Of the many indicators used to measure a country’s prospects for development, perhaps the most overlooked is that of language. Across the world, governments looking to secure competitive advantage are facing critical decisions about linguistic policies, nowhere more so than in Morocco.
Morocco has been moving fast, last year climbing 21 places in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings. The strategically-located Kingdom has displayed year-on-year growth since the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, to sustain economic progress in the long term, French-speaking Morocco will continue to rely on foreign direct investment, cheques that are written largely in English.
While there is much chatter about the business growth of Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, the use of English also remains on the rise. Globally as many as 750 million people have or are currently learning English as a foreign language – that’s nearly 1 out of every 4 people on earth. For developing countries like Morocco, adopting English is not an insurmountable challenge. Rwanda and Cameroon are just two that are making concerted efforts to expand its use.
But it is easy to see from Morocco’s history why this is more complex than it looks. The native language was Berber; the subsequent Arab conquest brought an almost comprehensive Arabisation. Successive periods of foreign influence also left their linguistic mark. Today the situation is such that Arabic is the official language, followed by Berber, French and Spanish. English occupies the fifth position.
And while Arabic and French are both beautiful languages, English is increasingly the lingua franca of international business. China, whose economy props up that of the world, is investing heavily in the teaching of English. English now dominates the digital, tourist and economic vocabulary. Even French, despite its historical predominance and 220 million speakers across the globe, is now being left behind. Seven of the ten worst-developed countries ranked by the United Nations Development Programme are French-speaking African states.
In Morocco, there is appetite for change. In 2002, reforms stipulated that English will be taught in all public schools, however, despite these moves, the numbers of Anglophone Moroccans remain low. According to a 2011 report compiled for the British Council, 14% of the population speak English, though 85% of Moroccans “consider speaking English as beneficial for the country”.
Casablanca’s corniche, Aïn Diab, now has the gleaming $2billion beachfront ‘Morocco Mall’ telling customers it is “All for You” in English. Nevertheless, French continues to complement Arabic as the language of written expression and academia. When it comes to communicating on the world stage, Morocco remains enveloped in a Francophone cocoon.
Not endorsing English works for regional economic powerhouses like Qatar and Saudi Arabia that continue to interact successfully on the world stage through Arabic. However, for countries lower on natural resources like Morocco, the need to adapt to the global market is perhaps more clear.
Like in other African countries that have altered their language policies, the impetus for change should come from the government. Given that English skills are a primary tool in the global economy, the government must support its teaching. At present, public schools only teach English from the age of 14; this could be made earlier so students complete schooling with a better level of English. The Government could also endorse more universities like Morocco’s globally renowned Al Akhawayn University, where English is the medium of study. More investment needs to be made in the education and training of English. At present the government only pays for half of its employees who request training in English. At the national level, the government could increase the time allocated to English television and radio programmes.
The government has singled out airfreight, financial services, tourism and aeronautic sectors for growth, where Morocco has competitive advantages. These sectors require a working knowledge of English, with recent studies showing over 90% of jobs require English as at least a second-language. By equipping young Moroccans with these skills, it will open up jobs and raise living standards.
To continue to drive development it is linguistic, as much as macro and micro economic policy that should be on the agenda for policy-makers, in Morocco as other countries around the world.
The horrific scenes from Syria in the last few days and months portray a violent struggle between old-fashioned authoritarianism and the very modern aspirations of an overwhelmingly young population. Syria’s citizens have shown astonishing bravery and determination in standing up to a brutal and corrupt regime which seems unable to understand demands from its people for a genuine say over their own futures, let alone be ready to meet these ambitions.
The regime couldn’t be further from the moral high ground. Its disastrous efforts to communicate a ruinous agenda have failed. It’s not that the Syrian government cannot make its case; it has no case to make.
When he took power in 2000, the soft-spoken President Bashar Al Assad projected an image of a leader who would modernise his country and work to liberate the Syrian people. For a brief period, it looked as if he could end Syria’s pariah status and lift it from the state of emergency rule imposed since 1963. This tragically proved a false dawn.
Over the last decade little has changed for the better in Syria. Repression has continued. While the Syrian economy grew strongly, ordinary people saw little benefit because of widespread corruption and cronyism. The old guard stayed in control and remained deaf to the hopes of the Syrian people and the changes taking place in the outside world. Since the start of the democratic uprising, the total failure of President Assad’s attempts to communicate demonstrate both this failure to understand the modern world and the regime’s wider incompetence.
The struggle has shown two communications extremes. The opposition has been using new media in a very pro-active way. The world has been able to access the conflict through passionate online campaigns and political activity in the blogosphere. Journalists, unable to get their own cameras into Syria, follow footage emerging on social media networks and accounts from activists.
The regime’s communications disaster is symptomatic of their wider illegitimacy, characterised by the heinous crimes perpetrated in their name. On the other hand, Syria’s opposition has capitalised on foreign offers of communications assistance, termed “non-lethal” technical support. Its official satellite channel “Barada” has made good use of Qatari funding and British advice and experts.
The London ophthalmologist turned-President and his advisers have shown little grasp of modern communications. The regime has learnt to intercept, scan and catalogue virtually every e-mail that flows through the country. But internet monitoring is just the latest example of old-fashioned censorship. When it comes to trying to communicate their position, the regime has ignored the social media, falling back instead on set-piece speeches and formal interviews.
Assad’s recent speeches, in response to the continued deaths of civilians, show how acute the problems are. In long, dictated statements on state television, his references to the protestors as “saboteurs”, “traitors” and “criminals” have further isolated him from the Syrian people.
Further illustration of his separation from both the Syrian people and political reality has been the President’s failed attempt to calm the situation through TV interviews. The President has conducted eight internationally broadcast interviews. As Colonel Gadaffi’s infamous performance on the BBC and Mubarak’s “chat” with CNN’s Amanpour before they were toppled showed, this type of messaging simply makes a bad position worse.
Pre-recorded interviews in the gilded surroundings of a palace reception room reinforce the view that the regime is not committed to change. They cement an image of “bunker mentality”, in Assad’s case, of old-fashioned draconian military rule that is on the offensive against its own people.
It won’t be a failure to understand the modern media which eventually brings down this regime. The charge sheet against Assad and his cronies is far longer and more serious. But it does help underline just how out of touch the regime is and why its downfall is a matter of when, not if.
Zaid Belbagi (@Moulay_Zaid ) is the Business Development Manager at Portland with an interest in the Arab World. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Cooperation Council and King Faisal Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.