My “Arab Spring:” Planning for local development in Ifrane Province

Over the past months I have been posting about various and sundry Sufi shrines I have had the pleasure of visiting during my travels across Muslim Africa over the past decade or so. Readers of this blog would be forgiven for thinking that I am oblivious to the “Arab Spring” which is unfolding at the moment. I want to inform you that this is not the case. Like many of you, I have been glued to the 24-hour news channels since the demonstrations started in Tunisia. I must tell you that, to my mind, Al-Jazeera Arabic and English-language service has been superb throughout. Those readers in North America who have been deprived of Al-Jazeera by the self-censorship of cable TV providers should really insist that the channel be broadcast. You are being deprived of excellent news coverage and analysis.

I am not just sitting on my couch though. One of my current academic activities is giving me a very “grass roots” view of trends in my region. Directives were issued last year by the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior regarding how the budget will henceforth be allocated to local authorities. In order to receive funding from the central government, each local “commune” must submit a five-year development plan (the “Plan Communal de Développement”). Communes constitute the lowest rung of civil territorial administration. They are of two types. Urban communes are equivalent to municipalities (cities and towns), whereas rural communes are groups of a dozen or so villages and hamlets. The directives on how they are to establish these five-year plans are very specific. Apart from the usual statistical and cartographic data, the communes must consult with various components of local civil society: economic actors (farmers, herders, shop-keepers, investors) but also ordinary citizens, local associations, marginalized groups: youth, unemployed (more youth), women (more youth here too), the disabled, etc. The directives specifically call for use of the participatory approach and gender perspective throughout.

As most communes do not have the resources or know-how to undertake such a study, the governor of the Province of Ifrane asked that Al Akhawayn University take the lead in planning and coordinating the Plans Communaux de Développement for all the communes in the province. There are eleven of them, two urban (Ifrane and Azrou) and nine rural (Dayet Aoua, Tizguit, Ben Smim, Tigrigra, Sidi El-Mekhfi, Aïn Leuh, Souk El-Had, Zaouiet Ifrane, Timahdite). Download this Google Earth (kmz) file to see the places discussed here.

Geographic spring is blooming across the province (I mean this literally. The province is covered in orchards) and I am lucky enough to be spending it in the field. We are currently in heavy-duty data collection in rural areas. Our team is directed by Prof. Abdelkrim Marzouk (fellow geographer at AUI) assisted by Abderrahim Boulakrouch, and it consists of eleven graduate-level geography students from Hassan II University in Casablanca led by Prof. Mohamed El Assad. The students are: Amal Salouk, Hind Fatah, Mohamed Hajjoubi, Bakir Warda, Rajaa Saghir, Mina Ech-Chahba, Mohammed Amchich, Bougataya El Hattab, Hicham Dyaji, Aziz Labihi and Jawad Darif. Also working tirelessly in the field is Prof. Bouziane Zaid (teaches communication studies at AUI).  To be honest, I am not of much help at the moment. Focus groups need to be conducted in the language of the participants but my conversational skill in Arabic is poor to say the least, and I know absolutely no Tamazight (regional Berber language). I do however own a sturdy 4X4, so at least I can contribute to the logistics of the data collection. At least once a week I get to drive through bucolic foothills covered in blooming fruit trees along fabulous side roads and tracks in various states of motorability (isn’t geography great!).

Men’s focus group getting under way in the village of Ighrem Nouada, rural commune of Ben Smim (ph. Abdelkrim Marzouk)

Each day small teams of students are dispatched to various locales across the territory to conduct the focus groups. Sometimes the meetings take place in local government offices, or even in private homes, but more often than not the groups meet in primary schools (which makes the pupils happy as class will be canceled for the event). The state of these two or three room schools is indicative of the kinds of problems rural communities face. The classrooms have no heating and the schools often have no toilets. Even when they are equipped with toilets there is usually no running water to use them. Many studies indicate that lack of this facility is a major contributor to drop out rates among girls especially. Some schools have electricity but many others do not. Even schools with electricity lack the ability to pay for the amenity. The light bulb sockets are left empty just in case someone inadvertently flicks the switch on and sets the meter going. Imagine children having to study in these cold, dark conditions. No light, heat or toilets, let alone computers and broadband wi-fi connectivity!

