I was in Marrakech, Morocco, walking with my 89-year-old mother, when the earthquake struck Haouz last Friday. After the earth shook, my mother couldn’t stop shaking. I gently carried her out of the family home, which may no longer be the refuge that it once was only seconds earlier. 

The earth, like assumptions, had moved and everything that depended on its supposed permanence was now in question. Emotions came in waves, like a seismograph: first astonishment, then quickly, questions. Is Mehdi still safe? Are you sure that Yasmina went to the restaurant on that street? 

By morning, Morocco was mourning the loss of thousands of dead and injured. Art Deco apartment buildings had bent over on their concrete knees, tumbling their tops into the streets. In the Atlas mountains above Marrakech, whole neighborhoods had slid away suddenly, scattering debris hundreds of feet down to block narrow, steep roads-slowing rescuers while raising worries. 

The Moroccan authorities wanted the rescue and emergency aid phase to be orderly. While many neighboring and Western states generously offered aid, Morocco accepted help from only four. There are legitimate reasons for this. Aid experts told the Miami Herald that rescue teams can do more harm than good if they aren’t invited to areas and don’t coordinate their efforts.

Also, Morocco doesn’t know precisely what kind of aid it will need yet. The dimensions of the tragedy are still being mapped. Morocco has invested heavily in ambulances, hospitals, earth-moving equipment and the many other modern things you need when the worst earthquake in decades devastates you. 

It also has established building codes designed to strengthen buildings against quakes. An identical tremor in a different land would likely have produced a much bigger tragedy. Decades of patient planning, careful investment and intensive training mean that the crisis isn’t far worse. 

What must come next is truly staggering. 

More than 300,000 people, a third of whom are children, are now unhoused in the mountains, just as the harsh winter winds will come. Moroccans will have to rebuild homes, restore jobs, string new power lines, clear roads, repair schools and on and on, in a long list to restore civilization to one of its poorest remote regions. It is a titanic project, estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars

Morocco needs help from international institutions, in particular the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank alongside other international financial institutions. In this phase the potential role of the U.S. is crucial. The generosity of the American people is legendary, especially towards a friendly country that was the first to recognize its independence. 

The U.S. government has a role, too. Washington should use its influence so that the reconstruction program and development projects are properly supported. Apart from Morocco, aid to Africa is an essential lever of American influence. 

America has a great opportunity to relocate its Africa policy. The U.S. has no colonial history, which is a definite advantage in Africa today, where we see a renewed rejection of former colonizing countries, particularly France. 

Furthermore, if the United States is true to its values, it will deploy policies to strengthen democracy, fight corruption and encourage investment. Failing to extend an American offer to Africa will only push African leaders into the arms of China and Russia. 

Already, too many African intellectuals prefer the idea of a strong man-savior to Western-style liberalism. If that were to happen, it would only add another layer to the current tragedy. 

America, as usual, will be judged by what it does and what it leaves undone.

Ahmed Charai is a publisher who sits on the board of the Atlantic Council and the International Crisis Group in Washington.

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