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Albania: Experts Question Effectiveness Of NGOs

The concept of civil society is relatively new in Albania and, after 50 years of communism and forced collectivization, people are finding it difficult to accept the role of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Donors, largely from abroad, have shaped local NGOs in accordance with their own priorities, which Albanians say are often different from the local realities. Alban Bala of RFE/RL's Albanian Unit filed this report.

Tirana, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The number of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, active in Albania is estimated to be in the thousands. Many were established during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia three years ago, when more than 350 domestic organizations -- offering food, medicine, and counseling services -- applied for funds at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mission in Tirana. Specialists at the Albanian Ministry of Labor and Social Assistance say the number of NGOs may be as high as 3,000.

But the concept of civil society is still poorly understood in Albania, and many of the NGOs do not have a clear idea about how they should function. Despite their large numbers, the NGOs' impact on daily life is limited.

Capajev Gjokutaj is the executive director of the Soros Foundation in Tirana. His organization has played a key role in trying to promote civil society in Albania.

He said that 50 years of communism and forced collectivization are still influencing people's thinking. But he also said the ways in which NGOs function in Albania -- competing with each other for limited resources -- has limited their appeal to the general public.

"I find that the historic roots of civil society in Albania are weak, owing to the feeble representation [of the past]. There's no need to go back in time very far. Under communism, we had a chain of organizations which pretended to be representative, but this representation was a farce. Perhaps this experience is still influencing us. On the other hand, if we see the problem from today's perspective, in my opinion, there are several reasons why NGOs appear closed to the general population. [NGOs] are only funded by foreign donors, but there are not enough donors to satisfy all the NGOs' needs. There is a wild competition, and the limited resources lead NGOs into narrow schemes," Gjokutaj said.

Ilira Gjika heads Legal Clinics for Minors, an NGO that is helping to reintegrate and rehabilitate minors with short-term prison convictions. She said that, in a bid to attract funding, NGOs frequently imitate each other's programs -- often without paying attention to the needs they are serving.

"My opinion is that these 'ready-for-use' models are used indiscriminately in all areas, Muslim and Christian, in urban areas, as well as backward rural regions. They are not our models. It's not us who shaped them. These prefabricated models are, in my view, the main obstacle to communication -- the creation of this community. If we go on imitating each other, then we won't be building [society], but rather we'll go on destroying ourselves," Gjika said.

But she also said it's unfair to say that NGOs have been completely unsuccessful in Albania. She said blaming NGOs for poor results is unfair, given the enormous tasks that are expected of them.

"I can't say the NGOs have had no benefit. It's not true. Also, no one can say they have fully accomplished their mission, for when one thing is over, 10 other duties come up, 10 other requests," Gjika said.

Aldo Bumci of the Albanian Institute for International Studies said the main problem is a misguided vision among those -- mainly foreigners -- who finance the projects.

"When one speaks of civil society in Tirana, one finds out that there are no popular movements, but rather institutions -- a sort of bureaucracy. [Here,] the civil society does not mean popular movements. How did the women's associations set themselves up without an [indigenous] feminist movement? They were fashioned according to the [availability of] foreign donors' funds, which were intended to have them develop movements out of the associating process. But communism destroyed the capabilities for collective movements," Bumci said. Experts say the future of NGOs in Albania remains largely contingent on the country's developing a stable middle class to sustain and support them.