I receive many queries regarding volunteering in Essaouira. It seems that many people like the idea of giving something back to the local community. I have written previously about so-called voluntourism and the need to help in a helpful way. I think it is important, before embarking on a volunteering experience to consider three key points.
Giving and getting
Firstly, what can you offer? It is all very well being willing, but given education and literacy levels among the most disadvantaged in Moroccan society, it is unlikely – unless the volunteer has a reasonable command of Darija (Moroccan Arabic) that their intervention will be very effective. Exceptions to this rule include fundraising, where the object of any communication is likely to be a foreign donor, rather than a beneficiary, or teaching. In Essaouira, Association Bayti can normally use support researching donors and drafting grant proposals. The staff there speak French, but limited English. The English Street Class project facilitates native speakers of English (tourists and expats) in teaching English to locals in a street-based classroom. Other languages are also offered.
Secondly, who will benefit? Strategic volunteering is good for the CV, but the volunteer and beneficiary will get most out of the experience if the placement is well-structured, with appropriate line management or mentoring support. I have heard too many stories of volunteers not being adequately managed so their time and their skills go to waste. The Collectif Marocain de Volontariat is working to ensure volunteering placements are well-structured with a framework of skills which are measured and assessed. I know an Essaouira-based member, if this is of interest.
Finally, is this really volunteering in the true sense? Stories abound online of the supply of volunteers outstripping the demand for their labour, so schools get painted several times per year, or worse, apparent charities have to create problems for volunteers to solve (see J.K. Rowling’s campaign on orphanages). In some cases, work which really should provide employment for a local is advertised as a “volunteering experience” – I have seen accommodation providers, businesses, who do this. Do your research and check your facts.
A desire to volunteer is laudable – both in terms of helping the disadvantaged and as a means to build skills and work experience. But doing it in a foreign, developing economy, is a whole different ball game. Ensuring the volunteer has something concrete to offer, that the receiving organisation is equipped to host them and that the work to be done is necessary, will ensure that all concerned get the maximum benefit. For organisations in Essaouira which I support, see this page.
Creating a local association
If volunteering isn’t enough, or you are based in Essaouira and would like to make a bigger, better or different contribution to the many non-profits already on the ground, there is the potential to have a great impact. You will need to work with local associations and authorities to make it work, and so communication skills are essential. During my work with the High Atlas Foundation, I worked with innumerable schools, individuals, local officials, local associations and private businesses and it isn’t easy to coordinate all those interests, much less to handle different working cultures and attitudes towards charity. In addition, in the past it has been easier to set up a charity (association) than a business in Morocco, due to the amounts of bureaucracy involved in the latter, so many non-profits are in name only. If this spurs you on to create your own association, the members of the board will need to hold Moroccan residency. You will need to register the association at the Town Hall (Baladiya) – there is an office there especially for that. Then it is necessary to hold a formative meeting (assemblee constitutive) in the presence of a representative of the local delegation of the ministry most allied to your cause. Once established, you can get your official stamp (tampon, needed to sign letters and cheques) and open a bank account. You will need to hold an annual general meeting to update members and make key decisions.
This level of engagement is not to be entered into lightly and many I have seen try have failed. A good first step is to collaborate with local associations working in your chosen field and seek to complement or expand their activities. We did this with the Baraka men zbel project, which was about educating local youngsters about the environment while collecting litter in their neighbourhoods. Ultimately it failed because the person who wanted to run it (with a view to creating their own association) had underestimated the skills and time required and the local associations with whom we had partnered saw this activity as a nice add on, but not essential to, their core activities. Following a change in the municipal waste contractor, this work is now taken forward by the Essaouira Beach Cleaning project with different partners and participants.
I am always encouraged by non-Moroccans who wish to make an effort by volunteering in Essaouira – no matter how small or how grandiose a gesture – to improving the lives of the Moroccans they meet, befriend and work alongside. Hopefully this article will support some of them in making the biggest impact with the resources they have.