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Poverty in Morocco

As the unevenness in wealth grows in Morocco, the age of excess needs to be replaced by an age of equality.

If I was given a Dirham every time a Moroccan person picked up my two young sons and kissed them lovingly on the cheek during our recent five-day visit to Marrakesh, I would probably have made enough money to buy myself a “meat tagine” at one of the more up-market restaurants in the city. Touching and kissing fair-haired children, I am told by particularly enthusiastic and friendly local, is a symbol of good luck, which will bring money and fortune to the for-bearer.

Although it is not just such superstitious ideas which formulate a belief that fortune, in terms of wealth, is not blessing the bulk of the people in this charmingly captivating Moroccan city. As from the minute you arrive, the beggars, orphans, story-tellers and snake charmers, all desperately competing to prize a few pennies from the newest tourist’s pockets, not only colorfully line the city’s streets, but paint a picture that poverty, in one of Morocco’s most imperial cities and capital of the south, is depressingly genuine.

According to the 1998–1999 Living Standards Measurement Survey conducted in Morocco, poverty showed a disturbing increase during the 1990s. In 2010, despite the view that poverty has long drained away from this bustling caravan town, with public lavatories resonant of medieval times, with shops not much more than crumbling garages, and donkeys forced to brave the lawless roads pulling heavily loaded carts, it is evident that poverty is still at the core of civilization in Marrakesh.

From a Western perspective this ‘directness’ and ‘openness’ about poverty, which includes beggars unashamedly pocketing any left-over food from the many food stalls in the city’s main square, and old-men selling the teeth of deceased in order to put food on the table, is one of Morocco’s many charms. But what is ironic is that amidst the high unemployment, collapsing infrastructure and blatant poverty, are the prices Moroccans’ are charging tourists for the many purchases they make during their stay in Marrakesh, which makes eating, drinking and shopping in countries such as Spain and even the UK seem cheap by comparison. Why is one of the most popular tourist destinations, which receives a steady flow of visitors all year round, echoing in an era of medieval chaos? And what can be done to mitigate the transparent line between rich and poor in a city so infused with life, color and fragrance, it has become known as the “Red City”?

Deciding to escape the bustle of life in the Marrakesh Medina we took a coach to coast for the day. The 130 kilometer journey unbelievably took more than three hours due to the dire condition of the roads. During the nausea-inflicting coach journey we passed many small and deprived rural villages, where a sunken look of hunger and poverty was expressed on the faces of the locals, staring at the tourists passing through on luxurious air-conditioned buses. Poverty is particularly rife in rural areas of Morocco, where as many as one in four people living in rural regions are poor, compared to one in ten in urban areas. Uneven development, which has given little attention to rural regions and a much greater emphasis on development in the large towns and cities, has led to many people moving to the bigger cities such as Marrakesh looking for employment and a better standard of living. But do they find it? Judging by the sheer scale of beggars on the streets in Marrakesh and destitute children, many as young as three, waving tissues, toy snakes and even bread to feed the pigeons at you in exchange for a couple of Dirham’s, life in the city is just as hard, the only difference being of course, the tourists.

The King’s palace is a grand and extravagant attraction the tourists are keen to see and the horse-drawn carriage drivers are equally as enthusiastic to boast. Dominant authority rests with the king in Morocco and Moroccan consultation provides for a strong monarchy but a weak parliament and judicial branch. This prevailing authority within the monarch, which results in the king appointing the prime minister, is palpable by just a brief visit to Marrakesh. It was reported that five years ago King Mohammed VI wanted to attract 10 million tourists to his country in 2010. In order to help achieve his aspirations, the story goes that the king summoned Morocco’s finest carpenters, artisans and cabinet makers to build a luxury manor he could share with his guests atop the remains of a municipal swimming pool inside the Medina walls. Judging by the many lavish and opulent buildings standing next shockingly degenerate constructions disguised as shops, kiosks and workshops, and the constant stream of tourists arriving in Marrakesh flabbergasted by its sheer ‘differentness’, the king has all but nearly reached his target. According to Encyclopedia of the Nations, living standards are generally low in Morocco and throughout the 1990s the population living below the poverty line rose from 13% to 19%. The Encyclopedia of Nations acknowledged that despite widespread poverty, uneven development has led to the emergence of an affluent class which enjoys an elevated standard of living and controls most of the nation’s wealth.

This “unevenness” of wealth is blatantly clear as you walk around Marrakesh. Rich tourists from the west look in wonder at the many buildings of splendor and grandeur, whilst pitifully fumbling in their pockets for a few Dirhams to give to the many beggars in the city, many of whom are children. I believe it is a combination of poverty-fueled desperation and the blatant disproportion of wealth and development in Morocco which has subsequently led to locals believing they can ‘charge the earth’ for food, drink and amenities to unsuspecting tourists, many of whom are staying in the ‘comfort’ and ‘safety’ of Marrakesh’s new town and are ‘cautiously’ making brief visits to the old town and the Medina, just so they can claim to have experienced ‘real’ Marrakesh.

So what should the world be doing to prevent the obvious divide between affluence and poverty in Morocco manifesting itself deeper into its culture? According to the World Bank, both rural and urban regions have suffered from a long decline in social services, particularly in medical and educational sectors. Although governments in Morocco continue to subsidize basic consumer goods and services, the middle and lower classes have witnessed their living standards slowly decline since the 1980s. I believe, instead of the likes of King Mohammed VI concerting efforts into building luxury and prestige hotel chains for elite visitors, there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on helping lift the poorer classes out of poverty. In order for the ‘age of excess’, which is currently being reborn in Marrakesh, to be replaced by an ‘age of equality’ the government needs to be given a greater role in implementing strategies to curb the growing class divides, which are resulting in the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. And perhaps when a more even distribution of wealth is accomplished, locals will be less desperate and less forced to overcharge and fleece tourists, and the tourists, not plagued by feelings of guilt and pity, will be less willing to pay such extravagant prices.

Gabrielle Pickard

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