09/26/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

A North African Leader Advises the West on Human Development, Global Security

Amidst global crises as virulent and varied as a jihadist state in the Levant and a menacing disease in Africa, North Africans in particular and Muslims in general paid close attention to yesterday's statement by Moroccan King Mohammed VI on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly. The American public should pay attention too: He has been laboring for years now to address some of the most wrenching social, political, and economic crises of the 21st century -- crises with bearing on pressing concerns facing the United States as well as its allies throughout the developing world.

First, some context: The king presides over what is widely agreed to be the most stable country in the Maghreb. During the Arab spring uprisings, the dictatorships of Tunisia and Libya collapsed and Algeria's junta barely held together -- at that, by intimidating its population into submission -- whereas the Moroccan leader maintained legitimacy and the public trust by simply ploughing ahead with his longstanding, proven commitment to political and social reform. Today, the kingdom is government under a constitution, ratified by popular referendum in 2011, that celebrates the country's hybrid heritage of Muslims and Jews, Berber and Arab; and enshrines into law the virtues of women's empowerment and an all-out war on poverty and inequality. Even at the very heights of revolutionary fervor in the Arab world in 2011, protests in Morocco were relatively small. Today, the population conveys its aspirations for the most part through open public discussion, within the framework of an inclusive political system.

The king, moreover, isn't just a leader in the Arab world: He's also a broker of political reform and economic and social development in Africa south of the Sahara. And at a time when ISIS-like terror groups threaten not only Arab Africa but also the Sahel and nations as far southwest as Nigeria, the king, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, remains the torchbearer of an ancient message of moderation and multi-faith coexistence from which liberal Muslim leaders throughout the continent draw inspiration. Nor is the message he bears limited to matters of the spirit and the heart: For years now, he has been exporting his knowledge and experience in Morocco to other African countries facing challenges of their own, and the continent's interest in the "Moroccan model" has been growing.

The monarch's statement this week departed from the themes of war against ISIS, focusing instead on the divide between the globe's affluent West and its struggling, post-colonial "South." He challenged Western states to rethink their approach to the African continent in particular, assessing the conditions of African nations as distinctive entities, that defy generalization: "What applies to the West should not be used as the sole criterion for determining the efficiency of other development models," he said, "nor should one make comparisons between countries -- however similar their circumstances may be -- even when these countries belong to the same geographical area." He called for "respect[ing] the characteristic values and principles of each country as it builds its own development model. This is particularly true for developing countries which are still suffering from the consequences of colonialism."

This seemingly off-topic lecture, veering into socio-economic development strategies as well as environmental issues, is not quite as "niche" as it may first appear: In the struggle against ISIS, the overwhelming focus of public discussion has been questions of military strategy. The Moroccan monarch, while supporting that just fight, has repeatedly called for a more expansive approach to "intervention" -- in Iraq, in Syria, and in many other countries wracked by turmoil and terror. The king has called for a spiritual intervention to counter extremist ideologies with a message of peace and tolerance; a cultural intervention to foster a new, post-sectarian identity for countries fractured by ancient differences; and political and economic interventions to alleviate the root causes of disaffection that render societies vulnerable to extremist ideologies. The king believes that in the long run, there can be no victory over terror without these measures -- whether in the African south, the Arab east, or elsewhere. Nor has he waited for Western donor nations to adopt these strategies themselves: In recent years, south of the Sahara, Morocco has leveraged its humanitarian and business networks to established new, development-based partnerships in fields ranging from rural electrification to pharmaceuticals to civil society and political capacity building. Drawing from Morocco's distinguished tradition of Islamic tolerance, he recently invited 500 Malian imams to train with their Moroccan counterparts to fight extremism back home through mosque sermons and education. The king's subjects in government, business, and the nonprofit sector are hard at work today in more than 25 African countries, most of them in the impoverished west. When the king presents advice to more powerful countries with an interest in Africa, he is speaking from first-hand experience.

"Western countries ... ask the countries of the South to achieve stability and development within a very short time frame and according to specific, imposed conditions," he stated, "without taking into account these countries' development processes or their specific national circumstances." Critiquing the one-size-fits-all "ratings" system of the World Bank and other international lenders, he called for factoring in "intangible capital" when assessing these countries -- "tak[ing] into consideration a series of factors related to the living conditions of the population, such as security, stability, human resources, institutional development and the quality of life and of the environment." Rather than assess the developing nations through largely quantitative indicators, he concluded, Western donors should evaluated their grantees in terms of "a historical process based on the positive experiences of each country."

As a Moroccan who has traveled through Africa to participate in some of these initiatives on which the king has based his advice, I would like to urge my American friends to consider it carefully. A proactive development approach fine-tuned from one country to the next, one continent to the next, and one crises at a time is the world's best protection against extremism and human suffering, and the West's best defense against terror.