It’s been a long time since I wrote about what I actually do here in Albania. I’ve filled you in on what life is like in Albania and on what it’s like (for me!) to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I haven’t said much about the activities that keep me shume e zenë (very busy). Here’s an update…
US AID’s Planning and Local Governance Project
My official Peace Corps assignment is here in Tirana, with US AID’s (US Agency for International Development) Planning and Local Governance Project. I love this assignment! The project is complex and interesting, I’m learning a lot, my co-workers are great and I feel like the work is truly significant to the future of Albania. At the risk of oversimplifying, the project is essentially a make-over of 11 of Albania’s 61 municipal governments.* Our job with these “partner municipalities” is to help them function effectively and efficiently in the hope that they can lead the way for the remaining local governments in Albania. The project works with each partner municipality to expand and upgrade its capacities in the areas of civic engagement, taxation, water, urban planning and IT hardware and systems. Local governance is a giant interlocking system and all of the moving parts need to be functioning if the system itself is going to work.
*Side note for policy wonks — the rest of you can skip this: In Albania, a municipal government (also known as an LGU (Local Government Unit) or a Bashkia) is larger than a city government but smaller than a state government — more like the equivalent of a county government. Until mid-June of this year, Albania had 374 municipal governments – a very large number for a country the size of Maryland! But now, there has been a territorial consolidation and the number of LGUs has been reduced to 61. Each of the remaining 61 Bashkias now has to figure out how to incorporate its newly amassed land area, population, money, services (and problems) into a single functioning unit. When I say “figure out,” I mean it. Imagine that Cook County is going to absorb responsibility for the governance of the metro region’s five collar counties (Lake, Will, DuPage, Kane and McHenry). Cook is now responsible for this entire vastly enlarged citizenry and land area but the planning about how that will work is going to occur after the absorption takes place! None of the details of the reorganization – including organizational structure – have yet occurred.
At the same time, making the local-level pieces dovetail is not enough because the country’s national-level laws and policies need to properly enable local governments to do their jobs. This might seem like a given, but in Albania it’s not. Historically, the national government has had a habit of transferring responsibilities from the national to the local level without also passing along the money they’ve been using to fulfill those obligations. For example, the Albanian educational system is administered at the national level but, at one point, the national government handed off responsibility for the school buildings themselves to the municipalities – without providing any of the funds they were using to maintain the schools (which explains the sorry state of most public schools in Albania – in particular the toilets). As a result, part of the Planning and Local Governance Project functions at the national level, working with Parliament and various Ministries (Finance, Urban Development, etc.) to develop laws, strategic plans, financial policies and so on. In just the last few months, this aspect of the project has seen some significant pieces of its work fall into place.* This is exciting because it helps ensure that the work at the local level has a better chance of enduring over time (notice that I am trying desperately to avoid using the most overused word in development: sustainability).
*Policy wonk side-note #2: In July, the Prime Minister’s cabinet approved a five-year strategy that outlines how the interplay between the national and local pieces of governance should function. In about a month, Parliament will vote on a long-needed law that stipulates, among other things, how local government will be financed; for example, for the first time, the national government will be required to determine its funding for local governments (called the “Unconditional Grant”) based on a fixed percentage of revenues rather than allow its proportion to fluctuate in response to political pressures. Another piece of this important national-level work is a nearly completed financial model that provides a sound (statistical) basis for dividing the Unconditional Grant pool among municipalities.
So What Do I Actually Do?
My job is Peace Corps Liaison, which means – in essence – that I help facilitate connections. The Planning and Local Governance Project has a particular mission with particular areas of focus, but the bottom line is that its job is to help Albania improve its functioning. Similarly, each of the Peace Corps’ Community and Organizational Development volunteers – whether in a Bashkia or with an NGO – has a particular assignment with a particular area of focus. The Peace Corps Volunteers are not part of the PLGP initiative, but the fact is that all of us (US AID, PCVs) are here to advance the functioning of Albania. So, the question is: how can US AID, working at a macro level, and Peace Corps Volunteers, working at a micro level, collaborate and coordinate to better help the country of Albania? This could mean something as simple as asking my US AID co-workers how/where a PCV colleague might find some data he/she is looking for. Or, it might mean helping a PCV who’s underutilized in his/her job connect to another NGO in their area looking for help. Right now it means sorting through a bunch of national-level documents (strategies, laws, comments on laws) and putting together an easy-to-read, “news you can use” summary that will help PCVs better understand the political context in which they are working. Going forward it will probably mean organizing some briefings or trainings to help PCVs in non-partner municipalities (we work only with 11 of the 61 bashkias) take advantage of some of the tools (in development-world jargon: interventions) the project has developed.
