Friday, January 29, 2010

Could it be??? A neutral party???

The day before yesterday I walked into one of the little village stores to buy some tea and sugar to take back to my neighbors, and the store owner gets to talking about the Kookie school bathroom project and how it's pretty embarrassing that it took more than five months to finish. I agreed, but said thanks be to God that it is done and the children can use it; that's the important thing. And he went on to talk about the differences between the Izzies and the Kookies, and brought in some drama that exists between the Izzies and the third little village, the Debbies, that I'd never heard before. I kept trying to figure out whose team he was on, so I could be sure not to offend him by saying something bad about his family or friends, and he said, "Whoever is honest and wants to work, I'm with them. I know people from all three villages and I try not to get involved in any politics between any of them." It was the most practical and objective conversation I think I've ever had in this place. He never said anyone was outright bad without giving up-to-date examples of the trouble he or she had stirred up, and I ended up staying for almost two hours with him in his little store, getting as much information as I could about who was fighting with whom and for what reasons, and the history of the politics and election-related drama, until the sun set and I realized that my neighbors were probably waiting for me to bring them the tea and sugar. When I climbed up to the spring the next day, I realized that that little store is exactly in the middle of the three villages, making it not only necessary that he remain neutral but also making him possibly the perfect person to be my informant.

Blank Line Item. . . 60,000 dh. Part III

Since I can't seem to let this commune budget issue go, I thought I'd start with an easy test. The budget allots 6,000 dh for each of the nine associations in the commune. I asked the president of the association I've been working with if she got that money. She said no. I asked the president of the other association in town, he said no as well. But this started (of course) some more drama, when the association president went to the commune and asked for the money, all necessary paperwork in hand, and they said no, that's not possible - they have to request that money from the office in Midelt, and that office said no. Then of course the brother of the president pointed a finger at me and asked why I showed the budget to her when he told me it wasn't public information. With big innocent eyes I said, "I told her about the 6,000 because I thought maybe she just didn't know that there was money in the commune waiting for her. The commune wants to help associations, right? That's why that money's there." We'll see what happens, but I have a feeling they especially won't be happy when mysteriously all nine associations in the commune find out somehow that there's 6000 dh with their names on it in the commune budget from last year.

Mickey, Vicki and Nicky

Lest we forget that Peace Corps life isn't all about deeply pondering my role in development, enter Mickey, Vicki and Nicky, three tiny black rabbits that my brother brought home the other day. My youngest brother and I came up with the names, but almost every day we forget which of the almost-identical rabbits with almost-identical names, is which.

Blank line item. . . 60,000 dh. Part II

Once I had a copy of the budget, the question became what to do with this wealth of information. On the one hand, since I'm a guest in this community and the commune president could probably have me deported if he wanted to, maybe this is none of my business and I should stay as far away from any drama or accusations as possible. But on the other hand, if I could somehow encourage just a bit of transparency and accountability, the people of the commune would benefit from this budget for years to come. Even if my poking my nose into things motivates the commune into doing just one development project this year instead of pocketing that money, that one project could have a lot more impact on people's lives here than my little bathroom-building projects. Or am I naive and egotistical enough to think that I can change the behavior of rich politicians who live in their mansions in the cities and clearly don't care that everyone living in the commune already thinks they're stealing all the money? But maybe all it takes is for one person to refuse to accept a system of corruption and to encourage other people to refuse to continue to accept that system. If I too turn a blind eye, am I giving up on the possibility of a positive change in the system? Maybe it's my duty to stand up for people and demand transparency. After all, what can the commune really do to me? I have the luxury of American citizenship and a family and a life far away from the politics of this tiny little rural commune in the middle of nowhere. The commune can't refuse to sign property ownership papers for me or demand absurd taxes from me because I'm never going to buy a house or property here, will never need to send my children to the commune's public schools, and will certainly never ask for a job in the commune. People here are afraid to say anything bad about the commune because the commune holds a lot of power over their lives. But even though I know that in the grand scheme of things I have very little to lose, being kicked out of the country for involving myself too much in petty local politics doesn't sound like much fun, and maybe I'd rather go back to blissful ignorance, drinking tea and running with my dog and pretending like everything and everyone is great. And let the work of the commune remain the mystery maybe it's meant to be.

Blank line item. . . 60,000 dirhams. Part I

The rural Commune. . . Morocco's system of local governance and the single biggest mystery of my Peace Corps service. What exactly do they do in that little office five miles away? Who's right, the villagers who say that the president and all the people who work there are thieves who just pocket the whole budget, or the rich landowner (brother of the president of the commune) who claims that everything is honest and the people just don't understand how hard and expensive it is to run a commune? Every time I'd try to pin down exactly what the commune does for its constituents, I get two answers. The people say, "the president eats all the money" and then chuckle to themselves because the president is in fact pretty fat. The rich landowners say, "the commune doesn't have any money in the first place, and the money they do have goes to pay the salaries of the 24 employees, about five of whom actually show up at work while the other 19 just come to pick up their paychecks." "Why do they still get paid if they don't do any work?" "Oh, Cynthia, you just don't understand this country or the people. It's illegal to fire a government employee because there aren't enough jobs in the country right now. Plus there are 11 villages in the commune, not all the money can go to ours."
So one day last month I took a little trip to the commune just to check things out. The building is practically empty; cold and bare and sparsely furnished with a few super old desks, stacks of hand-written files, a photocopier from the mid-eighties, and one super old computer back in a corner. I casually asked to see a copy of the budget.
"The budget? We don't have a copy of the budget here."
"What? How can you not have a copy of the budget? How do you know how much money to spend on things?"
"Nope, no budget here. We sent that to the provincial office in Khenifra. You have to go there to find it."
"Can I just look for one minute at the files on that computer. Maybe I can find something."
"Oh no, if you want to see the budget you have to file a request, and once the president approves it, you can see the budget."
"Okay, how do I file that request? Maybe since the president is your brother, you could just call him and ask."
"You really need to see the budget?"
"Yes. You're always telling me I don't understand the commune; I just want to understand. Plus, if you're doing anything shady, it's not going to appear in the budget. I'm not asking for your receipts, this isn't an audit."
So they printed me a copy of the 2008 and 2009 budgets. Here are my favorite parts for 2009, keeping in mind my earlier description of the building:
Decorations for commune office 7700 dh ($850)
Uniforms for maintenance staff 5500 dh ($650)
IT and new computers 11,000 dh ($1500)
Office supplies 38,500 dh ($4500)
Window glass 3300 dh ($400)
Paint 11,000 dh ($1500)
Weapons 2200 dh ($250)
Art 2600 dh ($300)
*blank line* 60,000 dh ($7500)

