UNDP: 30 Years with Albania

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana, Albania

For 30 years, UNDP has walked side-by-side with Albania as it has transitioned to democracy. With programmes tailored to the country’s specific developmental needs, UNDP has provided support and guidance where and when needed most. As Albania has evolved, so too have the programmes implemented by UNDP. Through many milestones, challenges, and successes, UNDP has been there to respond to the needs of Albania and its people. Let’s go on a journey spanning three decades to explore the ways that UNDP and Albania have worked and grown together.

The story began in 1991. Following the overthrowing of the regime, the first buds of democracy had started to form on the branches of Albanian society. During this time, which was fraught with a mixture of hope and uncertainty, the UNDP office was inaugurated in Tirana by then Prime Minister Ylli Bufi.

The plaque at UNDP Office, Tirana, Albania

UNDP’s mission was to support Albania in its social, economic, political, democratic, and overall human development.

In those early years, a variety of projects were rolled out, mainly with a focus on alleviating poverty. During these years, the Gross Domestic Product per person was just $211 a year, and only 29% of people had a job. The need to economically and socially empower people was immense. This period also saw Albania become more connected to the world in more ways than one.

In the early 90s, UNDP implemented small-scale projects across Albania

In the early 90s, UNDP connected key government ministries and institutions to the Internet. This was then rolled out to non-governmental organizations and other institutions throughout the country. Over the next decade, the Albanian people were brought online and had the whole world wide web at their feet. This paved the way for information sharing, business building, and connective growth.

“UNDP provided internet services to government institutions such as the Prime Minister’s offices, the Albanian Parliament and line ministries giving them dedicated connections. The project at that time offered at least 230 connections to Albanian NGOs as well, so almost all of them had an email service through some telephone modem devices” says Genti Daci, former project director, UNDP Free Net.

Amidst the challenges of a transitioning democracy, UNDP knew it was essential to have government staff trained using modern management techniques that could then work towards the consolidation of the civil service. For this purpose the Government, with UNDP support, opened the first Public School of Administration in the late 90s.The school is operational to this day and has trained thousands of young Albanian men and women in management, civil service, and public administration.

Human Security Brings Development

But despite Albania’s promising start, it was about to experience a significant challenge in 1997. UNDP piloted a new initiative called “Weapons in exchange for development.” The city of Gramsh, a weapons hotspot in central Albania, was chosen as the first location for the rollout of the programme. UN Goodwill Ambassador and world-famous movie star Michael Douglas flew in for a public weapons destruction ceremony, and he gave a rousing speech.

Michael Douglas, the UN Goodwill Ambassador

“It is a sign of courage, it is a sign of foresight, and a sign of wisdom, and I congratulate your leaders for choosing what is good for the community. Congratulations to the NGOs, The United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs, and the United Nations Development Programme”, he said.

Douglas’s presence made headlines around the world and UNDP’s message was clear: development can not come without human security.

Thousands of weapons and units of ammunition were surrendered as part of the programme. In return, schools were built, roads were paved, and phone lines were installed in Gramsh and other project areas.

“Gramsh in 97–98, along with all of Albania, was chaotic and became a center for the supply of weapons, ammunition, and grenades to other cities. Together with the project teams, we went door to door to convince people to give in their weapons. I can truly say the project was a success as it helped strengthen human security as a perquisite for development. Around 10.000 weapons were collected in Gramsh alone”-says ” said Luljeta Dollani, the Vice Prefect of Gramsh and former activist of the UNDP project.

But by the end of the decade, dark clouds had gathered along the border with Kosovo*. The country was in the grips of a war that saw thousands of men, women, and children flee into Albania. Aside from the humanitarian crisis impacting displaced persons, there was another, darker and longer-lasting consequence. After the fighting stopped, much of the border between Kosovo1 and Albania remained peppered with mines.

Rising to the needs of the Albanian people, UNDP swung into action. Over ten years, UNDP, in cooperation with a large array of partners, implemented a programme that cleared mines from 10 hotspots covering some 1.7 million square meters. By 2009, Albania could breathe a sigh of relief as it was finally declared mine-free.

Izet Ademaj was severely injured on 27 May 1999 while patrolling the border between Kosovo and Albania. As a result of this accident, he lost his right leg.

“​​UNDP has funded several projects, from the landmine removal, to the education and integration of landmine survivors. We are completely rehabilitated as, luckily for us and thanks to UNDP financing, a department for prosthetic services was established at the Kukes Hospital and it was immensely helpful”- says Izet

Demining in northern Albania border

A new Millennium

With a new millennium dawning, an exciting chapter in Albanian history was also beginning. President Rexhep Meidani signed the Millennium Declaration, and its Millennium Development Goals, along with other world leaders. This small country, nestled in the heart of the Balkans, then became the first in the world to adopt the Declaration’s goals to the sub-national level.

