"I would frankly admit that Albania is a 'hidden jewel' in Europe, and what has struck me are the people, their hospitality, the natural beauties of the country from south to north, east and west," Mr, Brian Williams, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative has said.
In an exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News, Mr. Williams pointed out that it was an exciting time to be in Albania, where there is a dynamic environment as many, many critical reforms are underway. And the critical ones are being discussed in public such as for example, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and he thought that the biggest overall issue was trust in institutions most dramatically seen in the judicial reform and widespread perceptions of corruption.
"The judicial reform, including the vetting process, is a top priority, for it is the institution that guarantees the basis for that trust across all other institutions, public and private," said Ambassador Brian Williams in the following interview:
- Your Excellency, you have been in Albania for over a year now being the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in this Balkan country. In the first place, how do you find your position as UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative?
- It is a privilege to serve the United Nations which is the major foundation of the aspiration for peace based on human rights. Indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is relevant to everything that the United Nations does, from elections, to the rule of law, social inclusion, the right to a fair trial, even to social housing. These are exciting times to work at the United Nations as I believe that we are more relevant than ever, with human rights under fire in many places worldwide. The new Secretary General has focused on conflict prevention where one of the key principles is inclusiveness and the political power is not winner-take-all, but about guaranteeing a place in society for everyone.
In this frame I would say that it is especially an exciting time to be in Albania, where there is a dynamic environment as many, many critical reforms are underway. And the critical ones are being discussed in public such as for example, the rule of law, free and fair elections. But there also so many other reforms that can have a huge impact on the Albanian people like new laws on social protection and child rights; territorial reform, with the potential for enhanced local democracy; public administration reform, with the potential to build institutions that focus on delivering services, and not serving themselves; action plans on support to Roma and Egyptian communities; new policies on social inclusion, aiming to mainstream access to services to all Albanians; the promotion of women in many areas of government and society.
I should underline that Albania is privileged in so many ways because there is no legacy of conflict. This country has a range of natural resources, an entrepreneurial spirit and consistent economic growth rates as it is shown by indicators of relevant institutions.
- Last year UNDP celebrated 25 years of presence in Albania. How has UN’s partnership with Albania developed?
- Albania is dramatically different from 1991. And the United Nations has evolved alongside the Albanian people, their economy, and their different governments through this incredibly dynamic period. It is needless to talk about the 1990’s, but especially since 2000 the UN has tried to match the growing sophistication of the environment that Albania finds itself in by focusing on policy advice and facilitating partnerships that can help advance critical reforms.
Albania has seen remarkable progress in growth rates and poverty reduction since the early 90’s, and this has made that the UN increase focus on vulnerable groups, ensuring human rights for everyone, and on reducing inequalities.
The UN has organized itself along the ‘Delivering as One’ since 2007, when Albania was selected as a pilot for UN reform at country level. Albania is in the process of EU integration and there is increased focus on how our technical support can accelerate processes linked to the EU accession.
- It’s well known and appreciated the contribution of UN bodies, particularly of the UNDP, to Albania and its people. I have had the privilege to be Albania's focal point when the First Country Programme started to be implemented. How would you evaluate the progress of this country in this span of time? According to you, is there some good news, especially in the frame of improving the living conditions of the people?
- As I mentioned above Albania has enjoyed a high sustained rate of economic growth over the past several years and is a candidate country for EU accession. The country has made significant progress toward European Union integration, measured primarily in terms of meeting political criteria and establishing stable institutions that guarantee democracy, rule of law, human rights, protection of minorities, regional cooperation and good relations with enlargement countries and Member States.
It should be highlighted that a lot has improved for every day people in Albania: HDI value has steadily progressed over the years: from 0.656 in 2000 to 0.733 in 2015, putting the country in the High Development Category positioned 85th out of 188 countries. HDI specifically takes into account equality issues, so this is a good, broad measure. Poverty headcount ratio is significantly decreased to 14.3 % in 2012 compared to 25.4% in 2002. There has been progress on women’s empowerment, too: the Gender Inequality Index values 0.217 ranking 45th out of 155 countries compared to 0.367 in 2000. The 140-seat Albanian Parliament currently has a record number of 33 women MPs, accounting for 23.5 percent of total seats. Amendments to the Electoral Code resulted in a significant increase in women’s representation in the local elections of 2015. So women currently represent 34.7% of municipality councilors from 12.5% previously; there are nine women mayors among 61 mayors (15%), which is a significant step forward from 3 women heads among the former 385 local government units (0.7%). There are more women police. There is a General in the armed forces, for the first time, that is a woman. On the other hand there are many women Ministers. In the meantime Albania marked a considerable improvement in its performance on the global education benchmark, PISA, with a scoring of 415 in 2015 compared to 384 in 2009.
