Lifestyle & Belief

Morocco's poverty woes

By Gerry Hadden

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At an outdoor market an hour outside Morocco's capital Rabat, farmers sell produce and spices under makeshift awnings. In a far corner, some men wearing traditional jelabas take a break for tea.

The men say they're struggling.

"There's no hospital here," one man said. "My wife was sick and she went to the hospital in another village. We spent a lot of money to get there."

The closest thing these poor peasants have to healthcare is a traveling healer, seated nearby, with natural medicines spread out before him on a white sheet. "I can cure your hemorrhoids," the healer yelled into a megaphone, "with my powder made from goat horns."

It's poor areas like this – both rural and urban – that have the Moroccan government worried during these weeks of regional unrest.

During national marches in February, Morocco's poorest rioted in cities like al-Hoceima. Six people died there when a bank was looted and set ablaze. Mohammed Oboukidi of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights said he doesn't condone such actions, but he understands why they happened. "Young people, illiterate, no housing, no education – how can you imagine that they'll march peacefully without showing hatred and anger against people who are depriving them of basic rights?" Oboukidi said.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who remains popular in the country, is trying to keep public anger at bay, but he faces a conundrum. Reducing poverty takes time, and revolutions move quickly.

To demonstrate that he's listening, the King has just named a special council to help enact urgent reforms and, above all, to find ways to create jobs – right now.

On a recent afternoon in Rabat, hundreds of unemployed university graduates gathered in front of a labor union headquarters. They were trying to get their names on a new government jobs list. This initiative, announced earlier this month, will create 2,500 new jobs for people with college degrees. A man named Driss Jelai said he has a degree in geography. He's been looking for work for seven years.

"We need reforms, Jelai said, "social and economic reforms in order for us to find jobs. If I could, I'd start my own company, but in Morocco it's too complicated."

Finding work for Morocco's educated youth is seen as a key to stability here. What Morocco needs most are high-tech jobs in research and engineering. But it lacks the universities to provide the training.

The King is building a new university on the outskirts of Rabat, dedicated to research and development. About 200 students started last fall at the International University of Rabat.

Eventually some 5,000 students are expected to study here.

The idea is to educate, and to create and patent products that can be built and sold in Morocco. One example is a tiny windmill for generating household electricity.

"It will work in very light winds," said a young engineer named Mohammed Emeen Barmousy. "It can also withstand winds up to 50 miles an hour. And it will cost only about $600."

Morocco only has nine engineers per ten thousand citizens. France, by comparison, has 130. Moroccan economist Medhi Lalou said Morocco does need more highly skilled workers. But building a sparkling new university isn't enough, Lalou said. Morocco must fix its crumbling elementary schools. Only about half of Moroccan adults can read and write. And for education reform to work, Lalou said, an even deeper problem needs stamping out: corruption.

"We know that the situation of corruption in Morocco is getting worse year after year," Lalou said. "And we know that without a free justice system we cannot lead a successful fight against corruption."

Many Moroccans complain bitterly about corruption and nepotism, especially in the public sector. Last week, dozens of foreign ministry workers protested outside their offices in Rabat. One man, who wouldn't give his name, said their boss never gives anyone a raise or promotion. He just hires his friends and family as a way to cover up the disappearance of public funds.

Protestor organizers hope to persuade people like these employees to put aside their individual complaints and join the larger call for reform.

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    A traditional healer hawks his medicines at a farmer's market in rural Morocco. Locals say he's the only doctor they have.

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    Moroccan university graduates in Rabat scramble to get on to a government list for 2,500 new jobs. The jobs are meant to ease unemployment among the well educated - and to ease tensions generally as protestors demand swift democratic reforms.

  • P1050883e1.jpg

    A traditional healer hawks his medicines at a farmer's market in rural Morocco. Locals say he's the only doctor they have.

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    Foreign Ministry staff protest in Rabat against nepotism and corruption in their offices. Corruption is wide-spread in Morocco and is one factor impeding a better distribution of wealth and resources.

  • P1050873e1.jpg

    Moroccan university graduates in Rabat scramble to get on to a government list for 2,500 new jobs. The jobs are meant to ease unemployment among the well educated - and to ease tensions generally as protestors demand swift democratic reforms.

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