As goals were implemented, the results were tangible. A total of 12 regional development strategies were created. 80% of people in Kukes, one of the poorest regions in Europe, benefitted from increased access to social services.

The early 2000s were challenging times for the Municipality of Tirana. Illegal buildings had invaded the public space. Through its “Clean and Green” Project, UNDP supported the beginning of a process to restore green areas along Lana River. The impact on those first 100 meters heralded a drastic change for Tirana

Clean and Green Project

While working to make Albania more secure, the UNDP started the conversation on climate change, energy efficiency, and sustainability. Programmes on climate change, renewable energy, protected areas, cleaning of contaminated sites were among the main pillars of UNDP’s early interventions on environment.

School children became part of the UNDP public awareness campaigns in support of environment

Albania is party to the UN Framework convention on climate change and with UNDP support it has set a national cross-sectoral target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20.9%, which includes several industrial sectors such as energy, transport, among others, and strengthens resilience to climate change.

UNDP installed solar panels in guest houses in Theth, Albania

A country rich in its majestic beauty, UNDP assisted the government in protecting some of its most ecologically rich and diverse areas. One of its first steps was to help the government designate the country’s very first Marine Protected Area, Karaburuni-Sazan. With its deep, azure, and crystalline waters, bursting with rich flora and fauna, as well as the secrets of its sunken Greek and Roman ships, the entire area is now safe and protected. Furthermore, local stakeholders, including students, civil society, and government, are aware of the need to preserve biodiversity and promote the tourism values that lie within. UNDP with local partners is focused on protecting and sustainable development of the area. Since then, Albania has quadrupled its protected areas.

Karaburun-Sazan Marine Park

Asides from protecting and nurturing the unique value of Albania’s raw beauty, UNDP also worked on projects to enhance the development of the maritime sector. The Maritime Blue Economy was formulated to both foster economic development and international cooperation while positioning Albania’s coast as a sustainable tourism destination.

In partnership with the Government of Norway UNDP works to enhance the development of the Maritime sector in Albania

Over the years, environmental matters have continued to be a core area of UNDPs work as climate change is of vital importance to both Albania and the World.

In 2007, Albania was selected as one of eight countries to pilot the UN reform at country level. The One UN programme combined the expertise of individual UN agencies to enhance their contributions to Albania’s human development goals and support Albania’s drive to become part of the European Union, and the aspirations of citizens to lead better lives. Together with its sister UN agencies, UNDP contributed to make the UN a more focused and efficient development partner.

Sustainable goals, sustainable development

Albania then signed and committed to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. These goals have mapped a path to help stimulate Albania’s development and align with its EU accession aspirations.

Today the Sustainable Development Goals are not only an integral part of the UN Programme in Albania but have also been embedded into the strategic development documents of the Government of Albania

We took SDGs closer to people across the country

Leave no one behind!

Albania is a diverse country, home to thousands that come from various ethnic communities. Some of the most marginalized are the Roma and Egyptian, who have long struggled with integration. UNDP worked to improve the social and economic empowerment of these communities. A myriad of programmes have been developed to help Albania implement the National Action Plan for the Decade of Roma, part of the EU integration agenda. Over 10.000 Roma and Egyptians were better integrated socially and economically. Over 1000 of them benefitted from integrated employment services provided to them.

Leave no one behind

UNDP also helped national authorities implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. More children with disabilities are attending school, and the civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights of persons with disabilities have been boosted.

Florjan Rojba, Executive Officer of the ANAD, National Association says: “Looking back, if ANAD wouldn’t have had UNDP’s support and assistance, many things would not have happened. UNDP has been one of the partners who has helped us with the recognition of the Albanian sign language and its official use”.

UNDP has supported the central and local governments to establish models of community social services. 24 community centers across Albania have been established with UNDP support during the last 10 years.

Jobs and economic growth

In partnership with the Government of Albania, UNDP has been supporting the reform of the skills development and employment system, enriching the national programme tasked to provide such services. The Self-Employment Programme, a UNDP success story, is now embedded nationally as one of the Government’s active labour market measures.250 young people have benefited from the of self-employment component of the programme.

UNDP continues to work in this area, empowering youth to shape their future and develop the skills they need to succeed in their lives in Albania.

But you cannot have a developed society that respects equality, inclusion, and empowerment, without talking about Gender Equality. A core focus of the UNDP’s work, the equality between men and women and the need to break the stigma around domestic violence, has become critical.

Partnering with CSOs and National Human Rights institutions, UNDP and UN sister agencies have implemented nationwide campaigns combating gender stereotypes and raising awareness of women, men, boys and girls in preventing violence against women and girls.

Gender Inequality was the next challenge to be tackled. For more than two decades now, with UNDP and UN sister agencies support, Gender Equality was enshrined in national legislation. UNDP worked side by side with the government to promote and enforce gender equality agenda in the country with its contribution to the adoption of new or amended policies and laws to bring them in line with international standards.

