Tempus Fugit: 21-Month Edition

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One of my favorite Tirana cafes — full of antiques and Communist-era artifacts.

After 21 months in Albania and several dozen blog posts, I feel that there is still so much to tell about Albania as a country and a people, about my life as a Peace Corps/Albania volunteer (PCV) in Tirana and, more generally, about the Peace Corps as an organization and what it’s like to serve as a PCV. It’s hard to imagine, but my PCV cohort has just six months to go before our official “Close of Service” (COS) date in mid-May and people are already gearing up for what’s next. Some of the volunteers are prepping grad school applications, others are looking for international teaching or government gigs, a few are putting together proposals to extend their service for a third year and many of us (me included) are sort of flailing around, not quite sure where/how to start looking for work and wondering how actions by — or reactions to — the Trump administration might affect our ability to get jobs. In addition, most of us (once again, me included) are trying to figure out how to use our remaining vacation days — hopefully for international travel — before our travel permissions are rescinded 90 days prior to our end of service.

Although my official Peace Corps end-date is in mid-May I plan to stick around a bit longer so that I can assist my “employer,” USAID, in closing out its Planning and Local Governance Project, which comes to a close in late June after nearly six years. I am not obligated to stay until the end of the project, but the project director has indicated that he would appreciate my help during the deadline- and report-heavy final weeks. I am weary of life in Albania, the accumulated time away from family and friends is wearing on me, I feel pre-occupied by the political situation in the U.S. and the thought of spending an extra six weeks carrying bags of groceries up the hill to my apartment in Tirana’s sweaty summer heat makes me want to cry. Nonetheless, I feel that staying until the project ends seems like the right thing to do.

With all of that as preface, here’s the latest on what I’ve been doing, experiencing and thinking in Albania…

USAID Planning & Local Governance Project

img_5554My primary/official Peace Corps assignment is with USAID’s Planning and Local Governance Project (PLGP). As detailed in an earlier post, PLGP is a (nearly) six-year initiative to help a dozen of Albania’s largest municipalities function more effectively — both at the internal level (i.e., the inner workings of the municipal “machine”) and externally (i.e, improved public services, greater responsiveness/accountability to citizens). My work as PLGP’s “embedded Peace Corps Volunteer” is focused on trying to further the goals of both the project and PCVs working in municipal government by facilitating connections, sharing information and so on. I have also done a fair amount of work on report writing: both coaching staff on improving their skills and helping to refine the never-ending stream of documents required by the USAID home office. My immediate counterpart is the project’s civic engagement expert and I also work with her on various projects and analyses.

Most of PLGP’s work is conducted directly with our partner municipalities. Our specialists (all of whom are Albanian) give workshops, conduct one-on-one training/coaching sessions and assist in creating strategic/business plans for governance-related matters such as tax collection, finance, water utility management, civic engagement and urban planning. We also have a couple of specialists whose work focuses on “inter-governmental relations,” which is a fancy way of describing the relationship between Albania’s national government and the local municipalities — basically, who has authority over what and who gets what money. The good news is that Albania is increasingly decentralized, which allows for more local autonomy. The bad news is that the national government, in delegating responsibilities to the local level, has not always allocated sufficient money to fulfill those mandates. Our inter-governmental specialists work with various national-level ministries to advocate on behalf of all of Albania’s 61 local governments and to (attempt to) write laws and policies that will protect their interests.

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A recent “consultation session” where mayors had the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed Law on Local Government Finances.

One of the project’s key accomplishments has been the inter-governmental work. Members of our team have been successful in crafting multiple pieces of legislation — now voted into law — that increase the odds that the country’s decentralization efforts will function effectively. The last piece of this work, which is underway now, is an effort to write and pass a bill that significantly increases the funds flowing from the central government to the local municipalities. These efforts are likely to be the most enduring aspect of PLGP’s work.

