Until a few years ago, Daabza was typical of many isolated villages in the hilly, drought-prone terrain of northern Morocco: no running water, no electricity, and few hopes for a better future. The people of Daabza, like the parched earth they inhabited, were thirsty -- not just for water but for knowledge and opportunity.
Today, like the desert after a rain, Daabza and dozens of other villages or douars throughout the Moroccan countryside are finding their landscape transformed by the presence of a network of rural community schools designed to bring not just education, but the tools for sustainable development.
Through the Medersat.com project launched in 2000 by the Banque Marocaine du Commerce Exterieur (BMCE Bank) Foundation, 55 remote villages across the kingdom that were previously languishing without schools, power, or reliable water supply, now possess all of these. In each location, professionally trained teachers drawn from the surrounding region instruct students in their mother tongue, whether it is Arabic or the indigenous Amazigh language spoken in many parts of Morocco, as well as French.
After hours, the schools become bustling centers for adult education and training, village meetings and local enterprise. The aim is to address the endemic isolation, poverty and illiteracy that afflict rural Morocco by making the schools a hub for wider community development, while respecting local cultural heritage and language.
"Medersat.com was established to give all children and adults in these areas a real chance to reach a level of education that will enable them to become positive forces for development and to be able to contribute to an environment of openness and tolerance in their own communities," explains Othman Benjelloun, Chairman and CEO of BMCE Bank. He and his wife, Dr. Leïla Mezian-Benjelloun are members of The Synergos Institute's Global Philanthropists Circle. Dr. Mezian-Benjelloun serves as President of the BMCE Bank Foundation and leads the foundation's programs involving Amazigh language and culture (see sidebar).
One of the largest corporations on the Casablanca stock exchange with total assets of over $5 billion, the BMCE Bank Group is a powerful and familiar presence in Moroccan society, employing nearly 3,000 people in more than 200 branches throughout the kingdom.
As a forward-thinking leader of Morocco's financial services industry, Benjelloun has played an instrumental role in modernizing his country's banking sector and promoting a competitive Moroccan economy. Now, he has turned his hand to reforms in his country's education system that may prove as far-reaching as the innovations he pioneered in the private sector.
A call for action on rural education crisis
The vehicle for this new rural educational initiative is the BMCE Bank Foundation, which Benjelloun established shortly after assuming leadership of the bank in 1995. Circumstances in Morocco at that time presented a clear demand for action, with nearly three-quarters of rural residents illiterate (among women, the figure is as high as 90 percent) and 65 percent of the rural population living below the poverty line.
Spurred on by developments such as King Mohammed VI's appeal for all sectors of Moroccan society to take concerted action on education, and by a new national charter on the subject, Benjelloun decided that the time was right for a bold new approach to the problem, and that the rural areas were the most compelling priority.
The Benjellouns both had long been active in support of higher education in Morocco, he as co-founder and former Chancellor of Al Akhawayn University, and she as head of the Benjelloun-Mezian Foundation, which provide scholarships to Moroccan students worldwide and help train the country's future generation of leaders.
But the growing crisis in rural communities convinced them of the need for a new commitment, focused on primary education at the village level. For the BMCE Bank Foundation, this meant an "evolution from...providing ad hoc social assistance and grants to NGOs and individuals nationwide, to adoption of a more integrated approach to development focused on education and environmental protection," Othman Benjelloun recalled in a recent interview with Global Giving Matters.
Accordingly, the foundation began to plan in earnest for its new initiative, Medersat.com, designed to integrate education into sustainable, humane rural development. At the Second Mediterranean Development Forum in Marrakech in 1998, on the podium next to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, Benjelloun announced the foundation's ambitious plans to build 1001 new community schools in rural areas by 2010.
Mobilizing partners for change
Through the BMCE Bank Foundation, Medersat.com has succeeded in mobilizing a wide variety of partners and collaborators around a common agenda. For expertise in matters of pedagogy, adult literacy and teacher training, for example, the foundation has relied on Morocco's National Education Ministry and the Rene Descartes Paris V University. It turned to the United Nations Development Programme for model programs and for technical and financial support for sustainable environmental management and income generating activities. Moroccan water and power agencies are donating services to connect rural communities with safe drinking water and reliable sources of electricity. And telecommunications firms are partnering with the foundation to help bridge the "digital wadi" that prevents rural communities from participation in the global knowledge society made possible by the Internet.
The principality of Monaco provided key early financial support for two of Medersat.com's rural community schools in the southern regions of Essaouira and Taroudant. In the north, Spain is supporting an additional two schools in the regions of Al Hoceima and Nador, and the Spanish Telefonica Foundation is helping finance a school in Tangier. Senegal's Health and Education Foundation has joined the foundation in opening the first Medersat.com school outside of Morocco, in the capital city of Dakar (see sidebar).
In another partnership with the BMCE Bank Foundation, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation has contributed $100,000 to integrate physical education and sport in the curricula of the Medersat.com network, with a pilot project in the Marrakech region. The UK-based organization uses the power of sports to help address social concerns across the globe. This diverse group of partners assembled by the BMCE Bank Foundation has contributed to extending the impact of the schools in the network and helping to improve the rural population's living conditions.
From the outset of the Medersat.com experiment, Benjelloun said that the bank, through its foundation, has seen its role as one of a catalyst for change in rural communities. "It was a question of mobilizing energies. That was always the idea, that we have the credibility, we have financial powerto...rally all these people."
