of the new Place Lalla Yeddouna.

Now, nearly four years into the compact, most of these obstacles have been overcome. Reconstruction of the fondouks, though still facing risks, is expected to be completed before the end of the compact. A resettlement action plan to improve the livelihoods of more than 1,000 persons affected by the project has been developed and implemented.

An MCC-sponsored open international architectural design competition for Place Lalla Yeddouna  drew worldwide attention and participation from more than 175 architectural teams representing more than 40 countries.  (See our story here) The competition generated an unprecedented level of public consultation and dialogue about the future of the medina and how to revitalize it while respecting its rich cultural, social and architectural heritage.

The US$55,000 winning entry was by London-based Mossessian and Partners, with Casablanca-based architects Yassir Khalil Studio. Their vision includes public squares, shops, residences, a hotel, restaurants, an art gallery and lots of space for artisans’ workshops.

Winning architects - Michel Mossessian & Yassir Khahlil

MCC and the government of Morocco have closely monitored progress and continuously assessed, managed and attempted to mitigate completion risk. But it became clear earlier in 2012 that, despite everyone’s best efforts, construction and rehabilitation at Place Lalla Yeddouna  was unlikely to be completed before the end of the compact. The parties faced a difficult decision: either stop the project immediately or find a creative way to complete it — even if some of the work had to continue after MCC’s funding stops in September 2013.


The Moroccan government committed to financing and completing all work that remains unfinished at the compact’s end. In addition, the government agreed to pre-finance these works, and MCC committed to reimburse the government for defined packages of work completed before the compact’s end. This creative risk-sharing mechanism, the first of its kind for MCC, has allowed the project to proceed even though the Moroccan government acknowledges that work will continue beyond September 2013.

The importance of this goes well beyond securing the necessary post-compact funding for completion of the project. MCC took a calculated risk in agreeing to fund the project and the Moroccan government has stepped up to share that risk, proving that the Fez project is truly aligned with the country’s national development priorities.

In the end, U.S. taxpayer funds are leveraging the Moroccan government’s resources in a great example of a real development partnership. At the same time, capacity building in Morocco continues as the project is implemented to MCC’s rigorous procurement, environmental and social assessment, fiscal accountability, and monitoring and evaluation standards, which provide an opportunity to reach better, more sustainable outcomes.

There is a 14th century bridge called Bim Lamdoun at Place Lalla Yeddouna . Its name is Arabic for “between two cities” because it connects the al-Qarawiyine and al-Andalous sides of the old city. The bridge has come to symbolize this project — the link between Fez’s rich past, its revitalized future and the shared commitment of the United States and Morocco.


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