by Jackie DeFusco, Antonio Cakshiri and Denis Tahiri
This story is the first in a series produced by reporter-fellows participating in an exchange program between the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism in Tirana.
A young Ekrem Bardha fled Albania in June 1953 when it was under Communist control and eventually ended up in the United States. It was there, in the Detroit, Michigan area, that he amassed a fortune by investing in 18 McDonald’s fast food franchises.
But Bardha never forgot his native land. In the U.S., Bardha has advocated for Albania among the powerful in Washington and played a crucial role in making the country’s politicians aware of the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo under the control of what was then Yugoslavia.
After the fall of Communism, he returned in 1990 with his daughter Donika to open one of the first privately-owned, fine dining restaurants in Tirana and then eventually a successful vineyard.
“He’s always trying to improve the image of the county…to convince people to come back and invest,” says Donika.
Despite their efforts, the Bardha family is still the exception to the rule. Today, one third of Albania’s 1991 population lives outside of the country’s borders, forming one of the largest diasporas of any European country.
But only a tiny fraction of Albanians has chosen to engage with their homeland, despite some studies that have found doing so could have a significant impact on the country’s economic development.
“It’s like a human body. If you’re only using 75 percent of your body then you’ll never operate at 100 percent capacity,” said Mark Kosmo of the U.S.-based Massachusetts Albanian American Society.
The Albanian government recently launched its first concerted effort to harness the diaspora’s human and financial capital, including the creation of the Ministry of Diaspora, tasked with overseeing the project, in September 2017.
But a one-month investigation by the Albania Center for Quality Journalism and the U.S.-based New England Center for Investigative Reporting has found that the ministry has routinely neglected to meaningfully and consistently consult the very population it’s supposed to represent during the policy-making process.
Collaboration on new legislation was too little, too late
“It’s unfair to make policy regarding diaspora without any diaspora present at the table,” says Liza Gashi, co-founder of a nonprofit diaspora organization, based in Pristina, Kosovo, called Germin.
Gashi says the group seeks to facilitate dialogue among the global Albanian community using a virtual registry of diaspora organizations and task forces. The goal, Gashi says, is “to create a two way street of communication, rather than the one way street we’ve had in the past.”
After a three-day conference in Pristina in late May, Germin released a comprehensive list of recommendations for the creation of a consultative council. Gashi says this document was the result of one of seven task forces that have been regularly exchanging ideas since September of 2017.
The proposal envisions the council as a decision-making body independent of the government, provisionally appointed by Germin’s task force in collaboration with diaspora ministries of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia but ultimately elected by the global Albanian diaspora alone.
Minister of Diaspora Pandeli Majko attended the recent conference but Kosmo, who is involved in Germin, accuse him of bypassing their recommendations in favor of a more bureaucratic approach.
This comes after Majko signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the organization earlier this year, which was widely seen as a commitment to collaborate on a variety of diaspora projects, including the creation of the consultative council.
Instead of adapting Germin’s proposal, the Ministry of Diaspora established its own legislative framework in early June for the creation of consultative council, an institutional body of 13 civilian advisors chosen from countries with concentrated Albanian diaspora. The council will identify problems related to their unique populations and propose solutions to the Minister of Diaspora, the Prime Minister and government leaders in their countries of residence.
The new law, approved by the Council of Ministers, says Albania’s ambassadors will collaborate with local diaspora leaders to nominate the best candidates. Majko can also nominate individuals and, along with the Council of Ministers–rather than the diaspora–has the final say on who is chosen.
Kosmo takes issue with the top-down nomination and confirmation process, though he praised the law as highly detailed. He worries it may be seen as an extension of the government, rather than an independent body with the best interest of the diaspora in mind.
“I know that there exists concerns or reserves because this the first experience that we are doing such a thing and these kinds of things are not a closed debate…this would be a great mistake for us,” Majko said in an interview, vowing to work closely with Germin.
Majko says he does not support the council being an independent body, now or in the foreseeable future, due to the different levels of diaspora organization country-to-country.
Gashi met with Majko in-person on June 8th, after the law was approved. She says Majko verbally promised to incorporate some of Germin’s policy recommendations. A question and answer session with the minister and diaspora members is currently being planned for late June, Gashi says.