How can US AID, working at a macro level, and Peace Corps Volunteers, working at a micro level, collaborate and coordinate to better help the country of Albania?
In addition to functioning as a “connector,” I am also doing some capacity building with the PLGP staff itself. Because PLGP is a government project, the reporting requirements are onerous: weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual reports as well as work plans and work projections; in addition, we produce newsletters, case studies and social media posts. It’s a lot of writing, especially for non-native English speakers and especially-squared for content-area experts from disciplines where the word “report” means something different than it means to an American government agency. For several months now I have been coaching co-workers, helping them learn to write in a more American, more business-oriented style. This has involved coaching both at the “how do you tell a story” (inverted pyramid style) level and also at the “how do you write easily comprehensible sentences” (active voice, fewer prepositional phrases, etc.) level. I’ve done this sort of coaching in the past but I’m particularly enjoying it this time because it’s helping me understand the differences between Albanian and American sentence structure – which are substantial! I am gaining a better understanding of the Albanian language and that is helping me coach people with more precision. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s talk about how to use fewer prepositional phrases,” I can say, “Because Albanian uses the genitive case, it naturally results in a lot of prepositional phrases…here’s what Americans do instead of using the genitive.” For a language geek like me, this is really fun.
Most Peace Corps volunteers undertake one or more “secondary projects” – projects that are self-selected based on both the volunteer’s interests/abilities and perceived needs in the volunteer’s community. I am working on several projects, one of which is already rolling, one of which is looking pretty promising and one of which is still at the formative stage and may or may not pan out.
“If You Want to Change the World, Change the Way You Think”
Although I enjoy my primary assignment at US AID, it has the disadvantage of not allowing me much contact with “real” Albanians. In general, PCVs (around the world, not just in Albania) work at the grassroots level in their communities – with kids, young adults, farmers, women, minority groups, etc. In thinking about supplemental projects, I realized that I wanted to do something that would help bring the grassroots element to my Peace Corps Service. So, last week, I held the first session in a weekly program “Creative and Critical Thinking for Young Albanians” held at the Tirana branch of the American Embassy’s American Corner*.
*Throughout the world, American Embassies run “American Corners,” which are small libraries/meeting spaces, usually located within a local library or cultural center; in Tirana, the American Corner is located in the National Library. There, Albanians can access American books and other media and participate in language programs, speaker events, movie nights, educational advising sessions, clubs and so on. Several Tirana-based PCVs run programs there: Mito, a volunteer working with the Roma community, runs a Friday-afternoon kid’s club; Cristin, whose assignment is to help advance teaching methods for future English teachers at the University of Tirana, runs a discussion group for language teachers; and Cristin’s husband Adrian, a COD volunteer who works in IT but also has a great love of the outdoors (as does Cristin!), runs a chapter of the Outdoor Ambassadors Club.
The idea for my program grew out of the often-heard lament that Albanian youth* are generally lacking in creative and/or critical thinking, an opinion that is shared even among Albanian youth themselves! Much of this is likely the result of the legacy of Communism – Albania is a country where, for 45 years, compliance and conformity were pretty good coping strategies. But it’s also the result of the current Albanian educational system, which most Americans would find shockingly inadequate: students go to school for only half a day (yes, you read that correctly…), there’s an emphasis on rote learning, in-class discussions are pretty much non-existent, teachers still rule with a shaming iron hand (“what are you, stupid?”), and – most important – everything has a right and a wrong answer and giving a wrong answer can mean public humiliation. This lack of critical/creative thinking is distressing to me. I wonder how this country will ever dig itself out of its hole when there’s so little ability to question, think through consequences, find creative solutions and take risks.
*In Albania, “youth” refers to what we would think of young adults: 15- or 16-year-olds up to about 25 or 26.
The program is targeted at high school and college students and is structured to offer three things: 1) the opportunity to practice speaking English (something that Albanian students want but don’t get to do in their English classes); 2) the opportunity to learn more about America and the American way of life (see earlier blog post where I talk about why Albanians love America and also about Goal #2); and 3) the opportunity to have fun while building creative/critical-thinking skills. To do this, we will use tidbits of American popular culture (the game “Apples to Apples,” brainstorming exercises, stories from NPR and other podcasts, urban legends, “thought experiment” games, etc.) as the basis for discussions that will help participants think more broadly and more deeply.
Example: For next week group members will listen to a story from “This American Life” where John Hodgeman asks people “if you could have a super-power, what would it be?” and then brainstorm five possible super-powers for themselves. When we meet, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of different super-powers and explore unintended consequences. For the week after, I am contemplating a discussion based on a statistic about peer competition I read just this morning: “In a survey of faculty, students, and staff at the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly half of the respondents said they’d prefer to live in a world where the average salary was $25,000 and they earned $50,000 than one where they earned $100,000 but the average was $200,000.”
