Oral History 03.2015: Jessica Lambert and Socioeconomic Development for Women in Morocco

Lucas Bailey interviewed Jessica Lambert, a grant program manager for women's economic development in Morocco, on May 2, 2015.

L:What is your name? You don't have to give it if you would prefer to be anonymous.

J: Jessica Lambert.

L: Where do you live? You can be as general or specific as you'd like.

J: Rabat, Morocco.

L: What organization do you work for?

J: Search for Common Ground, Morocco.

L: What do you do?

J: I am a program manager. Our office is pretty small, and what that means is that I manage and oversee all the different grants we oversee from a programmatic side. We also have project managers and field coordinators who work on specific projects. I manage one specific grant and then I work on additional  projects.

L:What is the grant you manage?

J: I currently manage MEPI which is from the US State department for womens' socioeconomic empowerment in Morocco.

L: How long have you been doing this?

J: I have been working with Search for about a year and a half.

L: Why did you decide to do this?

J: For me it was more of a timing issue. I was interesting in the project they were doing on socioeconomic empowerment and wanted to work with them on that. I was interested in working with them in a grant on Moroccan women.

L: Are there any particular stories you would like to tell, or examples you would like to give about your work?

J: I think that might come more naturally later in our conversation. What are you going for in this interview, what kind of information do you want?

L: What I'm looking for is just sort of your experiences or how you understand the work you're doing. I'm not doing this for a research project but more of an oral history archive.

J: Ok, let me go with two different ways. The work that Search does, started in 1982, during the Cold War. In every country the work that we do is different, but it is always to promote a culture of peace through mediation, discussion, alternative methods, really engaging all sides of a conflict. Sometimes that is through art or theater or music, sometimes it is through training. I think that something that makes Search unique is that every country office is unique. It is always adapted to the local context. I'm something of an anomaly because most search employees are from the country they work in. In every office the programs can be slightly different but the same idea is that we work with everyone, all members of society, government, youth, women and children. We work using any sort of innovative method to build peace. In places like Rwanda it is mostly post-violent conflict work, in Morocco it is building peace. The one conflict in Morocco in the Western Sahara is covered by a separate office in order for our office to keep functioning in Morocco. As a country office we implement programs that really work within the local context. For example a project I work on for womens' socioeconomic empowerment is also run in Lebanon. On paper the grant looks about the same, we have the same objectives but on the ground it is completely different in terms of what organizations we work with, the focus of our sessions and campaigns are different according to country. Lebanon is much smaller, so all of their organizations are in Beirut. Morocco is much larger, offices can be 12 hours apart and there is a big rural urban difference. Much of our program offices work with rural women because there are huge problems with access to resources for rural women. Lebanon is focusing on social security reforms to make sure women have access to it. In Morocco our theory is built on the idea that Moroccan womens' barriers to social equality are not legal in nature. For the most part the law gives women a lot of freedom and rights. The barriers are social, their neighbors, communities the people they know. The majority of women in Morocco are illiterate. How can you demand your rights if you don't know what they are? Our campaign, our work, from the associations we work with is all built on the idea it is Morocco specific, it works in the context of existing associations and building trust between associations that don't normally work together. Bringing resources from cities to rural areas and making sure rural areas are represented by people working for social change in the cities. We also work on countering violent extremism. We take very specific soft approaches. Morocco is one of the top three countries providing recruits to ISIS. Search is working with Moroccan youth to counter violent extremism in a roundabout way. Not by profiling, trying to get people to say “you look like a violent extremist can I talk to you about why that's a bad thing?” because that is profiling and has a whole lot of negative racial, ethnic, social and religious problems behind it. We try to look beyond what the dominant narrative is and understand how to work with women, youth and detainees. We try to do a lot of research in field. We have dedicated field evaluations, ongoing educators. For instance, a lot of the programs that we deal with go to bad neighborhoods and just try to give people jobs. The US has gone through several different cycles on how to counter violent extremism and each time they say the previous approach was totally wrong and then we pour millions of dollars into new approaches that aren't well researched and don't understand local issues. We try to avoid that. In our work with religious leaders and youth associations we aren't trying to solve the problems of violent extremism but engage in long term initiatives to get youth involve in their communities and neighborhoods. We have not just qualitative data that youth are involved positively in their community do better but that they gain skills and know how to expand those skills. It's not just something they've read about but have connections to build on. We also have individual success stories, but individuals who have swung from different extremes.

L: Why do you think that this is important or necessary work?