At the micro level, work with our 12 partner municipalities is starting to amp up in anticipation of winding down. Some of the municipalities — those that have demonstrated the most motivation and commitment to the project’s many “interventions” — have made tremendous progress and are now on an upward trajectory of improved performance. The big question, however, is “will the progress endure?” The answer, unfortunately, is “who knows…” Despite protections for civil service employees, municipal employees are often relieved of their duties (i.e., fired) when a new mayor takes office, thereby gutting most of the institutional knowledge. In some cases, a new mayor is the heir to a previous administration and things are relatively stable. But, if there’s a change of party, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the new mayor will clean house.

In a similar vein, my counterpart has worked for years to nurture the development of local-level Citizen Advisory Panels (CAPs) that serve as the voice of citizens with municipal officials. In some partner municipalities, the CAP concept has taken hold and the group plays an active role in local governance. But, once again, it all depends on the mayor and his/her receptivity to citizen input. In theory, CAPs will endure in our more successful partner municipalities, but their influence and effectiveness can easily be eradicated by a disinterested mayor.

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My counterpart’s shining moment, a national conference on best practices in Civic Engagement. The man at the podium is PLGP’s former director (now retired and back in the U.S.). Peter is a former seven-term mayor who is masterful at giving rousing speeches about the importance of citizen participation.

When I started working at PLGP in June 2015, USAID was on the record as saying that the project would be its last local governance initiative in Albania. Now, though, USAID is saying that there is likely to be a multi-year follow-on project to extend (and more fully embed) the successes of the current project.

When PLGP shuts its doors at the end of June, all of my co-workers will be unemployed. Their contracts include a few months of severance to help tide them over but many of them are likely to be unemployed for some time. This is a common problem among the sub-segment of Albanian professionals who have made their careers working for international “donor” organizations such as USAID, UN Women, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, etc. There is an entire tier of these people in Tirana and they seem to all know each other from years of moving from one donor organization to another. Most of my PLGP colleagues have spent a decade or more working for international donors and they consider themselves fortunate to contribute to Albania’s development while earning better-than-average salaries and avoiding the ins and outs of government jobs with their party politics and corruption. But, when these time-limited, project-based jobs end, they struggle to support their families and pay for medical care until a new project opens up. In the case of PLGP, USAID has said there will be a follow-on project but the RFP isn’t developed yet and estimates are that the new project is more than six months away. In addition, there is no guarantee that my co-workers will be asked to the join the new project — each project is a separate, open call.

Here are some of my always lively and dedicated co-workers at our recent holiday party. No PLGP party is complete without traditional Albanian dancing!

“Creative & Critical Thinking for Young Adults”

AC LogoOne of my self-selected projects is a weekly “creative and critical thinking” discussion group at the U.S. Embassy’s American Corner (located in the center of the city in the National Library). You can read more about the genesis of the group here.

The group is now in its second year with some members returning from last year and others who joined this fall. Most of the participants are extremely bright, highly motivated high school and college students who are eager to learn and discuss new ideas. These young adults already possess a lot of creative/critical thinking capacities, but they have very few outlets for exercising them. Albanian schools — even at the university level — emphasize rote learning and instructors tend to lecture or read from the text (if they show up at all*). In addition, there is a big emphasis on right and wrong answers, with wrong answers often resulting in some sort of public shaming.

*I hear many distressing stories from university students. It’s not uncommon for professors to routinely cancel classes and/or arrive substantially late. Many professors lecture for perhaps one hour of a three-hour class and then dismiss the class. For some professors, “lecturing” means reading from the textbook. Students submit assignments and professors don’t read/grade them. And, of course, there are issues with cheating, plagiarism and bribery. These are many of the reasons that bright, motivated students try so hard to go abroad for their degrees.

“…this is the only place we get to do this…”

You can imagine what a treat it is for bright, curious young people to engage in healthy debate, brainstorm “crazy” solutions to interesting problems and receive positive feedback for venturesome thoughts and ideas. Last spring, we did a multi-week unit on social psychology where we discussed the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, the Bystander Effect and Abu Ghraib. A few weeks ago we talked about cognitive biases and their impact on decision making. We often discuss ethical dilemmas and after the holiday break we are going to do several sessions on active listening. Active listening doesn’t really fit with the stated goal of the group, but the students requested the topic as an outgrowth of a discussion last spring that went off the rails. In dissecting that incident, group members observed that Albanians talk over each other a lot (an observation I agree with) and frequently engage in dialogues that are more parallel than interlocking (which, I guess, makes them monologues, not dialogues…).