In his 25 years of working on diaspora issues, Kosmo says there has consistently been a lack of consultative culture. “It’s hard to be frustrated at this point because I’m so used to it,” Kosmo says.
A history of hollow engagement
In 2013, the Albanian government approached researchers at Harvard University for advice on how to improve its economy. They recommended that the Albanian government create a Ministry of Diaspora.
Harvard’s 2015 survey of nearly 900 Albanian-Americans found that the diaspora was eager to stay in touch with their home country. Over half of survey respondents were already involved in Albanian community organizations in the U.S. but there was still no institutionalized channel to connect these groups across state and national borders. It was in this context that Germin’s virtual network was launched and widely considered cutting edge.
After being rescheduled several times, invitations were eventually sent out just one month before the agreed upon date. Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for International Development Research Fellow Ljubica Nedelkoska says the event might have been more successful if it was planned further in advance but it did attract over 800 diaspora members from about 40 countries.
“You could see that there was a lot of energy and people really needed to talk,” Nedelkoska says, “Albanians abroad have never really gotten the chance to have the conversations that they wanted to have with the government.”
Looking back, Kosmo says the three-day summit was half show, half substance:
“The show is fine, it’s like opening day for the season, but it’s what happens after that matters,” he noted.
Kosmo was disappointed with the lack of follow up after the summit. He says the creation of the Ministry of Diaspora in November 2017, a year later, was the first sign that the government might continue to take the issue of diaspora seriously.
But problems persisted.
Kosmo wrote an email, nearly three thousand words long, to then newly appointed Majko in November 2017, strongly suggesting the creation of a working group that would regularly collaborate on the creation of Albania’s six year National Diaspora Strategy.
“It is best if the National Diaspora Strategy is finalized together with the input of the Albanian Diaspora. It should not be done by the government with the Albanian Diaspora commenting, but rather as a joint product,” he wrote.
He also recommended that the minister seek out donor financing to support the travel of this group to Tirana in early 2018 to kickstart the policy consultation.
Majko responded, thanking him for his attention to the strategy and saying he would contact him if he had any further questions.
Absent any additional response from Majko, Kosmo wrote a follow-up letter in February 2018, jointly signed by over 200 members of the Albanian diaspora, many of them actively involved in Germin. It argued that past public-private partnerships on diaspora have been too informal and insufficient.
The group came up with a comprehensive list of questions, reinforced their interest in the creation of a working group and defined seven areas of expertise where the diaspora could be of assistance.
Kosmo says the minister did not respond, though many of these points were discussed informally when Majko visited Boston, Massachusetts later that month.
Three months later, in May, the Council of Ministers approved the Ministry of Diaspora’s six-year strategy and action plan. But absent any formal collaboration with the diaspora, Kosmo considers it a rough draft at best.
When asked by the Centers’ reporters why he didn’t create a diaspora working group, Majko did not provide a specific explanation. He pointed out that his action plan specifically allows for the diaspora to give input for strategy alterations at annual summits, the first of which cost the government about 18,000,000 lekë or around 166 thousand dollars, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Kosmo thinks communication on a daily or weekly basis is a necessity to create a good action plan.
Before the diaspora is formally engaged in the policy process, Kosmo thinks a second summit, currently planned for November 2018, is premature.
Face-to-face communication v. fiscal responsibility
Over the past nine months, Majko has spent substantial time meeting with community organizations and individuals face-to-face in countries with concentrated diaspora.
Majko says hearing the ideas of the diaspora in these informal meetings is essential for building a new chapter of relations. “It’s very important. It’s not an issue of resources,” he says.
Albanian-American community leaders say some of these trips were planned at the last minute, forcing them to scramble to accommodate the minister.
In Clearwater, Florida, the Albanian Business and Professional Network (ABPN), says it was notified two weeks in advance of Majko’s visit.
The minister’s trip to Houston, Texas was also organized at the last minute, the exact date confirmed just 72 hours before the event. About 50 people attended on such short notice in an area with an estimated 1,700 Albanians.
