April Seminar 2012
TALIM's theme this year – Civic Participation – drew in a range of civic associations, student groups, and academics, both from Morocco and Tunisia. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the idea was to stress the local, homegrown roots of public participation. Not in politics, but in the betterment of life in cities like Tangier, where the challenges are many. Our longtime partner in initiatives such as the women's literacy program, FTAM (Fondation Tanger al-Medina) helped organize the seminar.
The accent was on youth, and we were well served by a very good showing of students and faculty from Tangier's HEM (Hautes Etudes de Management), and universities in Tangier and Oujda.
Some came from as far afield as Tunis – two young leaders of iWatch, a Tunisian civic action group that grew up amidst the 2011 revolution. Though only in their twenties, they are creating a "youth wing" for teenagers to carry on the activist tradition. Even in a country that led the way for change in the Arab world, the young Tunisians "have to fight passivity."
But revolution was not the focus of our gathering, nor was political activism in the party sense. Rather it was to take stock of the various national, regional, and local efforts in areas ranging from education to environment, and discuss how to energize and synergize a myriad of groups.
Though the focus was bottom-up, it was nevertheless useful to hear about national initiatives such as the INDH, Morocco's Human Development Initiative. Wilaya of Tangier social services officer Ismail El Moutawakkil briefed the group on INDH efforts to kick-start both needed social infrastructure and revenue-generating programs. Khalid Benomar of APDN, the Prime Minister's Agency for the Promotion and Development of the North, spoke of a pilot approach to study needs in the field, canvassing both adults and children on local concerns.
Several associations which have partnered with INDH were present, and stressed the importance of involving a wide segment of society in community projects: "Membership in civic associations must be heterogeneous." This is particularly important given the natural self-identification of educated professionals as civic-minded leaders. Involving people of lesser means is essential, especially in neighborhood improvement projects.
Several of these future civic leaders are getting an early start as a core part of their curriculum. HEM, Morocco's leading managment school, cultivates tomorrow's "Citizen Manager" through a number of programs, including their "Université Citoyenne," a series of high-profile topical lectures by political and economic leaders, for students but open to the public. The students can also initiate their own research into contemporary problems: one group researched and organized a presentation on a subject of considerable concern, medical errors.
In their first year of graduate business studies, HEM students carry out a hands-on "shop floor internship" (stage ouvrier). This willingness to get one's hands dirty teaches not only the fundamentals of business, but also much-needed humility. Similarly, throughout their years of study, programs like HEM's "Pro-Lib" match students with NGOs, non-profits, and charitable organizations, lending business school expertise to associations run by willing but amateur volunteers. "The public sector can't do it all" says HEM Director of Studies Mouna Lebbadi.
The civic impulse, once inculcated by schools like HEM, tends to continue to inspire young professionals, like those from Rotaract, the youth wing of Rotary. This impressive group of young professionals carries out a range of activities for the public good, including a successful food bank effort among shoppers at Tangier supermarkets.
In Oujda, university professor Larbi Touaf inspired his students to delve into areas outside the usual curriculum. Like challenging the Morocco guide books' assertion that "you can skip Oujda." His students found a number of historic, scenic, and unusual points of interest, inventoried and researched them – now it's up to the local authorities to put them in their best touristic light.
In the category of "Morocco's hidden horrors," the Oujda students found what might sound exotic – a "village" or actually shantytown composed entirely of women. But this dormitory "community," for rural farm workers, has a more sinister history. For years the women were virtual prisoners, confined to their quarters after a day's work. Eventually, prostitution took root, and generations of women became marooned in a place shunned by other communities. Now that it has been "discovered" by the students, there is hope that the authorities and NGOs can step in to lend a hand. For now the women find solace in the mere fact that some in the outside world at least know that they exist.
Sustainability and follow up are major concerns. So too is a proliferation of organizations, both public and private, with the danger of duplication or getting in each others' way. And the needs expressed by local communities might not always be what outsiders assume: in one of the poorest areas of focus, the students didn't seek more comfortable buildings or even books, but really wanted a computer and to be connected to the internet.
In the end, education seems to be the lynchpin of instilling a lasting sense of civic responsibility. At home, in the media, and especially starting early in schools. That thriving communities are not just a matter for government, but for the people who live in them. A sort of lifelong "civics class."
TALIM is grateful for the assistance to the April Seminar offered by the Fondation OCP – Morocco's Office Chérifien de Phosphates – which assists a wide range of educational, scientific, and cultural efforts in Morocco and abroad.