Rabat – America’s heartland is still the heart of the country. A character in the classic American 1930s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, observed the simple but profound power of place: “Fella gets use’ to a place, it’s hard to go. Fella gets use’ to a way of thinkin’ it’s hard to leave.”
Candidates for the presidency begin their political campaigns every four years in two small rural states: Iowa and New Hampshire. Even in the new economy that emphasizes urban centers and professional services, small towns and remote mid-size cities matter, too. Even more so in Morocco: the attachment by people to the land – real land with greenery, trees, farms and oases – is profound and, in many ways, spiritual. About 40 percent of Moroccans live in remote villages, small towns or small cities.
In a recent post, a Washington Post writer and data analyst described a blunt fact about job opportunities and location: “There remains a disconnect between where job seekers are sitting and where the help-wanted signs are out.” The US unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, the lowest in 17 years. But many of those new economy jobs are found in large, medium, and small metropolitan areas or their immediate peripheries.
The American rural job market is four percent smaller now than it was before the Great Recession (2007-09). That represents hundreds of thousands of jobs gone forever. Many outlying rural cities and towns have rebounded utilizing new economic opportunities, local ingenuity, technology and funding from various sources. But many towns that were once dependent on a single manufacturing or mining industry do not have the same bounty of opportunities in the post-industrial economy. Additionally, big box retailers like Walmart and Sears have closed hundreds of rural stores in the last two years as shoppers turn to online retail options.
A slightly inverse situation can be seen in Morocco, rural unemployment may be modestly lower than urban unemployment (especially among young people under 30), but work in agriculture is seasonal and irregular, especially with erratic rainfall patterns. Underemployment in Morocco’s rural regions is very high – 12 percent or higher.
The deaths of two young men in Jerada, a mining town in east central Morocco whose economic fortunes have declined significantly over two decades, represents a harsh reality about rural life. It’s also an indicator of the power of place, of home. The two brothers drowned while mining for coal in an ad hoc mine late last year. Morocco’s total economic wealth has doubled in less than twenty years, and there are new business and investment hubs being planned for the big cities. We are entering the era of the city, but small towns still matter.
Discovering new value in rural towns means discovering new work opportunities for rural workers; filling in the holes of seasonal employment. It should be a key strategy for Morocco, and rural America. Can we save small towns and rural cities? It seems critically important that political and community leaders try. And it matters for the national economy: Agriculture, the bedrock (and often unappreciated) sector, accounts for nearly 40 percent of the jobs in the kingdom. It’s a fact – and a rural asset – that won’t change much in the short and medium term.
Aziz Akhannouch, Morocco’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, noted a new opportunity for Jerada several weeks ago: agriculture. Tangible and, with adequate irrigation, sustainable. “Agriculture sector could be a lever for development in the province,” he said. He promised MAD 28 million in aid to the area’s municipalities. As the kingdom moves forward on comprehensive decentralization, the ability and necessity for regional and commune leaders to actively envision the future of their jurisdictions is crucial, from land rent reform to promoting tourism to technology-based work-at-home options.
Often, there is no single solution to rural decline in a given town. In the US, rural development associations often must gather together a myriad of funding sources to create new economic opportunities. Often that support is seed money for one or two years to develop an idea and get it off the ground.
Following protests in Jerada after the deaths of the two brothers, the Wali of the region recently announced concrete steps to support Jerada’s economic well-being: adding capacity and jobs at the Jerada power station, hiring and training preferences for local young adults, more subcontracting transportation jobs for locals, and making it easier (and safer) for the remaining miners to work by performing new seismic land surveys. Local solutions with local leadership. And patience.
In my former Peace Corps site near Errachidia, a Frenchman bought a couple acres near the town center in 2013. Off the beaten path, and with not much money, he toiled with the help of a few local laborers to build a campground (auberge). Five years later, it’s now part of the circuit for many desert rallies headed toward Merzouga, three hours away. He uses nearly a dozen locals to run the campground, tend the garden, plan excursions, landscape and cook meals for the growing number of travelers who visit the area. Seed money, local talent, location, and luck.
Rural America and rural Morocco both overcome adversity because of factors that are difficult for economists to measure. Optimism and emotional durability are two of them. Sustainable development can include the value of people staying in place, reimagining economic and social life in a physical place.
Not massive transfers of government aid to reconstruct a bygone era, but strategic investments that harness local resilience. For many people, the attachment to land, to family, to past traditions is more important than the amenities of urban living and the prestige of office jobs. Not everyone is looking to ride the high-speed train to work.
Urban advocate and scholar Richard Florida said, “Ideas are the currency of the new economy.” It’s as true in the village and small town as it is in the city.
he views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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