MARRAKESH, Morocco — At least 15 women died and five were wounded in a stampede during a food distribution operation on Sunday morning in rural Morocco, government officials said.

The victims were crushed as hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered to collect baskets of food at the market of a small town, Sidi Boulaalam, according to news accounts. The town is about 40 miles from the coastal city of Essaouira.

In the aftermath of the stampede, clothes and other personal items were left scattered across the ground.

It is unclear what led to the stampede. The Moroccan Interior Ministry, which reported the death toll, said it had opened an investigation. The donor who organized the food distribution has not been publicly identified.

Morocco, with a population of 35 million, is generally regarded as much healthier economically than neighboring countries. According to the World Bank, its poverty rate fell to 4.2 percent in 2014, and tourism remains a robust part of the economy.

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But that can mask the conditions in rural areas like Sidi Boulaalam, where things are far more dire. Nearly 19 percent of the rural population lives in poverty, and about 15.5 percent of Moroccans live on about $3 a day.

And there are troubling signs nationwide. The government expects the economy to grow by 3.2 percent in 2018, down from 4.8 percent this year.

During the Arab Spring, the government spent billions to calm protests, and amid pressure from international lenders in recent years it has cut spending on subsidies and public sector hiring. Unemployment is high — over 10 percent, according to the High Commission for Planning, a Moroccan state-run agency.

The Moroccan economy has gone through major changes in the last couple of decades with large-scale infrastructure projects like highways and Tanger Med, a giant container port. But critics say these projects did little to benefit the daily lives of most Moroccans. A United Nations ranking puts Morocco 123rd globally in terms of human development.

Still, photos that emerged from the stampede left many taken aback on Sunday.

“The image speaks loudly about the precariousness people live in,” said Mehdi Lahlou, an economist and professor at the National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economics in Rabat.

“Many initiatives have failed because of the way projects were handled. Spending is not monitored,” Mr. Lahlou said. “In this particular case, it seems that the event was badly organized and the local authorities did not take the necessary measures to prevent this from happening.”

In a speech in October, Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, assailed the governing elites, saying that the socioeconomic development projects had failed and that a sizable part of the population still lived at risk. “Today, Moroccans need a balanced and equitable development that guarantees dignity for all, a development that generates income and jobs and that especially benefits young people,” the king said.

The Essaouira region, a popular tourism hub, is also known for producing argan oil, which is used in beauty products. In the last decades, many cooperatives have been created to help local women benefit from the production of the oil.

Asma Chaabi, a member of Parliament from Essaouira, said the task of improving people’s lives was daunting.

“This is an area that is very rich in terms of natural resources,” she said. “But there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to advance human development, especially when it concerns the youth and women.”

At the market on Sunday, many who were injured were taken to hospitals in Essaouira and Marrakesh. A witness cited by local news reports said the donor had been distributing flour, cooking oil and sugar when the stampede broke out.

“There was a big crowd,” the witness said. “One woman started falling on the other, and they died.”

King Mohammed has ordered the local authorities to take all necessary measures to provide support and assistance to the families of the dead and injured, the statement from the interior ministry said. The king also pledged to pay the burial and hospitalization expenses for all of the victims.

Omar Arbib, a Marrakesh member of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, said the Essaouira hospital was poorly equipped.

“It’s a shame that people are dying for a little bit of food,” he said.

“Many parts of Morocco are going through some crisis,” he said, pointing to recent protests in the south of the country over water shortages.

“A huge amount of people died today, and the government is responsible for it,” Mr. Arbib said. “We aren’t even talking about human rights anymore but about the basic needs of the Moroccan people.”

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