Measured on the basis of smiles, laughter, requests to extend topics into future weeks and comments like “this is the only place we get to do this,” I think that the group has been a great success. I, too, get a kick out of the group, both because we have fun and because I think we are accomplishing something worthwhile. As with teaching, it’s fun for me to “sculpt” material into pieces of curriculum and I enjoy seeing the students experience aha moments and the challenge of answering unexpected and/or difficult questions.

Observatory for Children’s Rights

Another self-selected project is working with an Albanian NGO called “Observatory for Children’s Rights,” an organization whose main mission (funded by UNICEF) is accumulating and reporting statistics on issues related to the health, well-being, education and safety of children. The information is used by other NGOs to drive advocacy of children’s issues here in Albania and also by UNICEF to allow for comparative analyses at the international level. In addition, Observatory implements several youth-oriented programs funded by the UN and other large donor organizations; for example, UN Women funds a program called “He for She” that contributes to female empowerment efforts by engaging men and boys in reducing inequality. Another program, funded in part by the YWCA, works to get Roma children into kindergarten by helping their families navigate pre-admission requirements such as registration in Albania’s “civil registry” and vaccinations.

One of my USAID co-workers introduced me to Elma, Observatory’s executive director, because of our shared interest in, and experience with, data analysis. But, it turns out that Observatory’s most immediate need is with strategic planning. Elma is a sharp, energetic, big-picture thinker who has built a strong NGO (not always the case here), but she lacks a “thought partner” to help her strategize the future direction of the organization. Right now we are working together on a SWOT analysis and have started to identify possible next steps in response to the current situation. I am sufficiently busy with other projects that I don’t really have time to work with Observatory, but I make the time because I enjoy Elma so much and want to support her atypically proactive mindset.

Miscellaneous Projects (including false starts)

American Culture Class

One of my friends, Bruna, is a professor at the University of Tirana. From time to time I speak to her American Culture class as a way of adding some anecdotal texture to the assigned readings. Earlier this fall I spoke to the class about the “Nine Nations of North America,” which is an approach to thinking about regional differences across the U.S. I’ve been a fan of the Nine Nations model for years and was excited to see that Bruna has used it in her class for some time. My job in speaking to the class was to embellish on the reading material by providing some real-world examples of regional differences.

Parental involvement in education is virtually non-existent in Albania.

This week the topic was the U.S. educational system and I spoke to the students about several key differences between the American and Albanian systems:

Local Control – In Albania, education is almost entirely controlled at the national level: the Ministry of Education sets curriculum, the school calendar and the list of acceptable texts and adherence to prescribed lesson plans is monitored. There are no school districts or school boards and most activities not already in the prescribed plan (for example, a field trip) have to be approved by the regional arm of the Ministry — if not in fact, then in an attempt to forestall any possible repercussions later.

Community Involvement – Students were interested to hear about school boards and the fact that ultimately, American schools answer to a group of citizens who are volunteering their time. We also discussed PTAs and parental involvement — the fact parents and teachers work together to improve their schools, ensure students are adequately and properly served and, even in districts with high per-pupil spending, often help raise money for special programs or improvements. Parental involvement in education is virtually non-existent in Albania. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that parents do not participate in the life of their children’s schools (my professor friend Bruna is a rare exception).

Classroom Environment – American classrooms — at all levels of education — are much more interactive than those in Albania. In the U.S., teachers and professors are more engaged with their students* and discussions and challenging questions are encouraged, not discouraged. “Critical thinking” has become a buzzword in Albania and there is a sense that it’s a good thing to incorporate into education, but I hear from various sources that that teachers 1) don’t know how to implement it and 2) are reluctant to give up control in this way. One of the reasons for my critical/creative thinking group at the American Corner is that a group of young people themselves told the AC’s director that they wanted this sort of program.