And politically too, although the atmosphere can be quite charged, there has been consistent improvement if things are seen over the longer run. Elections seem to register incrementally higher marks from observers each cycle. Territorial reform holds out a huge potential for increasing local democracy. And of course over the last two years there has been a tremendous push for judicial reform.
And some significant steps are hard to see from day to day, but they could be critical for the long run. For example, Albania is one of 1st countries to ratify the Paris agreement on climate change, setting its own targets to reduce emissions. There are, of course, many challenges, but sometimes I think it’s good to look back over a longer period – 5 or 10 years – and recognize how much has been achieved.
- As a follow up which are the challenges the country is being faced with?
- I think that the biggest overall issue is trust in institutions most dramatically seen in the judicial reform and widespread perceptions of corruption. The judicial reform, including the vetting process, is a top priority, for it is the institution that guarantees the basis for that trust across all other institutions, public and private.
But trust can be built by government in many, many ways. And just to mention some such as:
- new mechanisms for client-orientation in government offices, such as the new centre in Kavaja, can build trust;
- increased transparency around government, around budgets, with data, can build trust, and it is the example of Tirana;
- seeing more women in leadership positions can build trust, demonstrating that the Government is working to serve all citizens;
- vocational and education training that is focused on job placement and the real employment market can help build the trust of parents;
- national and municipal Governments respecting the rights of Roma, or of people of all sexual orientations, can send a signal that Government will not tolerate discrimination;
- taking clear long-run decisions that extend beyond the mandate of any single government – for example by taking bold measures to protect the environment and Albania’s beautiful spaces – can help build trust;
- the successful functioning of the new Authority on the "Sigurimi" files offers another huge opportunity to build trust within a population that suffered under a brutal dictatorship for decades – a dictatorship that left little for the new, free Albanian republic to build upon except a legacy of distrust and hollow institutions that served only their own purposes.
We also advocate investments in people, in social infrastructure. Understandably, there is much emphasis on transport and other critical urban and rural infrastructure. But this needs to be balanced as well with investments in people. For example investments in education and health both are at about 3% of GDP, whereas averages for the OECD are more than 6% of GDP. We believe that investments in people, through social services, the creation of opportunities, women’s employment training for example not only meet people’s rights, but have economic and social payoffs just as does physical infrastructure.
So of course many critical development challenges remain: poverty reduction has stalled since 2008, youth unemployment rate has been declining but it stands at 30 %, and more than half of Albanian women (aged 15-49) have experienced at least one form of domestic violence in their lifetime.
- How are the UN and its entire system helping Albania cope with the challenges as Albania is still considered as a country in the transition process?
- In October of last year we signed our new 5- year Programme with the Government of Albania called “Programme of Cooperation for Sustainable Development” which brings together 17 UN agencies and Programmes to help the country in its key national priorities. Eight of them are resident. The 17 participating agencies bring their distinct expertise and skills in the implementation of the programme.
The programme is built around four pillars and one foundation. The foundation is gender equality – applicable across all four of the pillars - firstly, on Governance and Rule of Law; secondly, Social Inclusion and Human Rights; thirdly, Youth Employment and Skills; and fourthly, Environment (Climate Change, Protected Areas). The programme is in line with Albania’s EU accession agenda and with the country’s ambitious reform efforts, Sustainable Development Goals, National Strategy for Development and Integration. Through partnerships, we aim to deliver more than $100m over 5 years.
- Can you highlight some of the results under the previous programme?
- I have travelled across the country and it has been fantastic to meet people who have benefitted from our programmes, such as farmers affected by floods, Roma people who can’t have proper access to services, women who have been victims of domestic violence, juveniles in conflict with the law and I could go on and on. I am glad to confirm that the assistance provided by the UN has been beneficial to them. Of course our assistance is much larger.
I would like to be concrete and provide some facts. For instance, UN Women has strongly advocated for a Gender-based budgeting. It is great news to see that more than Euros 80m are focused specifically on gender-equality issues, across most Ministries of the Government. In the area of education, last year UNICEF assisted an initiative to train all the 1st and 6th grade teachers of Albania; and this year UNESCO has been helping to , undertake an education policy review.
A joint programme – involving UNDP, UNFPA and UN Women, focused on developing community referral mechanisms against domestic violence at Municipal level led to many more cases of violence against women being reported, an indicator of increased trust that women have to turn to the authorities. Just to give you an indicator during 2016, there were 4136 cases of domestic violence reported to police compared to around 3000 during 2015.
