Saturday, June 13, 2009

Moroccan Bureaucracy and you: Some Thoughts on a Successful Relationship

Europeans and Americans who arrive in Morocco are permitted to stay in the country visa-free for up to ninety days. You enter the country, and upon handing over a short, white immigration form and exchanging a few pleasantries with an officer seated in a small glass cage, you are given a stamp in your passport and good-naturedly sent onwards to begin your Moroccan adventure.

If you plan to reside in Morocco for a longer period, you have two choices. The easier option is to leave the country for a few days (most choose Melilla and Ceuta, the two Spanish enclaves whose painful presence is almost literally a thorn in Morocco’s Mediterranean side), return, and simply obtain a new entry stamp that legally extends your adventure for another ninety days. This is indeed the route preferred by many, although the occasional story emerges about passport control officials unhappy with the many entries recorded in a passport.

The more laborious option is to apply for a ninety-day extension of your non-visa-visa. Weighing the labor-intensive value of paperwork over what must be at least a three-day return trip across the border, you may wonder why I bill the latter as easier. Let me explain.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that applying for a visa to the United States is no walk in the park. Apart from the stacks of paperwork to be filled out, the process involves endless errands to obtain all manner of official documentation explaining (and legitimizing) the various facets of your existence. Then there is the endless waiting in lines, the quiet acceptance of disinterested treatment by INS officers, and the subtle embarrassment of being fingerprinted and blood-tested. Though I cannot tell you what an application for an actual Moroccan visa would entail, requesting an extension of your visa certainly does not involve as many steps and items of documentation. Easy as pie, I initially thought when a NIMAR co-worker explained the process to me and the various NIMAR-students in need of a visa-extension.

There were two application forms, she told us. In addition, we were to provide eight passport photo’s, a statement testifying to our residence in Rabat (to be provided by the NIMAR, who organized host families and other stays for most of us), and a statement testifying to our connection with the NIMAR (proof of the internship in my case, of a study program for the others). We were to complete our file, and to deliver it to the police chief at the headquarters two streets away.

When I arrived at the police quarters one sunny morning about ten days before my visa-free period was to expire, I was told first by the officer who stopped me at the front door, and then by the officer at the old rickety reception desk inside, that the chief in question (whose name I had carefully written out on a post-it so as to pronounce it correctly) no longer worked at these headquarters. I was sent upstairs to speak with his replacement, a skinny smiling man who delivered my file straight to a civil servant seated in the room next to his office.

Her office was a bare room furnished with four haphazardly placed wooden desks, each paired with a chair. A single bookcase stood along a wall; boxes of paperwork were scattered across the room. Behind each desk, empty but for a single, modest stack of files, a few stamps, and a flat box of red ink, sat a female civil servant. As they chatted away the hours, either with one another or with invisible conversation partners over their cell phone, they would occasionally and absent-mindedly take one of their stamps, and hammer it on the form in front of them.

One of these ladies was handed my file. She smiled at me, then glanced at the forms I had brought her. The first application form, in threefold. The second, two copies. The statement of internship, the statement of residence.

“You need a rental agreement,” she told me without looking up.

Trying my best to keep smiling politely, I nervously pointed to the statement of residence and explained, “Well, madame, my director spoke with your police chief, who said this statement would be all that’s necessary.”

She looked at the statement again. She had just begun to tell me once again that all applications needed a rental agreement, when her phone rang. A friend or family member, I gathered from the smile that appeared on her face and the informal tone of her conversation. Unsure of what to do, unwilling to interrupt her conversation, I waited. As though she suddenly remembered my presence, she looked up and, with a wave of her hand, told me, “You’re fine. Your application is complete.” With a sigh of relief, I motioned a thank you to her. I was about to exit when I remembered. Worried about interrupting her, I whispered, “madame, how long will this process take?” A little annoyed, she looked up. “Come back in 15 days,” she told me curtly, then immediately returned to the soft tone of her telephone conversation.

