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Albania Today: Roundtable Discussion Examines Socio-Economic Development and Civil Society

Since the collapse of communism in 1991, the Balkan nation of Albania has made great strides establishing democratic institutions and fostering economic growth. Nevertheless, these foundations are weak. From 2000-2004, The Carter Center's Global Development Initiative (GDI) worked with the Albanian government, private sector, and civil society to produce the country's National Strategy for Socio-Economic Development (NSSED), which spelled out the government's policy priorities and highlighted donor assistance needs. These activities included a partnership with Albania's Civil Society Development Centers (CSDCs) to ensure the participation of civil society in the monitoring of the strategy. GDI Assistant Director Jason Calder sat down with three CSDC managers - Aleksandr Mita of Vlora, Anila Karanxha of Kukes, and Orjada Tare of Korçe - to discuss their experiences.

CALDER: Tell me about the Civil Society Development Centers in Albania.

Orjada Tare (OT): In 2001, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Albania and the Dutch NGO SNV established a network of six Civil Society Development Centers that provide assistance to civil society groups. These centers operate in six regions of the country. CSDC activities include the capacity building of civil society organizations in gender, human rights, democracy, and non profit management. An important goal of CSDCs is to encourage citizens' participation in decision-making at all levels.

Anila Karanxha (AK): The activities of our Centers vary from seminars, round tables, and training conducted by CSDC staff to one-on-one consultation with NGOs. Local and regional governments also benefit from these activities. CSDC-Kukes was instrumental in establishing a Civil Society Forum, which is the focal point for civil society collaboration for the Kukes region at the national level.Of importance is our mission on enhancing the dialogue between civil society and local government, by giving both parties opportunities to meet, exchange ideas and develop solutions. We also try to attract donor funding, which is concentrated in the capital Tirana, to Kukes.

Alexandr Mita (AM): The Mission of CSDC is to encourage civil society co-operation and state-civil society co-ordination that will safeguard, enrich, and strengthen the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Albania. We provide a valid platform for the local community to express local civic issues and to portray the perspectives of local NGOs. Our Network constitutes a significant step forward for the Albanian NGO community to actualize itself as a vibrant and sustainable civil society.

CALDER: Tell us about each of your regions and the greatest challenges people face there?

AK: Kukes is known as the Gateway to Europe. Located in northeast Albania, the town of Kukes has a population of about 26,000. It is a mountainous area interwoven with fields, rivers, and lakes. The Kukes region has great potential for tourism, other recreational activities, and industry. It is blessed with many mineral resources, timber, and farm and grazing lands. Like most of Albania's north, it has suffered greatly from decreased attention by the central government and donors. Growth has stagnated and the well-educated population is migrating to other cities or abroad for better opportunities. Those remaining in Kukes are very poor, with many families unable to obtain the minimal living conditions. The region holds a predominantly traditional view of women, which is shown by the lack of participation of women in important sectors.

OT: Poverty is the biggest challenge for the country. In Korçe, poverty has its own dynamics. Due to large population movements, especially by our male population, poverty has become gender-specific in rural areas. Agriculture is very important to the local economy but many obstacles hinder further agricultural development, including extreme land plot fragmentation, lack of modern agriculture means, migration, lack of markets, and difficult legal procedures for land transactions. As a result, unemployment is a great challenge. Albania also has a tremendous infrastructure problem, particularly in the roads, power, and waste management systems.

AM: Vlora is Albania's second largest port city, located along the southwest coastline. Situated between the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the city is an important archaeological, economic, and tourist center for Albania. Vlora's main industries have shifted since the decline of communism: with food products (olive oil, sea food, wine, and citrus fruits) and building materials being the predominant ones today. Some of our biggest challenges are corruption in the public administration and lack of a professional sector. Human trafficking, drug production, and prostitution have all developed in Vlora as it is the nearest port city to Italy. Additionally, the bay is attractive for oil storage, transport, and other environmentally unfriendly industries with high negative impact on tourism and environment.

CALDER: How did The Carter Center support your efforts?

AM: In my region, the Albanian government has supported projects of foreign companies since 2002 to build an oil terminal and facilities in Vlora bay. This was totally against the government's NSSED that had defined Vlora as a priority tourist site according to local wishes. With the support of The Carter Center, the Vlora CSDC and local interest groups have become a new civic phenomenon in Albania in resisting unwanted industrial development. We published a book and a documentary film on the issue and have gained a constant presence in the national media, organized two protests in capital city Tirana, four rallies in Vlora's main square with hundred of citizens, collected 14,000 signatures (10 percent of voters' list) that will enable the citizens of Vlora to vote in a local referendum for or against the industrial park.

OT: Thanks to cooperation with The Carter Center, local stakeholders in Korça had the chance to be an important actor in monitoring implementation of the NSSED. They were not alone and they felt heard by their own government because of the Carter Center support and liaison. This monitoring process set up a bridge of communication between the local people and their own government. Creating such communication bridges with decision-making authorities was one of the most essential lessons learned during our work. We realized what tools need to be used to fill the gap between the government and private sectors.

AK: The Carter Center was a great help in showing people that their opinions have worth. By organizing round tables with local NGOs in the Kukes Region to revise the NSSED, Carter Center staff helped residents of these areas feel encouraged. The Carter Center, through the CSDC, gave Kukes citizens the opportunity to come together and set priorities for their region. It was The Carter Center's vision which helped to bring civil society and local authorities together.

CALDER: What has been the impact of this work? Are there any important lessons that came out of this work for your centers?

OT: I think the most important lesson is the fact that local people can be part of the governing process by monitoring and participating in it. This was also the first time that local stakeholders had the opportunity to give feedback to the central government about important issues affecting their own lives and our region's economic and social development.

AK: Since The Carter Center has been in Albania, all groups come together and set priorities rather than working in isolation. They understand better now that civil society is important and many are better organised and have begun networking with one another.

AM: One big lesson is that without the alliance of non-profit organizations and the business community it is impossible to win social battles. The Citizens' Alliance to Protect the Gulf of Vlora, comprised of intellectuals, NGOs and business interest groups is now an important actor in regional development. We have been invited to express our views on public policy in front of the City Commission, the Government Special Commission on Vlora's Industrial Park, and as a result, the Albanian Prime Minister has cancelled the Industrial Park plan to respect our local development priorities.

CALDER: What has happened in your communities since this collaboration?

OT: Our community, especially civil society organizations, has become aware of the significant role we have and now are striving to enhance the cooperation and networking between one another. We are also recruiting other actors to participate actively in decision-making.

AM: The CSDC now has a new profile in our community where we are trusted and esteemed. There is a feeling of solidarity within the community and the local government now considers community based groups an important actor in the decision making process.

AK: Civil Society has understood its role as a potential partner in decision-making and the country's development. Also Government units are more aware that they are being "watched" when they do things so they are being more careful in choosing priorities and implementing things. We increasingly see that both actors are more willing to work together and come up with more positive solutions for the benefit of the region.

CSDC Manager Aleksandr Mita (with bullhorn) at recent rally for the environmental protection of the Vlora harbor.

map of Albania

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