Building a record of achievements
Medersat.com was launched in the 2000-2001 academic year with the construction of 16 schools. Now in its fourth year of operation, the project has accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments. To date, $15 million has been committed by the foundation and its partners and 55 rural community schools have been built throughout Morocco. More than 5,400 primary students and 1,100 preschoolers have been enrolled in these community schools, which have also provided literacy training to 5,000 adults.
Beyond the obvious benefits of basic education, 20 douars have benefited from development projects carried out by foundation's partners to connect residents to water and power supply. Another key goal of Medersat.com, to strengthen community institutions by giving village residents a central role in the planning, implementation and assessment of development activities, has led to the establishment of 50 local management committees.
Through a partnership with two microfinance organizations, the foundation has launched a pilot program to provide microcredit to residents of two villages, Aït Iktel, in the province of El Haouz, and Aït Lhaj Taher, in the province of Essaouira, in connection with Medersat.com's ongoing community development projects there. Plans are underway to extend the pilot into seven additional rural locations where community schools are up and running.
The foundation's partners in the pilot program are the Zakoura Foundation, which has a successful record of providing microcredit and a range of support services to women in Morocco, and PlaNet Finance Maroc, which offers specialized technical assistance to microfinance institutions and lines of credit to the villages participating in the pilot project. To date, microcredits totaling more than $53,000 have been extended to 370 clients in Aït Iktel and Aït Lhaj Taher.
The result has been that in village after village, the Medersat.com schools are raising expectations, opening up a whole new world of possibilities and empowering residents to realize their dreams for a better future.
Daabza: a snapshot of Medersat.com in action
A good illustration of the profound impact that community schools are making on village life can be found in Daabza, about an hour's journey from Fez in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco.
Prior to 2001, the majority of Daabza's children had never seen a school, much less attended one. At a very young age, most went to work in the countryside, tending fields or herding goats. Those who were lucky enough to attend classes were forced to walk several miles over rough trails to the nearest school. In this drought-stricken region of Morocco, water was often rationed; keeping the douar supplied with sufficient water meant endless treks down the hill to the village well on donkeys.
When the foundation decided to build a school in Daabza, the douar donated the land and provided much of the labor for construction. In keeping with Medersat.com's philosophy, the school was situated in the physical center of the community with the aim of making it a key driver in local development. The architectural style and building materials reflected local traditions. What emerged was a complex of buildings that feature domes and graceful arches, punctuated by paved courtyards open to the sky.
A reliable water supply was provided with the assistance of a foundation partner, the Drinking Water Utility (ONEP). When the doors of the school finally opened in 2001, one of the school's two teachers, Abdesselam, had to show the children how to operate the faucets; without running water in their village, they had never used a water tap.
Because Daabza is not connected to the electrical grid, the school uses a solar photovoltaic system developed for the BMCE Bank Foundation by the Benjellouns' son, Kamal Benjelloun, anthropologist and environmentalist, founder of the New York-based Strategic Defense of the Environment Group (SDEG). Kamal Benjelloun and SDEG have been influential in shaping the foundation's support for environmentally sound development policies. The solar panels provide the power to light classrooms and run the bank of computers that are a standard feature of all Medersat.com schools.
Soon after the school opened, a representative of the BMCE Bank Foundation met with the villagers and reflected on the nature of the partnership that Medersat.com has struck with rural communities across Morocco. "We'll finish the work and give you the keys, because these are your walls, your land, and your children," she told the assembled citizens of Daabza.
Lessons learned: the strategic value of shared experience
Given the ambitious and unprecedented scope of the project, Othman Benjelloun observes that it was inevitable that some unexpected challenges would arise. Among these were the following:
- At a time when the foundation was attempting to roll out a complex national program, it didn't anticipate the flood of interest from national and international organizations, whose requests for information overwhelmed the small staff.
- The decision to expand the model to include pre-school, and the incorporation of Amazigh language instruction demanded a much greater level of specific expertise than originally planned.
- Difficulties in implementing an IT program in rural areas were greater than expected.
- Rural populations were not always prepared to embrace the new dynamic introduced by Medersat.com into their communities.
Nevertheless, four years into its bold experiment in rural education and community building, the BMCE Bank Foundation has received validation of its Medersat.com approach from a wide variety of partners and stakeholders, and is working to develop a "global life size model" in Morocco of 1,000 rural community schools.
"There are amazing stories out there to be told and shared, and to learn from," says Benjelloun, who sees great strategic value in sharing the lessons learned from Medersat.com. He is getting the word out in a variety of ways: through regional and international conferences, by participation in global philanthropy networks such as the Global Philanthropists Circle, and through sponsorship of a series of engaging informational videos on Medersat.com created by his daughter, Dounia Benjelloun, a documentary film producer who divides her time between Morocco, Paris and New York.
For Othman Benjelloun, the sight of a child working on a computer in a rural classroom who six months previously might have aspired to nothing more than herding goats, is a source of "extraordinary contentment." In a distinguished business career marked by international acclaim, Benjelloun deems Medersat.com his proudest accomplishment. "I have done industry, banking, insurance and telecommunications, and this is the project of my life," he says.
For information on Medersat.com, or to obtain copies of the videos, please contact the BMCE Bank Foundation by email (email@example.com), phone (+212 (22) 977-500) or fax (+212 (22) 972-421).