The current group will run for about 10 weeks and then I’ll cycle in a new group of young people. A number of 30+-year-olds also applied to be in the program and so I am thinking about the possibility of a second group for young professionals.
Denying The Legacy of Communism
Another project – still just the seed of an idea – is a multi-generational initiative that, if it flies, will help preserve oral histories of the Communist time while also training young adults in journalism and media skills. This is a large, complicated project and so there’s a group of PCVs working on this together.
In Albania there has been a resistance to talking about the Communist years (which Albanians call “the Hoxha time”). A cultural historian I met who studies post-Soviet syndrome says that Albania suffers from “collective amnesia/non-memory.” In the meantime, the legacy – and the learning – from those 45 years are disappearing because people who lived under Communism and Hoxha’s repressive regime are getting older and dying, their stories dying with them. When I say “stories,” I mean stories about persecution, labor camps and terror as well as stories about simple everyday life – mothers who listened to Voice of America in the closet so that their kids wouldn’t accidentally spill the beans, teens who got up at 3:00 am to stand in line for a pound of meat for an entire week, kids who were taught to believe that “Xhaxha Enver” (Uncle Enver Hoxha) was their loving protector.
This project is still taking form. We are trying to figure out how much of this sort of work has already been done – it appears not much. We also need to find one or more Albanian stakeholders who would be interested in building this sort of archive (e.g., the Ministry of Culture, a museum, the history department of a university, a documentary film-maker). And, we want to see if there’s a way to use the project as a tool to build youth employability skills in the areas of journalism and media. Right now our focus is on networking and information gathering.
As part of the information gathering for this project, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some interesting people, attend some thought-provoking events and learn some fascinating things. It turns out that there is whole community of intersecting interests in the topic of “the legacy of communism”: cultural heritage people who want to make sure physical remnants of the Communist era (e.g, Spaç prison) are preserved; cultural historians exploring the how and why of repression from an academic perspective; formerly persecuted persons (FPPs) seeking recognition and justice; and European Union-related NGOs working on laws related to 1) the opening of secret police files, 2) compensation for FPPs, and 3) lustration (a new word for me – it has to do with prohibiting those guilty of human rights abuses in Communist Albania from holding positions of power in post-Communist Albania).
A few weeks ago I attended what was supposed to be a panel discussion on legacy-of-communism issues. I say “supposed to” because former political prisoners in the audience dominated the session and the panel had relatively little opportunity to talk. It was an incredibly emotional and upsetting event – hearing stories of persecution, torture and death; hearing the frustration of FPPs who are denied reparations because the physical records of their “crimes against the state” can’t be located; and hearing allegations about a former member of the Sigurimi (Secret Police) who now holds a senior position at Albania’s national police academy.
In additional to the sheer emotionality of the former prisoners, two people made particular impressions on me. One was the German ambassador who expressed frustration and chided Albania by saying something to the effect of, “With all due respect, it’s been 20+ years and Albania is still arguing about how to make right its Communist past.” The other was Fatos Lubjona, a cultural critic who was imprisoned for 17 years as a dissident. He was talking about how repressive regimes work and made the simple but chilling observation, “Dictatorship turns people into children…which in turn means that to survive means to cooperate.”
“Those Who Do Not Remember the Past….”
In the course of working on the oral history project, I’ve learned that one consequence of Albania’s collective amnesia is that young people know very little about the darker aspects of their country’s past. A couple of years ago a journalism and history professor from University of Tirana worked with her students to create a short documentary, targeted toward youth, about this gap in knowledge. The documentary has been shown in a few Albanian high schools and appears to be a good way to open the door to deeper conversation, but there’s no one (and no money) to implement such a program on a larger scale.
It’s possible that Peace Corps Volunteers could help take this initiative nationwide. Peace Corps Albania has about 80 volunteers spread across the country and the majority of them work with youth in one way or another – in schools and youth centers and with camps and clubs. Later this month, the professor, Peace Corps Albania’s new youth programming coordinator and I will start to work together to develop a piece of curriculum that would be available to volunteers who wanted to offer an interactive program where young people could learn about “the Hoxha time” and discuss ideas like freedom and repression.
As you can see, I have a lot going on. Add to that regular language tutoring sessions, required Peace Corps activity reports, trips to the doctor to figure out why my Eustachian tubes are inflamed and the endless refilling of my water filtration unit and I am pretty busy. But, much to my surprise, I am not stressed, which is a very new feeling. Back in the States, my busy-ness was always accompanied by a constant humming undercurrent of pressure: deadlines, obligations to students, obligations to myself. Here, there’s a lot of activity, but it exists without that sense of pressure and, although I’m not sure why/how that is, I welcome it.