With uncertain relief, I left the station and returned to work. It was done – I had turned in the file, and all there was to do now was wait, return, and get a stamp in my passport. Incha’llah.

Upon my return after said processing period, I was dealt with by another one of the four civil servants. She asked for my name, sauntered over to the bookcase to pick up the box of files marked ‘accepted’, and proceeded to absent-mindedly leaf through the stack of red stamp-covered forms. Mine, as I had half expected, was not among them. “Come back later,” she pronounced, and dismissed me.

“Well, you see,” I carefully explained, “I have to leave the country for a few weeks fairly soon. Would it be possible to – …”

I was not able to finish my request for a piece of paper to show passport control that I had, in fact, applied for a visa extension (Now that I was officially illegal in Morocco, I was getting nervous about leaving the country without at least some kind of proof that I’d requested this grace period). Curtly, the civil servant asked me, “when is your flight?”

“Uhm, the 18th, and then I return on June 1st.”

“Alright, come back on the day before you fly, and bring us your airline ticket, to get a form for the passport control.”

I did as I was told, and returned to the headquarters on the day before my scheduled departure, armed with a printout of my reservation. This time, the civil servant (yet another one), took the time to deal with me. She fished another stack of files from the bookcase – those marked ‘not yet processed’, and leafed through the forms. One by one, I recognized the passport pictures submitted by NIMAR students and smiled with pity – I wasn’t the only one going through this process. My paperwork showed up at the bottom of the stack. The servant looked at my airline reservation, and jotted a few numbers down on my file. She then asked for my passport, and just as a brief spark of hope had me wondering if I might just get that visa extension after all, the servant turned to me. “What time is your flight tomorrow? Can you come back in the morning before you go to the airport and get a number for the passport control?”

I was confused and nervous. What number? Wasn’t I going to get a form of some sort? Something official-looking? Stuttering a bit, I answered, “well, my flight is in the afternoon, but it’s transatlantic and it’s from Casablanca, so I have to leave Rabat very early. Is there any way we could do this today? And don’t I need a form? I was told by my director, who was told by your police chief, that I’d need a form for the douane.”

The lady shook her head. “You can come back early tomorrow,” was her only concession.

“Are you open at eight? Because I will have to leave at 8.30,” was my last attempt to convince them to help me today. But alas – “yes. Come back at eight,” was her answer.

“Would it be possible to get an actual form tomorrow?” I asked, trying one more time. Again, I was met with a shake of the head. At this point another civil servant, seated across the room, got involved.

“Actually,” she said, “You don’t need anything at all. You’re not the first foreigner in this situation. The passport control will see everything on his computer screen. Don’t come back at all, you don’t need a number.”

My heart sank. No form, and now not even a number? I would be going to the airport without any kind of physical proof that I had applied for a visa extension? I was unwilling to take that risk, and pleaded with the civil servants, backtracking on my arrogant dismissal of the number they had offered me before. But they were done with me. I was met with more shaking heads. “You don’t need to come back, just go to the airport.” And that was their final answer.

Dejected, I returned to work and reported back to the co-worker who had made the original arrangements with the police chief. A little offended herself by this lack of respect for those arrangements on the part of these civil servants, she offered to go over to the headquarters and speak with the new police chief herself. She took my passport – just in case they’d be willing to stamp it, after all – and went on her way. She returned an hour later, stamp-less, but with a renewed invitation to return on the morning of my flight for that coveted number.

That morning, I returned to the police headquarters, my co-worker by my side. We waited for 30 minutes as a civil servant occasionally attempted a phone call to whomever gave out these numbers. She tried to reassure us, again, that I had no need of this number. We know, we responded, but we’d appreciate it all the same. Luckily, my co-worker’s words seemed to carry a bit more weight. Albeit with an annoyed look on her face, the civil servant tried the phone again – and two minutes later, she had written a number on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and sent us on our way.

