A recent survey found that Albania, while making some economic progress, is still the poorest country in Eastern Europe. The United Nations Development Program is working with Albania to set out specific targets for improving standards of living, health and education over the next 15 years.
Tirana, 15 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent survey shows that Albania, while making certain strides, is still firmly in the grip of poverty and corruption.
Official unemployment in the country is 14.4 percent and is likely to be even higher in the future. One out of every three Albanians lives in abject poverty, with half of this group earning less than a dollar a day.
Over half the population live in rural areas and are not allowed to register as unemployed, even if they move to urban locations and fail to find work there. Nearly a third of Albanian families live in poor-quality housing. One out of every three children in Albania suffers from malnutrition. The illiteracy rate stands at 12 percent.
The survey, under the guidance of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), was conducted by the Albanian Center of Economic Studies. Zef Preci, the center's director, says such statistics are the result of the emergence of new economic and social classes in postcommunist Albania: "I don't think it's any secret that a sort of financial oligarchy has been created in Albania, meaning that a small number of people have legally or illegally concentrated enormous wealth. This is due not to their skills, but to the law vacuum, their connections abroad, or political support. The middle class is now going through a phase of introduction, of distinguishing itself, and it does not have the dominance that it enjoys in countries with a developed market economy. I think this is one of the reasons why certain phenomena, like massive unemployment, are evident, and the progress of poverty reduction is so slow. It's clear that creating stability and much-desired economic growth is largely dependent on the development of the middle class."
Migration estimates suggest that nearly 15 percent of the Albanian population lives abroad. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, such Albanian emigrants send home some $600 million a year -- a figure that amounts to 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
The problem of poverty is exacerbated by poor governance and widespread corruption. A World Bank survey describes Albania as providing a "startling picture of systemic corruption that hurts public welfare, taxes private-sector activity, and is deeply institutionalized."
A recent corruption survey concluded that out of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, and the former federation of Yugoslavia, it is residents of Albania who are subjected to the greatest pressure from public officials to provide bribes and other forms of illegal compensation. Moreover, the survey adds, the problem is so deeply ingrained that most Albanians have come to look at corruption as an effective means of solving private problems.
Kalman Mizsei heads the UNDP's Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States bureau. He says that compared to other countries in his target region, Albania's situation is not so dire: "Nobody says that you have a perfect democracy, but you do have a democracy. Nobody says that you have a perfect market economy, but you do have the beginnings of a market economy. In Central Asia we have a grave deficit of pluralistic democratic societies, and in that light, in that comparison, it's even more striking how much better many countries in the Balkans, including Albania, perform these days."
Mizsei says despite the gloomy statistics that currently make up Albania's economic profile, there is cause for optimism in the Balkans overall: "It seems to me that the Balkans, after having had a very painful and costly decade of national conflicts, is now entering a period which will be characterized by an increasing alignment with the European Union, and also by an increasing internal cooperation of the Balkan nations. And I do hope that within Europe, in this decade, the Balkans will be the most dynamic region."
Mizsei's ambitions for Albania are slightly more modest. Laid out in a document called the Albanian Response to the Millennium Development Goals, the UNDP and the Albanian government propose concrete development aims to be achieved over the next 15 years.
First among the proposals is to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, as well as those suffering from hunger. The plan also aims to guarantee at least primary education for all Albanians and promote gender equality. Infant and maternal mortality rates have also been targeted as areas of concern, as has the spread of HIV/AIDS and the rise in human trafficking.
Other Millennium Development Goals include pressing the government to acknowledge and fight the spread of organized crime in the country. The systematic discrimination against minority groups like Roma is also targeted for improvement, as is the fight against drugs. Albania currently has no national strategy for stemming drug trafficking and drug use, despite indications that cannabis cultivation has become a standard form of livelihood in many rural areas.