J: I think, first of all, you have to look at what your definition of peacebuilding is. If you really only go with a very literal definition, only working in armed conflict it is a lot harder. SEARCH does do that, search is currently working in Nigeria and Burkina Faso with ongoing conflicts, but especially the Morocco country office, peacebulding is a much more holistic thing, about building a society where people know how to deal with conflict. Conflict is inevitable but its how you deal with that conflict that makes a difference. It doesn't have to be about armed conflict, it can be about getting over armed conflict, or preventing escalation to armed conflict. It's building a just society, building a society where people have opportunities, in terms of economic employment, relations with neighbors and other religious or ethnic or other groups. In Morocco it's hard to talk about armed conflict. The conflicts we see are more social, around things like women in society, similar to things you see in the US. You know, with youth there's a huge problem with unemployment. Whats led to huge amounts of unrest is unemployment, all across the Maghreb. You get huge numbers of graduates with nowhere to go and nothing to do and that's a huge conflict. Peacebuilding, defined well, is extremely useful in just about every society. Search is one of the oldest and largest peacebuilding organizations. Its got a good track record on building peace step by step. I actually just got this insane email yesterday, about a success story from I think Nigeria, where an assassin decided to stop killing people because of a search training session. I'll forward this to you (see attached).

The stuff I've forwarded you talks about how we work with youth and youth councils to counter violent extremism. These kids have just become amazing, amazing leaders in their communities. They get a bunch of training sessions in a bunch of different things, mediation, accommodation, gender diversity, it goes on and on. They are some amazing amazing kids. They've started all sorts of programs, from cooperatives, small businesses, tutoring in schools, environmental cleanup, religious tolerance they've actually become peacebuilders and they can talk about it and its really cool to see that kind of impact. In terms of my project its about building peace by improving the status of women in society and for us that always starts with conflict resolution.

L: Can you describe the people you work with? Both your coworkers and the womens' groups. Things like where they come from, how they started doing this.

J: Within Morocco or world wide? Within Morocco we're a pretty mixed group, four foreigners. One guy from Senegal, 2 from us and one from Sweden and 6 Moroccans. Two of the Moroccans are pretty young and got involved through local youth council activities and got pulled in through that. One lived abroad for a really long time and just came back and got interested in the work we did and just came back to search. My boss is Moroccan, studied law, has a PHD, lived in the US, Thailand and has worked with nonprofits about restorative justice. For him its more a legal conflict/justice side. Another boss, the financial director was working in Yemen for a while and just came back. The Senegalese has been working here for about 10 years and was actually trained by search for deconstructing stereotypes to reduce racism in morocco. That was a really cool project and he knew search through that, we interviewed him and he was great. Another one of the foreigners went to tufts for international sustainability, that kind of thing. She got connected through some friends to search and asked if we had anything open. Another one came by way of the EU and a couple other international non-profits. Its a pretty diverse group. A couple had experience with peacebuilding and international work. It's a mixed bag. In terms of our beneficiaries we have 4 ongoing projects. Mauritania, working with Moroccan detainees as well as the directors of the penitentiaries, we have 3rd project to work with young Moroccans in the north of the country. We have the project I manage on women, in 4 different regions about 50% rural, 50% urban working with all kinds of womens' groups. Mostly economic, things like job training to help women be economically stable and specifically with the employees of those associations and then beyond that, in just about every project we have components in terms of training members of the media, religious leaders and local elected officials. We're always trying to bring in new sides of a conflict and foster communication. We work on both asymmetric and symmetric conflicts. Prisoner to prisoner and prisoner to guard and so on.

L: Is there anything else you think should be included or that you want to talk about?

J: I think that, yeah, that's pretty good. I think that one thing that we do, that most people don't see, is that we deal a lot with well-meaning individuals who don't know what they're doing and inadvertently do more harm than help. This is specifically directed at outsiders, mainly from the West who come as interns or consultants and project their own issues or beliefs onto the country context. We've had a couple of issues. One of the biggest issues is thinking about the context and thinking about who you're working with. The ultimate goal is to work yourself out of a job, and I think some people come in with the idea of coming in a being a hero and that doesn't work. Coming to a foreign country without a deep longstanding understanding of the context, projects get really messed up, really twisted and you will see a lot of really harmful development projects. Search Morocco, we've had the freedom to say, we develop our own project proposals and I think that's one of the things that works so well. Some of our most successful projects were created by Moroccans who knew how to create a project that works with the right kinds of allies and asks how can you get them to care, to dig in and do the work. I specifically mean this in terms of gender and the media project. Gender, you get into an orientalist project, especially in the Muslim world for what it means to be a feminist or what it means to be empowered without recognizing the structures of power that go into these things. Its the equivalent of handing someone a computer and walking away. What's the added value from this, do they have the language skills, do they have access to WiFi? Things work better and last longer if they create it themselves. What will happen when you leave either as a Moroccan moving onto the next project or as a foreigner moving on with your life. I'm really grateful for the opportunity search gave me because its always about whats next but we have control over how we create our programs.