The rest is all pretty small and could potentially be true. Of an almost 4 million dirham budget ($500,000), half goes to salaries. That still leaves 2 million dirham a year that could (and in my opinion should) be used for development. $250,000 doesn't sound like a lot by American standards for sure, but it certainly could do a lot of good here in rural Morocco if it was put to honest use. As Peace Corps volunteers, we can apply for grants to do small projects, of about $2500-$3500, like the bathroom projects we're doing.
That's only 1-2% of what the commune has at its disposal every year to carry out projects.

Am I crazy to be doing this again? Part III

The best part about working in Izzie-ville is that it's driving the Kookies crazy. Every single person in Kookie-ville knows that the Izzies are building bathrooms in their school, and every single day I get asked by at least half a dozen Kookies how far the Izzies have come, have they finished yet, and are they working well? I love being able to give daily updates on the progress, and confirm that yes, the Izzies are working extremely well. The day we brought three vans full of bricks and cement and rebar home, some thirty-five men and boys showed up to help unload. When we brought the same materials to the Kookie school in August, one man showed up from the Association, and my sitemate and I and a ten-year-old boy unloaded two tons of cement and some 700 bricks by ourselves. Every day that the Izzies work, tea and bread and pancakes appear from at least two or three women in the village, and there's really nothing I can do to help because there are already more people trying to volunteer their help than are really needed. Quite a difference from the Kookie experience, where I personally carried countless buckets of water from the well, unloaded tractors full of sand and rocks, mixed cement, painted, and ran whatever other errands weren't going to get run if I didn't do them.

Am I crazy to be doing this again? Part II

Within a few hours of returning to the village after spending Christmas in Spain, I was summoned to the school to talk about the progress of the toilets in the Kookie village. Still not finished, of course, but the first foreman had been rehired so I was willing to call that a Christmas miracle in itself and be moderately happy that it looked like the project might soon be finished. The real Christmas miracle was when, as I was leaving the school, someone mentioned, oh, you should go down to the Izzie school, they started their bathroom project. "Wait, really? What? You're not kidding?" "No, really, they started while you were in Spain." "Impossible! I haven't even organized a meeting with them yet to talk about it." "Just go and look."
So I trekked down to the Izzie school, and sure enough, there was a freshly-dug well, clean and deep and full, the sanitation pit, and the foundation for where the bathrooms would be built. My appearance caused an impromptu assembly of all the men and teenage boys of the village, all eager to explain the floor plan, the depth of the well, how they carefully made sure the sanitation pit was far away from the well and downhill from it, and how the very day the director of the school called them together to explain the project they got out their shovels and started digging. They'd have had them built by now, they explained, but they were waiting for me to go with them to buy all the materials. They'd named a good foreman, split up into teams of three to four workers, and written up a list of all the materials they'd need. So we made plans to go into town early the next morning to buy everything. In front of the assembly, I made a short little speech declaring that I would not work with them if this project was going to be like the one in the Kookie school, that they needed to finish quickly and without any fighting, and that they needed to organize themselves because I was not going to come down every morning to make sure they were working and drag them out of their houses if they weren't.

Am I crazy to be doing this again? Part I

Sometime in the beginning of August, about two days into the school bathroom project (when we were still working with foreman #1), my sitemate and I thought it would be fun to do this again, at the school in the enemy village down the road (the Izzies). So we asked for the money from Peace Corps, it arrived sometime in September, and we decided that as soon as the first bathrooms were built, we'd start the second ones. And then the months passed and the first bathrooms didn't look like they would ever be finished and the thought of starting this whole nightmare over again made me cringe, almost to the point of calling Peace Corps and giving back the money. But the director of the schools promised it'd be better this time around and that he'd make sure of it. So we signed a contract and made plans to start the project after the first of the year.

School Bathroom Nightmare, Part IV

At some point I stopped being frustrated with this project, and started laughing at it, since taking five and a half months to build two toilets at a school is pretty comical. But it's done! Although I think I'd rather my name not be associated with this project at all, my one personal victory is that the original foreman that the director of the school and my sitemate and I hired way back in August (which, due to some still-unexplained politics, the association refused to allow to work,) was hired for the final touches - plumbing, electricity, and painting the toilets and the entire school a nauseating Pepto-Bismol pink. The association officers will never actually admit that had we kept this guy as foreman from the beginning, the toilets would have been finished according to the 15-day schedule, approximately 150 days ago. But we all know.

Why did this take Four Months?

Finally, in the middle of December, almost four months after our big summer flood, the road got fixed. And by fixed I mean some trucks full of dirt came and filled in the canyon, making it passable to cars, at least until the next big rain.