“Hope Against Hope”: to have hope even when the situation appears to be hopeless
People in Albania talk a lot about hope. Albanians talk about how to keep hope alive and how to persevere in spite of a lack of hope. Expats working for large international development NGOs talk about trying to balance optimism with a constant undertow of pessimism. Peace Corps volunteers talk about the juggling act of trying to create hope while not creating unrealistic expectations.
“If I lived in the U.S. I would be an atheist, but here in Albania I have to believe in God….what else can I do.”
Personally, I find the hope issue very painful. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that it makes my heart hurt. Truly, it makes my heart hurt when young adults tell me they are going to college in spite of the fact that there are no post-graduation jobs. It makes my heart hurt to hear that a woman who has spent the last 15 years working for change in Albania will probably move to Greece so that her hyper-allergic daughter can get competent medical care. And, my heart really hurts when a young, talented, well-credentialed teacher — unable to find work because she won’t pay a bribe — says, “…so, I just trust in God. If I lived in the U.S. I would be an atheist, but here in Albania I have to believe in God….what else can I do.” Ouch.
Reasons that Albanians struggle to hope:
- No jobs. In the U.S., when an educated, motivated person says, “I can’t find a job,” they rarely mean that there are no jobs whatsoever, but that they can’t find a job they want. In Albania, when people say “there are no jobs,” it’s true: there are NO jobs. Officially, unemployment in Albania is about 17%, which is bad enough, but the actual unemployment rate is estimated as closer to 30%. Among young adults, the official unemployment rate is 32% but a recently conducted, nationally representative survey of Albanian youth finds that only 22% of young people in Albania are currently employed full- or part-time. Four years ago, the number of employed was 35%, so it appears that things are moving in the wrong direction.
- Corruption. Unfortunately, corruption is rampant in Albania. Parents bribe teachers to give their children good grades. College students (including — distressingly — medical students) use bribes to “buy their degrees.” Jobs are granted to those with particular political affiliations and denied to those with the “wrong” affiliation. Employers hire applicants who pay bribes and often require ongoing payments to ensure continued employment.
In the time since I originally wrote this an Albanian friend sent me the following comments in response: “Corruption is seen as the number one issue facing the crucial life sectors including the health system, the judicial system and the education system. It exists in at least two ugly forms: having to bribe officials because what you are entitled to is withheld, or having to bribe in order to get what….is not right according to laws and rules — the latter having created a/n (un)culture of incompetence, arrogance and entitlement in the public sector and educational institutions.”
- Political Corruption. In addition to everyday, run-of-the-mill employment-related corruption, there is also rampant political corruption in Albania. I won’t elaborate here — you already know what political corruption looks like. But, I will offer some interesting food for thought: Recently I participated in a meeting where the topic of corruption came up. One of the participants, an expert in international development, remarked that fighting corruption is difficult, but it’s even more difficult in a country with no “culture of investigative journalism.” Up until that moment, I had never really considered the idea that journalists are a large factor in keeping a system honest. Here in Albania, there is no tradition of investigative journalism and, in fact, there are journalists known to be less than independent from the politicians they cover.
- Political Infighting. Before coming to Albania I thought that the level of political infighting in the U.S. had gotten out of control. Now, though, I see that there is a marked difference between fighting about issues and fighting about personality and character. Imagine a country where the political infighting is more in the Donald Trump vein of personal attacks. Politicians routinely call each other names and accuse each other of unsubstantiated crimes. Members of the opposition party routinely refuse to appear on the same stage*, attend the same events, or work together within their political bodies. A young, very insightful woman I know suggests that the constant name calling and allegation throwing is a sort of sleight of hand whereby politicians can distract the populace from noticing that they are not engaging in the substantive work they were elected to do.
*Over the summer I helped my employer, USAID, set up a pre-mayoral-election public forum where candidates were going to respond to the concerns of local constituents. The two candidates refused to appear together on the same stage and so we scheduled one candidate at 11:00 am and the other at 1:00 pm. During the 11:00 session, the second candidate called to say that he wouldn’t be coming “because the other candidate had appeared first.”
If this sounds really bad, it is. According to the nationally representative study of 1,200 young adults I mentioned earlier, a mere 15% of Albanians aged 16 to 27 have no interest in emigrating to another country. A whopping 77% are “very” or “somewhat” interested in leaving Albania. Four years ago, 43% of young adults were very interested in emigration and now 60% are.
In the time since I originally wrote this an Albanian friend sent me the following comments in response: “[Young people believe] ‘the reality is unfair and no matter how hard you try, if you do not have the right connections and enough money to pay, you will not be able to succeed in the after-college world’ and ‘no matter what one does as an individual, one cannot change the reality and it is not worth being fair and living by principles.'”
Not surprisingly, Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) ride this emotional roller coaster of hope/no hope as well. We are all here because we want to help and Peace Corps (as well as many other American and European NGOs) are in Albania because the country is under strain and needs multiple helping hands. What’s difficult is that PCVs, in large part, work at the grassroots level with everyday Albanians. Our presence in a community is in and of itself a source of hope but it can be difficult to bring that hope, knowing that 1) there is only so much an individual PCV can do and 2) systemic reforms are necessary to cure what ails this country and its citizens.