Albania makes headway in battle to beat corruption and improve its image


In Albania, corruption has long been part of everyday life. People talk of taking a loved one to hospital and having to pay the doctor to get the best treatment, or of going to a property registration office and being asked to pay an extra “fee” to speed things up.

This culture of bribery has not only kept society’s most vulnerable from accessing vital services but has also damaged Albania’s international image. In a 2011 study, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Albanian citizens ranked corruption as the second most important problem after unemployment.

Since emerging from the decades-long dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who turned Albania into one of the world’s most isolated states, the Balkan country of 2.8 million people has struggled to deal with corruption and organised crime.

When he took office in 2013, Prime Minister Edi Rama, the one-time flamboyant mayor who oversaw the repainting of Tirana’s communist-era grey buildings, made it a priority to tackle corruption and improve Albania’s international standing.

The centre-left coalition government’s reforms have focused on improving administrative systems, enforcing the rule of law, and making it easier for people to report corruption.

Last February, the government launched an online anti-corruption portal to allow citizens to anonymously record instances of unscrupulous practices. The website covers 12 key areas, including police, health and customs.

Since then, 6,840 reports have been logged. Many of these involve complaints about poor service, but 777 cases directly relate to accusations of corruption, with 35 reports referred to prosecutors.

Rama insists Albania’s poor international reputation is based on exaggerated stereotypes rather than reality, but admits that combating corruption is key to changing perceptions. “To improve the image of a country, first you have to change the country itself,” he said. “I believe corruption becomes the alternative when a government is not able to serve its citizens in a transparent and efficient way. So we have to modernise, and modernisation is about reforms.”

Another anti-corruption programme involves text messages being sent to citizens to ask whether they had to pay a bribe when receiving treatment at state-run hospitals.

The scheme, run by the ministry of state for local issues and anti-corruption, and supported by the World Bank, was launched in March and has reached more than 33,000 people, about 20% of whom have provided feedback.

“The doctors are always late and the corruption continues as always. Without giving away money, no one takes care of you,” said one person. Another person, who had gone to a hospital in the city of Durres, was more positive: “I have been in hospital before, but this time you could feel the change. No one asked for a bribe.”

The World Bank has previously supported a similar programme in Pakistan.

“Low trust in government leads not only to informal means of obtaining services and less willingness to pay taxes, it also leads to lower resources for the government to provide public services, thus completing a vicious cycle of mistrust and corruption,” Jana Kunicova and Zubair Bhatti, public sector experts at the World Bank, wrote in a blog. “By proactively collecting citizen feedback and using it for management actions, this vicious cycle can be broken.”

In its 2011 survey, the UNODC said on average 28.3% of Albanians aged between 18 and 64 had been exposed, either directly or indirectly, to a bribery experience with a public official in the previous year. But it noted that about 30% of bribes paid were actually offered by citizens themselves.

Albania, which ranks 110th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perceptionsindex, joins a list of other countries using the internet to crack down on corruption, either through “naming and shaming” or by bringing bribery and other corrupt practices into the open.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting Albania’s anti-corruption drive. The country, which was given a ninth millennium development goal on good governance, is now piloting the governance indicator of the new sustainable development goals, which will frame development priorities until 2030.

Between June and December 2014, the project focused on identifying indicators relevant to Albania. The second phase, which ends in September, will implement systems to measure the indicators.

The UNDP says Albania recognises that reforms in good governance are essential if the country wants to achieve European Union membership. Many Albanians are optimistic that acceptance last year as an official membership candidate signals a new start for the former communist country.

“The governance indicators are very important for Albania’s EU integration and for strengthening the rule of law,” said the UN’s resident coordinator, Zineb Touimi-Benjelloun. “Controlling corruption and improving good governance remain a challenge here, but being a pilot country has proved to serve as a catalyst for the government to set up appropriate systems and improve service delivery.”

After the first phase of the pilot, about 20 indicators were proposed and grouped into three target areas: improvement in governance to meet EU standards by 2030; better service delivery, with a focus on water, electricity and land; and improved economic performance, using foreign direct investment as a measure.

Rama believes his government is moving in the right direction. “Albania suffered for many years from lack of reforms and badly made policies,” he said. “We have shown we can make positive changes but, of course, we have not solved all the country’s problems yet. Every month, we have something important scheduled to happen and, less than two years in, we are definitely where I hoped we would be.”

The Guardian          June 26, 2015