Unfortunately, violence against women and girls is another pandemic that has affected our society. During the last decade 36 local coordinated referral mechanisms are established and further strengthen that ensure effective integrated specialized support services to gender violence survivors. With UNDP support, LILIUM Center is the first state-run one stop center providing integrated support services to sexual violence victims setting forth a good model to be replicated in other regions in the country.

Medina Papoj, Local Coordinator against domestic violence, Municipality of Kavaje says: “UNDP’s interventions have helped create an enabling environment to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls through functional institutional response mechanisms at municipal level”.

By 2016, Albania had introduced the Justice Reform that would see an overhaul of every judicial institution and the vetting of all judicial staff. As a response, the UNDP developed programmes that ensured citizens had access to justice. Today, 8 free legal aid centers established by UNDP provide primary free legal aid to the most vulnerable segments of society.

Redrawing the Map and providing citizen-centric public services.

Albania was previously split into 384 municipalities, a significant number for such a small country. This created a high administrative burden, non-efficient functioning of local and national structures and ultimately made it more challenging for citizens to access services. The Administrative and Territorial Reform (STAR) backed by many international development partners under UNDP’s coordination led to a deep consolidation of Albania’s local government units. This saw the streamlining of the country into 61 municipalities. Currently UNDP is working with partners to strengthen local government units to provide better public services to citizens. UNDP also supported the Government of Albania with its priority reform of delivering innovative, accessible and qualitative citizen-centric public services through the Agency for the delivery of Integrated Services offices (ADISA). Currently there are 22 ADISA Offices. Of these, 13 are joint local through STAR and central service centers

Signing of STAR with national and international development partners

And the earth shook…

Throughout the years, Albania made significant progress in its social, economic, political, democratic, and overall human development. But as situation was improving, disaster struck.

On the morning of 26 November 2019, at approximately 03:54am, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck, not far from the city of Durres. As the sun began to rise and thousands of aftershocks rippled through the center of the country, the true scope of the devastation could be seen.

Fifty-one people lost their lives, including children and entire families. Hundreds were injured, and thousands left without a home overnight were put up in tents, hotels, and other forms of temporary accommodation. It was the worst disaster in Albania’s living memory, the repercussions of which will be felt for decades. UNDP mobilized resources, tools, and human capacities within 24 hours to help the authorities with the emergency. Together with its partners, UNDP contributed to the development of the Post Disaster Needs Assessment — the reference document for the donor conference that followed as well as the reconstruction priorities. Currently, UNDP, with EU financing, is repairing or rebuilding 63 education facilities across the 11 affected municipalities.

In the framework of a wider vision, and for the country to be prepared to face natural and man-made disasters, UNDP is cooperating with the Albanian Government to consolidate the strategic response and operational system for the reduction and management of disasters at central and local levels.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Layen and Prime Minister Edi Rama inaugurating KIndergarten “Europa” one of the 63 education facilities part of the #EU4Schools Programme

Wave after wave

Yet while the aftershocks were still coming, another challenge was brewing. On 9 March 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Albania. Over the following weeks, measures to prevent the spread of the virus grew progressively more stringent, and soon the country was on complete lockdown. For those working in hospitality, manual labor, customer-facing roles, and the informal economy, it was devastating. Thousands lost their jobs, and many small to medium enterprises worried about how they could survive. Vulnerable communities such as Roma and Egyptian, persons with disabilities, and women from impoverished backgrounds also struggled to access information, healthcare, and sanitary supplies.

In addition, the strain on the public health system was visible, and a lack of vital equipment caused widespread concern. The pandemic reminded us of the need for effective and inclusive social care, investment in people, removing barriers, and facilitating inclusion.

UNDP again responded to the needs of the Albanian government and mobilized to provide information and support to remote communities.

Thanks to the support of partners, thirty-one life-saving ventilators were purchased for use in the country’s COVID-19 hospitals, hygiene and food packs were delivered to vulnerable groups, and measures were put in place to help people transition back into employment.

“We are grateful for the partnerships that we have created over the years. We are grateful for the leadership and the ownership of the Government of Albania and its institutions. We are thankful for the trust and financing from the international development partners. We are also grateful for the collaboration of the National Parliament, civil society, private sector, academia, and the whole of society, as we could not have done it without any of you. We aim to continue walking together”-says Limya Eltayeb, UNDP Resident Representative.

Grateful to UNDP’s International Development Partners.

Over 30 years, UNDP has been on an incredible journey with Albania but it’s not over yet! UNDP will remain for as long as Albania says it needs it. Together it looks forward to a safe, secure, equal, and prosperous future.

Kosovo1:* References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) somewhere at the end of the video or at least (as per UNSC1244)