Amal Center – Rethinking Empowerment in the Midst of a Pandemic

Amal Center – Rethinking Empowerment in the Midst of a Pandemic

Written by Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, founder of the Amal Center

The Amal Center is a non-profit organization in Marrakesh, Morocco focused on helping lift Moroccan women between the ages of 18 and 35 out of poverty. Through a six-month training in the culinary arts, which is funded entirely through the organization, women are to be introduced to the restaurant industry to feel empowered to provide for themselves through employment in this very industry. At the Amal Center, they can also improve their French and English while learning valuable soft skills desired in the service industry. Following the initial six month training, Amal’s women complete industry internships and the organization helps them find subsequent long-term employment. Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, the Moroccan-American founder of the Amal Center, has dedicated herself to empowering Moroccan women in socially dire circumstances. For SHE SAID, she reflects on her experience at the Amal Center and the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on her noble purpose: empowering the poor.

Amal Center

Rethinking Empowerment in the midst of a Pandemic

How do we address global poverty, starting in our own communities?

My own attempt at an answer came in 2012, when I started the Amal Center, a non-profit training center and restaurant in Marrakesh, Morocco, where women from disadvantaged backgrounds gain hands-on skills that enable them to find meaningful employment in the local restaurant industry. 

When they join our six-month training program, our students, or “Champions” as we call them, work under professional chefs to learn the ropes of high-pressure restaurant cooking, a big shift from the home cooking they are used to. They also attend a variety of life skills and language courses to give them a more solid foundation. Many of the Champions were not equipped for the challenges life brought them. Like Latifa, who at 23 found herself widowed with two young children to take care for, and no skills with which to support herself. She did anything she could to survive, including washing clothes or selling items on the street. After going through the Amal Center training program, she gained incredible confidence that comes with mastering a skill. She got a job at a local restaurant and was able to fully support herself and her two children.

Latifa is just one of 300 success stories that we have celebrated at Amal Center. But in six months, it’s hard to make up for a lifetime of missed opportunities caused by lack of access to education, capital and resources. And the truth is, when the Champions leave our program and get a job in the food industry, they are still poor. Sure they have moved up on the socio-economic ladder, their earning power is multiplied two to five-fold thanks to their new skills. They have maybe pushed slightly past the global poverty line of $1.9 a day set by the World Bank. But they are still in a highly precarious situation. Any major crisis could be devastating. Like an accident. An illness. Or a global pandemic.

Amal Center

Changing roles in a changing world

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us just how vulnerable our poor are. The World Bank estimates that the current crisis will wipe out the last five years’ gain in the fight against global poverty, with some 40 to 60 million people falling below the poverty threshold in 2020.

In Morocco, the economic crisis descended upon us since day one of the mandatory lockdown imposed on 22 March, where those already teetering on the edge of subsistence saw their livelihoods wiped out overnight. At Amal Center, with our centers and normal programs shut down, we found that our role as a civil society organization dedicated to female empowerment pivoted completely. Training in the culinary arts now seems like a distant reality. Instead we have refocused on providing relief assistance to families who were severely affected economically by the lockdown. 

The relief campaign we launched, “Hope for 1000 families” drew over $100,000 in raised funds, twice the target amount, allowing us to distribute food baskets to 2300 families over a period of three months. We gave food away as fast as we could, feeling like we were faced with a bottomless gulf to fill. Even with lockdown restrictions lifted, our heavily tourism-based economy is gutted for the foreseeable future, leaving hundreds of thousands of Moroccans without jobs. 

Our evolving three-pronged approach

At Amal Center, we have never given direct assistance in the form of food or money to the poor. This is presumably because we were “teaching how to fish” instead of “giving a fish”. In fact, this is how our work is described in articles and documentaries that have been made about the center. However, this distinction has never quite sat right with me, and it’s taken this crisis for me to pinpoint exactly why that is.

When we “teach how to fish” by giving people the skills and resources they need to become financially independent, we are assuming that there are enough fish out there for them. We assume that they will then unleash the opportunity to fish for an amount of fish that is limited only by their own hard work and ingenuity. This is far from the truth, and if we do not see that, then we are limited by our own privileged positions. 

To take the fishing metaphor quite literally, there is a fishing town in Morocco called Essaouira. Locals remember a time when fish was so abundant off the coast that everybody ate fish for free. In 1996, Morocco concluded a trade agreement allowing the EU to fish Moroccan waters. Today, fish is much scarcer, and the days of free and abundant fish for everyone are a distant memory.

That is why I think we need a three-pronged approach to reducing poverty: give the fish, teach how to fish, and work to dismantle the global systems of inequity that have robbed the global south of their fish. The current pandemic gives us the perfect opportunity to get started. 

For the over 800 million people worldwide suffering from hunger every day, whereby women are disproportionately affected, for the one in seven people living in war-torn or disaster affected countries, direct and immediate relief assistance is the only way. It is a moral imperative, for each of us individually and for us as a global citizenry. 

Another category of underprivileged populations enjoys enough relative stability (like not being hungry) to be in a position to learn new skills that have constituted a barrier to employment, or to start micro, small or medium enterprises as modelled by many successful programs globally.

The third prong of the approach to reduce poverty is perhaps the hardest to tackle, and the most uncomfortable. It requires a loosening up of the vice grip that first world countries have on the majority of our earth’s resources and wealth. This starts with their acknowledgement in the role they play in global inequality. Our planet simply doesn’t have ‘enough for everyone’ if that means everyone were to live like the average American, Australian or European. Only a crisis of such epic proportions as Covid-19 has been able to shake the firm foundations of the global north’s economic affluence, to tame the insatiable beast of production and consumption with this involuntary fast. It’s uncomfortable. Can we lean into the discomfort? Can we hear the cries that enough is enough? Or will we rush back to the old systems that serve the privileged the minute the threat of virus is lifted.

I want to say that I am hopeful. For the sake of all those enduring suffering on our watch, I hope that time will prove me right.


Find out more about Amal Center here:


This column is co-authored by:

Svenja Kirsch is a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at Harvard University and previously studied International Relations at Jacobs University and Sciences Po Paris. She specializes on business and government policy and focuses particularly on corporate government affairs, CSR, female economic empowerment and sustainability. Before joining GRI, she worked in academic reviewing, political campaigning, think tank research and corporate sustainability management.

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