Men of the village of Aït Ben Attou (rural commune of Tigrigra) assembling for the focus group (ph. Abdelkrim Marzouk)

The type of focus group we conduct requires that participants all be “peers,” that is to say social equals. In this largely rural “traditional” society, men and women need to meet separately; women would not feel comfortable in a room full of men and they certainly would not speak out. Having older and younger men in the same group is also a bit problematic as elders are given priority in the public sphere and younger people may not want to speak out in their presence. Who exactly is a peer to who depends on the social reality of the given locale. On at least one occasion tribal cleavages within the men’s focus group (three tribes present in one hamlet) led to an immediate breakdown in discussion. We had to meet each group of men separately. Interestingly, no such cleavages disturbed the women’s group meeting in the next-door classroom.

Small group of men assembling for the focus group in the village of Ouksassen, rural commune of Tizguit (ph. Abdelkrim Marzouk)

Again, ideally, a focus group should be kept small; six to twelve peers. There is no way we can do this in the villages and hamlets where we turn up. Certainly, all the male heads of household will be invited as to deliberately exclude one would be a terrible affront. Younger men are also invited. In some villages they show up en masse and are very vocal while in others few of the youth will attend. The school teacher is also often present. Attendance at the men’s focus group varies, but there will be at least 20 and up to 40 or more. The women’s group is always smaller. Some women may be too busy with housework at the times we operate (10 AM to 1 PM and then 3 to 6 PM) while others may not want to meet with “officials/strangers” (we always take pains to explain exactly who we are and what we are doing but we are still seen as coming from “above” somewhere, somewhere official, and the term “stranger” applies just as well to the female geography student from Casablanca as it does to the Canadian professor from AUI). With such large numbers of participants, especially in the men’s groups, it is difficult keeping the “focus” of our focus group (our careful schedule of questions). The events tend to turn into town hall meetings, public debates, often heated, over contentious issues.

In the case of the two urban communes and some of the seats of the rural ones (the central settlement where government services, main schools, etc. are established) we have conducted more numerous focus groups targeting specific segments of society, including local associations. I even conducted one such focus group myself, in French, another entorse to proper focus group method. Meeting with representatives of these associations has been particularly exciting for me, given the political “spring” developing all around us. Local associations are busy in sports, culture, literacy promotion, craft cooperatives, etc. and are mostly run by young people. They are not just young; they are educated, highly motivated, and ready to work hard. They are also completely fed up with the blockages they continuously face: lack of resources, lack of infrastructure, excessive bureaucracy, corruption, top-down governance, lack of transparency… Across the Arab world these are exactly the types of young people leading street protests and bringing down governments. In Morocco they are still working hard trying to get the dysfunctional system to work for them. Our research team is determined that our study contribute to their agenda. Phase 2 of the study, planned for next autumn, will involve our university offering training sessions in project design and management, fund-raising, public communication, etc. to members of these civil society organizations.

Everyone is keenly aware of what is going on in the world around us. In one hamlet, which has no electricity and thus no TV sets, not a single young man showed up for the focus group. I was told by the elders that they were all in the commune’s seat (12 km away) watching Al-Jazeera. To my mind, we are experiencing a cross between May ‘68 and 1848. The ras le bol “move out of our way you old geezers” atmosphere is very ‘68. But whereas the soissante-huitards were demanding l’impossible, today’s youth are demanding basic civil liberties, an echo of ‘48. The lesson of 1848 however is that a revolution can topple authoritarian regimes across a continent yet still fail.

After a long day in the field (we are usually served tea and bread during the focus group meetings and are often invited to lunch chez l’habitant afterward), I get to go home and catch up with the news from Yemen, Libya, Syria, etc. The student field-assistants have no such leisure. As soon as they return from the field they go to one of the university’s computer labs and do a full write-up of each the two meetings they conducted that day. Aren’t geography students terrific!

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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