The Prime Minister’s office, which currently oversees the budget of the Ministry of Diaspora, failed to respond to a request, filed under the law for the right to public information, for a detailed breakdown of the budget and Majko’s travel expenses.
An official budget, which Minister Majko says is not yet “functionable,” was found online for the “Agency of Diaspora and Migration,” it lists the total 2018 budget for the ministry at about 17,000,000 lekë or around $160 thousand. About 70 percent of that budget is being spent on salaries and benefits for five employees, leaving just under 5,400,000 lekë (around $50 thousand) for what’s listed as operations and miscellaneous costs.
Multiple sources aware of the ministry’s operations, including Kosmo, Nedelkoska and Richard Lukaj, an Albanian diaspora philanthropist living in the United States, attribute the slow pace of progress to a meager budget and small full-time staff.
Lukaj says these travels, dedicated to information gathering and sharing, are appropriate for an unprecedented ministry still trying to focus their efforts.
Albanian-American community leaders in Florida and Texas say Majko has yet to follow up after his visits, which, so far, have not produced tangible results.
Success requires a shift
One question raised during the minister’s meeting in Florida, was what can diaspora groups do to influence politics at home.
“The impression I received was they’re not really looking for opinions and thoughts on how to change things, more like just people who will start funding,” says Veton Krasniqi, Vice President of ABPN.
Kosmo says investment is generally the first thing the minister emphasizes to the diaspora during his travels. It should be the last, in Kosmo’s opinion.
Harvard’s 2015 survey of nearly 900 Albanian-Americans found that investment was the least popular means of engagement among the Albanian-American diaspora.
More than 95 percent of respondents said corruption was their main concern about doing business in their native country.
Harvard’s Nedelkoska says one key lesson from their early examination of diaspora in the U.S. is that people are inherently mistrustful of any Albanian government, not just the current administration.
“The way to break that…is to show transparency,” she says. “The government needs to be able to communicate well. They need to actually be consistent and they need to follow up on their promises.”
By participating in focus groups and conducting surveys, Gashi has learned that Albanians abroad want as little government involvement in diaspora projects as possible. Kosmo believes people are more likely to invest in Albanian businesses if a non-profit channel for direct investment was created by a non-governmental organization like Germin. That’s why the group also dedicated a task force towards creating a philanthropy action plan.
One result that many hope will emerge from the diaspora effort is a sharing of skills and expertise from those living abroad with those living in Albania.
Nedelkoska says Albania’s “binding constraint” is a serious lack of know how: practical skills she considers more valuable than knowledge in a developing economy. She says it’s critical that the government focus on building networks that move Albania’s highly skilled diaspora towards the country, either physically or virtually.
Educational and professional exchanges happen to be the ways the diaspora is most willing and able to engage, according to Harvard’s survey.
“It’s more important that they nurture this relationship so that the Albanian doctors can learn from the doctors in Massachusetts and the entrepreneurs can learn from the entrepreneurs in New York,” Nedelkoska says.
Majko says his ministry is in the early stages of planning projects that address this need and capacity.
Germin has dedicated task forces to both of these areas. Gashi says the organization plan to share their finalized recommendations with the ministry in late June.
Despite the complaints of diaspora leaders, the popular sentiment surrounding this new ministry is one of unprecedented optimism.
Eva Millona, an Albanian immigrant who now serves as the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, is among the majority of Albanian-Americans interviewed for this article who believe Majko was a good choice to run this ministry.
She says Albanians in Massachusetts, home to the most highly educated diaspora in the U.S., according to Harvard’s statistical profile, are excited to see this ministry take shape. “There is a great opportunity for the diaspora to have a voice and to support the betterment of the region,” she says, “A budget is one thing but vision and commitment to making it work is another thing.”
“My dream is [for] the diaspora to be seen,” Majko says, “ We are working with human beings, with people, and if we have an understanding of them, we [will] be successful.”
Full interview with the Minister for Diaspora, Pandeli Majko (In English):
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism in Tirana sponsored this report and other stories in this series, reported and produced together by emerging journalists from the United States and Albania and edited by NECIR Co-Founder Joe Bergantino. The U.S. Department of State provided financial support for the student exchange program.