An hour later, I took the train to the airport. Passport control had no knowledge of my application for a visa extension. Did I know I had overstayed my visa-free period? I nodded, summarized my month of back-and-forth with the police headquarters with a simple “yes, the police gave me this number to show you,” and handed him the scrap given to me by the civil servant. The officer stepped out of his glass cage, walked to another office, deliberated for what seemed like an hour, came back with an official form, stamped both it and my passport, and sent me on my way.

Immensely relieved, and thankful to my NIMAR co-worker, I celebrated in the departure lounge with a coffee and chocolate.

The frustration of these interactions, however, I had a hard time shaking off. I simply did not get it. Why was I so powerless? These civil servants seemed bored to death, filled their day with nothing but chit-chat, and yet could not take time out of their schedules to spend five minutes on my file, or two minutes to stamp a form on my behalf. Why? It seemed to go against every basic rule of human interaction. Why not help someone, if you have the means, and the time? There was an inequality of power in this interaction that I was completely powerless to shift. What was lacking in required paperwork for this request was made up for by complete uncertainty and an apparent lack of any system to the process. I had anticipated this – I had been warned about this by others, and I knew that the collection of papers we’d been asked to provide was agreed upon between my NIMAR co-worker and the former police chief; it was not a standard list. But still.

Even now, I keep thinking about this episode, and I keep bumping into my frustration. The only difference now is that I have a bit of distance from its acuteness, and I’m able to see that perhaps the frustration had less to do with the way I was treated, than with my inability to change that treatment. What I mean, basically, is that contrary to its appearance, I do think that there is a kind of system to all this madness. Moroccan bureaucracy is not run by anarchy; it’s just that the system differs quite fundamentally from the one we in Europe and the US are used to. It’s not that there’s a lack of rules; it’s just that the rules that count are not the ones you can see, hear, and read. If you can read between the lines, you may discover that there is a real system at work here – and I think that a comprehension of its intricacies may be the key to a successful (and perhaps even efficient) relationship with the Moroccan authorities.

Evert van der Zweerde, a Dutch philosopher who visited the NIMAR for two weeks in May, mentioned an idea once that might just provide a clue into the basic workings of this system. I asked him to remind me of this theory in an email. I cite (and translate) his response here:

‘Basically, there is a correlation between individualism and trust in a ‘system’. The Dutch, for instance, can afford to be individualists because, or to the extent to which, they have reason to trust the government and its civil servants. That is, a civil servant who does not give me the treatment he gives to other citizens has a problem. The problem is not mine, but his or hers. The contrary is true of Morocco: there, one is dependent on a civil servant’s graciousness (read: on one’s connections or ability to pay bribes), and so one cannot rely upon his or her help. This makes it hard to be individualist, because you must be able to fall back on your network of friends and family to get anything done. You might also say that both traditional (family) ties and bureaucratic structures figure as a kind of communicating frameworks that offer a measure of security, that you can count on. If it’s the second (the bureaucratic structures) that you can rely on, you can ‘safely’ be individualist.’

In other words, the wheels of Moroccan bureaucracy turn on the basis of a premise of citizenship that is defined by relationships and connections, rather than by a notion of individualism. The rights of citizenship (including bureaucratic assistance, the granting of paperwork requested) are conferred upon you if you prove yourself to deserve them, in Morocco as in Europe. The only difference is that here, this involves proving that you have the requisite connections, that you are a considerable enough point of gravity within the social matrix. My frustration stemmed from the fact that, as someone raised in Europe and thus trained to be an individual, my fundamental beliefs were utterly shaken by the realization I could not rely on the bureaucratic mill to turn for me as it would for anyone else. If I had come to the headquarters without the support of the NIMAR, there may have been a wealth of additional hurdles to jump in the pursuit of this extension. And according to the same logic, if I had been a personal friend of the police chief’s, the entire process may have played itself out (with successful results, of course) in no more than a few days.

Yet I’m stuck with one question. I think Evert is right, and many social scientific analyses of Moroccan organization testify to the importance of social connections. But how exactly does my network or lack thereof motivate a civil servant to do her job? If she is not a part of this social network, why does she care what kind of connections I have? How does it affect her, and her motivation? Shouldn’t she be motivated to do her job simply because she gets paid to do it – that is, because she receives a reward from her own social network?

