Monday, June 7, 2010

Forgot To Add "Permit Fee" To The Budget

Since my site visit, the community has pressed me to work on the Childcare Project. They want to finish the Women's Center roof, creating a space for its activities and a daycare center. I still vividly remember that February afternoon in the mktoub. It was three against one. They demanded from me something that wasn't there. I didn't want to disappoint but didn't have the words to explain what was and wasn't. I left with tears streaming down my face.

Fortunately, Aicha and the others have, since then, patiently sat down with me. Understanding the basics of a strong proposal, we reworked the project vision. They redrafted project goals and objectives. The officers rallied for community contribution. In the end, the accounted for just under 55 percent of the total costs! Excellent. Such a steep investment represents the community's desire to see this project succeed.

From October 2009 to February 2010, we went back and forth with slightly different budgets as we weighted different funding options. They did all the heavy lifting to see this project take flight. I gave them the basic budget structure. The Association officers filled in the blanks. Actually, the consulted Mohammed Labidi for pricing figures. While I wish they independently completed this task, I do congratulate them on their resourcefulness. He knows construction material costs back and forth. We added some extra padding here and there in case prices rise beyond the normal upper limit.

Before submitting USAID's Small Project's Assistance (SPA) proposal, we knocked our brains to think of possible wrenches. Maybe the construction workers will cheat us out of some money?! It is common for construction workers to give verbal contracts, only to later say he did not promise such things and demand more money. No problem. We'll write up a contract. Maybe prices will rise in the summer, as Moroccan expats come back and start building?! Prices fluctuate seasonally. No problem. We'll buy everything upfront, keep receipts on both ends and simply bring materials in smaller amounts as needed. It seemed as if we turned over each stone.

USAID approved our grant February 2010. The ladies were overjoyed! As was I. The approved grant casted away those lurking dark clouds. Throughout my service, the women joked they would hold me hostage until the project funding came. I believe they were joking... if not only to a certain extent.

Since that time, the officers and I have been on a quest for three stamps- one from the rural commune, my souq town and Taroudant. Having the building permit gives us the necessary legal backing to finish the roof. This is an extremely new law but commonly ignored. Most people do not go through the laborious process. Instead, they pay a bribe and the municipality happily looks the other way. Aicha refuses to do so on the basis of principle. She warned me that people end up paying a lot more than they anticipated in bribes. Not having this permit means that every time a government official stops by, we have to pay an additional bribe.

Over two months have come and gone. We still don't have the permit. I have yet to fully comprehend why this is taking so long. It's three stamps on one sheet of paper. Those at the qiad's office have told me they wish to preserve my village as a village. Development should be strictly limited. But we do not plan to build on "new land." The first floor already exists. As a matter of fact, the periphery walls to the second floor exist too. They also told me that due to the recent flooding, they do not want to give building permits to non-critical buildings. Really? I walk around town and see plenty of people building second, third floors in places with no apparent flood damages. I don't understand. I refuse to understand.

I recounted this story to my friend Beth, who recently came for a Morocco visit. She simply laughed: "Joy, you should have written a budget line for 'building permit fee.'" Working in a private, non-profit, grant making organization, she has seen several budget proposals with the line item "bribes." (Shortly thereafter, Beth would tell them to rework their budget.) Apparently others anticipated dealing with government corruption. Why hadn't we? I can only imagine how that would have went down. After I pay them a small bribe, they write me a receipt, signed and stamped, for my SPA grant accounting purposes. Perhaps its better to take the high road and be patient.

Government corruption is not limited to Morocco. It reaches all corners of the world. The United States is no exception. Corruption thrives in the corridors of Washington. Just stroll down K Street. Privately financed campaigned have bread a culture of corruption and stunted the US's democracy ideal. Thankfully, states such as Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut have public campaign financing programs. They have cut ties with special interests. Candidates gather a number of contributions from voters and agree to abide by spending limits. Once elected, they are accountable to the voters who elected them and not that of the wealthy few. **Please visit OpenSecrets to see who's getting what and Public Campaign to learn more about the movement.**

One striking difference between US corruption and that of Morocco is that Moroccan corruption trickles down to the street level. Literally. On a recent bus ride, the driver lamented losing a total of 100 MAD at check points. As it turns out, this is nothing in comparison to a staagmate. She documented Moroccan female success stories in rural areas. During the film road trip, she lost approximately 400 MAD in bribes. That money will have to come out of her pocket as there are no receipts to justify its disappearance.

Someone once told me a joke about Morocco's corruption, while riding on the train from Marrakech to Rabat. The joke goes something like this:

There once was a policeman who was corrupt. The always stopped people and asked for bribes. One day, he realized that the sun was setting and he had nothing in his pocket. So the policeman said to himself, "I'm getting money from the next person who comes by." Shortly after, a man on a motor comes driving by. The police pulls him over. The man is wearing a helmet. And the policeman finds no good reason to fine him. So the policeman asks, "Aren't you scared driving by yourself so late in the day?" The man answers, "I am not alone. I have Allah and the Prophet with me." "Three people on one little motor?! You need to pay a fine!" exclaims the policeman.

We then had an interesting discussion about corruption- Morocco, United States and across the globe. I appreciate train rides for many reasons. Not only does it run more-or-less on schedule, I am privy to the male domain and their conversations. Before parting ways, my fellow passenger smiled and said how refreshing it was to meet a foreigner who wasn't ignorant of corruption in his home country. Some Americans and Europeans he'd met were quick to scold Moroccan officials on accepting bribes. Indeed, corruption's roots run deep. The problem is larger than I alone can tackle. Let's hope the Women's Center can still open doors to children come the fall.

Earlier this week, I ran into the qiad while talking to my gendarmes liaison. It took everything in me to refrain from punching him square in the forehead. If I were to replay our conversation, I would have been less polite and more abrasive: "Don't talk to me in French! My Darija is damn good! And STAMP THAT PERMIT ALREADY!!!!"

Instead, I held back. Mohammed Labidi, an influential figure in my village, says we'll start this Friday. Due to the stalled permit, he has visited the qiad's office several times. Let's hope he knows something more than I do.

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