Transition to Tirana (Part 4 of 4): “Not Your Usual Peace Corps Job”

Typically, when people envision a Peace Corps volunteer at work, they envision grass roots, person-to-person activities like teaching, health education, sports leagues, youth clubs and women’s groups.  And they would be right — most Peace Corps posts are direct service.  Within the Community and Organizational Development (COD) sector though, the majority of volunteers work at the organizational level  — in jobs that are more typical of office jobs.  For example, a COD volunteer might work for a local urban planning department, a regional tourism board or an NGO focused on human trafficking or social welfare. The volunteer might write grant proposals, develop marketing plans or materials, create or expand a community center or advise business owners.  Nonetheless, to function in these jobs, the volunteers need to be connected to their local communities or populations of interest, so the jobs are not limited to office work and involve some degree of personal interaction with community members.

IMG_1753 (1)My placement, with the US Agency for International Development (US AID) Planning and Local Governance Project, is a COD position that is one step even more removed from “grass roots” than the typical COD job.  Basically, I have a five-day-a-week, eight-hours-per-day office job and it’s a job that I enjoy tremendously and that is a great fit with my background and skills.

Over time I will write in more detail about both my job and the Planning and Local Governance Project, which is a very rich, very complex initiative.  It’s hard to explain what I’m doing and why, and I want to give those topics the time and depth they deserve. Until then, here is an brief, oversimplified explanation:

About the Project

Local governance in Albania is a mess!  Note that I used the word governance, not government. I haven’t compared those two words in a dictionary, but my boss distinguishes between them by saying, “Government is the institution that does the governing and governance is the process of governing and it includes the government, the citizens, and any other stakeholders you can think of.”  Basically he is saying that governance is the whole shebang.

In Albania, at the local level, the main unit of government is the bashkia, which translates to municipality (the root bashk means together). Municipalities are smaller than states and larger than cities/towns; think of them as counties or some other type of regional entity.

For many interlocking reasons, bashkias have no money to provide even basic services to their citizens. The situation is so bad that there are weeks and months when a municipality might say to its employees, “sorry, no paycheck this time.”

Why don’t they have money? Again, there are several reasons, but #1 is that the municipalities collect only a mere fraction of what they should be collecting for water usage and property taxes.

Why are they realizing so little of what they are due? Some of the problem is that people – post-Communism – balk at paying for what was formerly free. But, that’s only a small part of the problem; the real problem is that (among other things) water use isn’t metered, land/property ownership is ambiguous, tax rolls are out of date and not computerized, there are no billing or collection systems and there’s not enough money in the system to install water meters, computerize systems or employ the labor needed to clarify land ownership.

And, even as I stress that “people not paying their tax/water bills” isn’t really the problem, you can imagine how the citizens of a bashkia feel about paying those bills when they receive inadequate services in return.

The other aspect of local governance that’s broken is “civic engagement.”  Albania is only 25 years post-communism, so most Albanian adults grew up in a system where “civic duty” was to keep your head down, your mouth closed and hope you didn’t do or say anything that could land you in trouble.  That’s pretty much all you need to know about civic engagement in Albania — it’s not actually broken as much as non-existent.

With all of that as background, the goal of the Planning and Local Governance Project is the old “teach a person to fish” thing — what’s known in the NGO world as “capacity building.”  At the core of this project is the idea that the local governance system in Albania is  in need of a massive, multi-pronged intervention and our job is to help the bashkias (officials and citizens alike) acquire the tools needed to do a better job.

About My Job

My main role at the Planning and Local Governance Project is to function as a liaison connecting Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) posted in bashkias to the Project, connect the Project to the PCVs, connect PCVs in different bashkias to each other, and (hopefully) connect the PCVs to other NGOs that might be of assistance in carrying out their work.

Don't let the
Don’t let the “five days a week in the office” thing fool you — I also spend time in the field. Here we are engaged in a post-event discussion about a civic engagement forum in the coastal city of Vlorë.  On the right: representatives of the Vlorë Citizens Advisory Panel who also run a well-regarded youth center in the city.  My counterpart Lori is in the middle and Fiorela of UN Women is on the right.

I will also assist various members of the project with particular aspects of their work:  analysis, research, writing, etc.

About the Organization

Here is my counterpart (primary contact), Lori. We are meeting with a representative of the World Bank who is working on a similar project in Kosovo.
Here again is my counterpart Lori. We are meeting with a representative of the World Bank who wanted to compare notes with us about a similar project in Kosovo. (In Albania, many meetings take place in cafes.)

The Project “Chief of Party” (that’s international development lingo for “head honcho”) is an American who was the mayor of a small, progressive American city for more than a decade.  Everyone else working on the project (about a dozen people) is Albanian.  We have experts in areas such as civic engagement, IT solutions, property taxes, water and analysis/reporting.  We work closely with many other NGOs (we call them “donors”) working on similar issues as well as with the Albanian national government.


6 thoughts

  1. Thanks Sue! This was helpful and I look forward to hearing more about your gig. Also super psyched to figure out what I am trying to do (still figuring that out) and what you are trying to do intersect. See you SOON in Tirana! XOXOXO Megan ne Kavajë

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sue, reading your reports shows me how much I take for granted. I am truly blessed to live in a country where (for the most part) things WORK and people understand the rule of law and the need for taxes (much as we like to complain about them…). Thank you for taking the time to write all that you are seeing and doing.
    And in your last picture, you are glowing. Clearly this new work suits you and they are so fortunate to have you there! I am so happy for you in this new season.
    Be well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathy – As they say in Albania, “Ti ke drejt” (you are right). Things do not work here — both in the macro sense (government) and in the micro sense (vegetable peelers, stoves, etc.). What’s worse is that there is a lot of resignation — people just assume things don’t work because they rarely do.
      I anticipated having the reaction that we (Americans) take so much for granted but I never imagined how deep that goes. It’s very, very hard to see.

      As for the rule of law, ti ke drejt about that as well. I will post soon about the recent elections and you will see, again, how much we take for granted. In the U.S. we focus so much on what’s flawed in our system, not realizing how much our system DOES work. Yet, it’s that constant focus on flaws that allows the system to improve and refine over time.

      Thanks for the comments and the support. Ti ke drejt, I am having a wonderful time here.


  3. Wow. I read your blogs and I have to admit, it is really different than I thought. I really thought you were in a place with nothing. Lol It looks you are really enjoying it. So happy for your adventure. Keep in touch! 🙂


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