Maybe the answer lies in my assumption that she is not part of my network. Maybe this is an erroneous assumption that stems from my having been raised in an individualist society and thus having a somewhat limited definition of ‘social network’ (that is, the fact that I see this as a purely ‘social’ network, not as a matrix of connections on which I depend for my survival). I am venturing into a little guesswork here, making a few other assumptions that may not be accurate (and if I am wrong, I invite whatever Morocco-experts who are gracious enough to take the time to read this blog to correct me and further my understanding of this system), but maybe the civil servant and I become part of the same network as soon as I enter her office with a particular request.

Perhaps the civil servant can rely on the system no more than I can. Perhaps her reward (a sufficient salary, promotion, and so on), and thus her motivation to help, comes not from the simple fact that she is a civil servant who stamps forms and gives people the help they need. Perhaps what counts is helping the right people – the people important to her superiors, or the people who can reward her directly. And so when I stand there in front of her with a request, I am no more a neutral cog in the system of individualistic citizenship than she is a neutral cog in a system of neutral bureaucracy. When I give her a request, we establish a relationship. My connections, my gravity within the social matrix, has the potential to directly affect her position. If I were a person of social or financial means, she might be rewarded for helping me with some kind of gain in her own status (and I would of course be motivated to reward her because I know her willingness to help stems from my willingness to provide a reward) – while if I were a person of no gravity whatsoever, she would gain nothing from helping me. Yes, as a civil servant she has a job security that those in the private sector can only dream of. It’s the mean reason so many turn down private sector jobs in the hopes of securing a government position. But other than job security and the potential of being rewarded for helping the right people, what other sources of motivation does a government job really provide? For all the government’s purported fighting against corruption, I do not think the average civil servant is rewarded with a salary sizeable enough to permit a comfortable standard of living without the supplementary income of an occasional bribe.

So that’s that, then. I doubt that I have here discovered the secret to the Moroccan ‘system’. But perhaps I’m a little closer to getting why it works the way it works – and perhaps I’ll be less likely to succumb to frustration next time I interact with it…


ModernTanguera said...

Your experience reminds me so much of the Argentine visa process. Since beginning to dance tango, I have heard a lot of stories from bloggers in Argentina about their encounters with bureaucracy there. The story I have heard, over and over, is of the individual compiling all the papers they were told they needed and then being told that they are missing some document that is absolutely necessary to process their paperwork. I was actually amazed when a blogger recently wrote about her visa success:

I do like your analysis of the bureaucracy in Morocco and the role of social networks, but I wonder if there is something more to it. Even in the US, people with administrative roles can act in similar ways. I know that in my own administrative roles I am more likely to cut a break to someone who is very polite or friendly (and will do even more if they establish a social tie with me, like similar interests or a similar background) and am definitely prone to creating problems or at least being slow and as unhelpful as I can be and not get in trouble with my superiors if someone acts like a jerk to me. If someone is neutral--does everything as expected, isn't overly nice or irritating--I do the work neutrally, without thinking about it too much. Maybe it is a combination of how we define the social networks as well as how we define a neutral interaction in these kinds of situations? I'm just throwing this idea out there--I am thinking it up as I type, so take it with a grain of salt!

Anonymous said...

As a Moroccan,I would have to say that the type of interaction you speak of is mainly due to excessive pride. Many Moroccans get their jobs through connections and rarely get it based on their credentials. Most use positions to assert their importance (especially women) since they have a very low self esteem. Ths is because in Moroccan society they have little value and they have to bend over backwards to please the person that initially gave them the job. This so called 'wasta' system (connection system) builds insecurity, which inturn breeds ill mannered people. Its this connection system that teaches Moroccans to use any appropriate opportunity to put another individual down, if they are to maintain their social status.

Charlotte said...

Modern Tanguera, Anonymous, thank you both for your comments! Both add some interesting perspective to the whole issue, and add to my sense that there is a very complicated set of dynamics at play here!