*It’s startling to learn that many Albanian teachers don’t learn/use their students’ names, calling them instead simply “boy” or “girl.” In my American Corner group, one of our ground rules is that we use each others’ names rather than saying “the girl” or “the boy” (as in “I agree with what the girl just said….”).

One of the other PCVs in Tirana, Cristin, is also working with Bruna. Cristin is a former high school teacher with expertise in teaching methods and she is helping Bruna (who already teaches using a pretty American approach) to learn new tools and techniques. What makes this work particularly important is that Bruna’s class is full of future English teachers and they are being exposed to alternative ways to organize their courses and classrooms.

Legacy of Communism

img_4888Shortly after I arrived in Tirana I became interested in doing some sort of oral history project to address the lack of information — particularly for youth — about Albania’s Communist past. Several of my PCV colleagues and I spent months meeting with people and conducting research so that we could 1) find out what had/hadn’t already been done, 2) identify potential collaborators and 3) gain a better understanding of the current state of “resistance” to exploring the topic. We developed a couple of different angles for the project (one, for example, focused on youth and engaged youth in collecting and recording the oral histories) but, ultimately, we were not able to gain a foothold. In certain circles (PCVs, historians, international organizations focused on rule of law) there is no shortage of interest in Legacy of Communism projects, but such initiatives are highly ambitious, require funding and are full of cultural sensitivities; many people agree that the topic needs to be addressed, but no one has yet made it happen.

osceNonetheless, my interest in the legacy of Communism is still strong. Forty years after graduating with a degree in Soviet Studies, I’m grateful for the serendipity that landed me in a post-Communist country and eager to understand how Albania’s Communist past is influencing its future. I continue to read books and articles on Albanian history and post-Communism and, because I have the good fortune to be in Tirana, I am able to attend events related to this topic.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a presentation where the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) unveiled the results of a nationwide study (with nearly 1000 respondents) on perceptions of Albania’s Communist past. Here are some findings that are simultaneously surprising and not surprising:

  • Compared to today:
    • 90% of respondents think Communist Albania was safer
    • 84% believe education was better
    • 86% think there were more job opportunities
    • 77% believe the country was more stable politically
    • 79% say the country was less corrupt
    • 49% say life was more comfortable
  • Was Communism a good idea or a bad idea?
    • Only 10% say it was a good idea, implemented properly
    • 49% believe it was a good idea, but not well implemented
    • 37% think it was a bad idea
    • These numbers vary little across age groups

Both the current and former German ambassadors spoke at the event and stressed the importance of coming to terms with the past as a way of paving the way for the future. This was not the first time I’ve heard German diplomats make such comments and, each time, I have been struck by the force and openness with which they acknowledge both of their “times of darkness” — Nazism and Communism.

Life In Tirana

Life in Tirana goes on. My apartment is clean and cute, but cold. Compared to Chicago, Tirana winters are mild (30s at night, 50s during the day) but my apartment holds the cold and damp and I wear more clothes inside than outside. As I type this, I am wearing three-to-four layers of clothing and have a heavy blanket over my legs.

Here are some pictures that will give you a sense of my life here….

Exploring my neighborhood:

Tirana is at its most beautiful when decorated for the holidays:

 

Here are scenes from the recently opened five-level, 100+ room underground bunker designed to protect Albania’s political and military leadership in the event of a crisis. It was built during the 1970s and is said to be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

 

Here are few more shots of the Komiteti cafe:

 

I’ve taken this bus several times. All of the stops and safety messages are displayed in (what I assume to be) Chinese. I have no idea why.

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I live near the “Tregu Elektrik” — the outdoor electric market. There are several dozen vendors, all with nearly identical merchandise at nearly identical prices. Seven days a week they put their wares out on the sidewalk in the morning and then put them away at about 3:00 pm.

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In many countries, Peace Corps volunteers wear colorful traditional clothing. This is what it’s like to dress as a Community and Organizational Development volunteer in Albania.

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