In the past few years, we have been working with the Minister of Local Governance for the historic reform of Albania’s territorial administration joining efforts to transform some 380 local government units into 61 functional municipalities. With the Minister of Social Welfare and Labor UNDP is assisting the Government to implement the VET Reform in Albania and at the same time supporting and promoting self-employment and entrepreneurship spirit of the Albanian Youth. And ILO is working on normative labor standards.
UNDP and the UN Environment Programme are working and have plans to work on energy efficiency and land preservation, and UNDP and UNESCO are working on protected areas and partnerships with local authorities for shared responsibility when it comes to natural assets. Our support has also gone to renewable energy agenda of the country and mainstreaming approaches to climate change. This culminated in the ratification of the Paris Agreement by the Albanian Parliament-with UNDP support.
UNHCR has been assisting Government’s efforts to strengthen asylum procedures in line with European norms and human rights standards. Many UN agencies are working with line Ministries and local authorities so that Roma populations, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged populations, have access to much needed social services. For example, IOM supported the Ministry of Interior to prepare the first action plan for socio- economic reintegration of victims of trafficking
WHO helped assist with the development of a new National Health Strategy. Only some days ago, The Albanian Parliament approved the "Law on the Rights and Protection of the Child", which ensures alignment with international child rights norms and standards, and reinforces the multi- sector work of the entire Government towards child rights and child protection. UNICEF in Albania supported the Government of Albania in the process of drafting of the Law.
Even for cannabis, UNODC has sent down a mission to see if there are ways to support the national strategy; UNODC already works to improve container control at Durres port. Of course for all of these results we work in partnership – with Government, with civil society, but also with the EU and bilateral partners like Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, the US, Turkey as well as others.
- Would you be so kind to let the readers of Albanian Daily News know how are the funds monitored by you in order that they can be used efficiently to accomplish their targets? I put this question because the phenomenon of corruption is really a worrying issue in Albania.
We have one single, joint annual report, which provides full transparency of how funds are spent. We have systems of internal and external audits. For example last year UNDP carried out a multi-year Assessment of Development Results. So there are globally controlled systems and regular audits. The International Aid Transparency Index in 2016 has rated UNDP as number 1 and UNICEF as number 3 in the world.
- In 2015, world leaders including Albania adopted Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. What needs to be done in and outside of Albania to attain the goals and what is UN’s role? How is the UN helping Albania achieve this agenda by 2030?
- Agenda 2030 – the Sustainable Development Goals – marks a huge leap forward in terms of global commitment to making a difference to the billions of people currently sharing planet earth, and those who will inherit it in coming generations: In the first place it is universal. It means European countries are part of the agenda too. Secondly, it incorporates the environment. There will no longer development vs the environment. Thirdly, it takes into account the impact of governance – the rule of law – on development. To focus on Albania. The point of SDGs is not to make a whole new programme. Rather, to look at all existing ambitions and plans like the Governments’ National Strategy for Development and European Integration; all the efforts and underway to join the European Union, and see how these efforts are contributing to the core social goals to which the globe has committed. Are their gaps in current development plans? Which areas are moving more slowly and could merit increased assistance?
We are assisting the Prime Minister’s Office to undertake a baseline report as a first step; also helping them to develop a national plan. But this national plan will not create a duplicate programme, rather it will require existing mechanism to use the SDGs to examine their work.
A key aspect of the SDGs is the extent to which they are inter-related, inter-linked: for example, education; women’s empowerment; health care; good jobs; the environment. All of these require that Albania’s institutions should work together in full trust. And this is not a questions of just the government, but also of the civil society, the private sector etc.
Another key element is data. Achieving SDGs will require close monitoring, especially at the municipal level, so that issues or regions that are lagging can be further assisted. Data should be disaggregated – which groups are not progressing as much as they should? Are programmes reaching women as they should? And of course we will need our partners: The SDG agenda is much more integrated, ambitious and comprehensive compared to the Millennium Development Goals Agenda. It is imperative that the Line ministries work more closely with one another beyond their everyday mandates, to achieve integration of the SDGs into their national programmes and interventions. To achieve the goals broad coalitions are needed with several partners such as the private sector, civil society, parliament, local government and people themselves whose life is affected tremendously by the achievement of the goals. To improve the monitoring of indicators and strengthen statistical capacity in Albania, including the integration of the SDGs into the 5 year statistical programme, we have established a closer partnership with INSTAT.
To conclude I would frankly admit that Albania is a 'hidden jewel' in Europe, and what has struck me are the people, their hospitality, the natural beauties of the country from south to north, east and west.