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Volunteers gain Albanian community's trust in reducing poverty
22 September 2004

Gabrice, Albania: Development officers pitching the Millennium Development Goals -- the eight universally agreed upon goals to reduce extreme poverty by half by 2015 -- to the people of this poor remote mountainous town did not exactly receive a rapturous welcome. As Agim Gjana, a 45-year-old villager recalls, there was more than a little skepticism when UNDP established a new community development organization designed to pursue the Goals.

"In the beginning people were dubious," says Mr. Gjana. "They considered organization meetings a waste of time. But gradually things changed."

Kadife Gjana, an elderly woman recalls telling Bukurosh Jonuzi, a UN Volunteer community development officer, "When you came for the first time to our village and talked about Millennium Development things or whatever, I did not trust you."

"When you talked about how to improve health and education for our children, I did not trust you. When you talked about how to protect nature, how to make government people work better, the same. I said in my mind: ‘This good boy is talking about things that need one thousand years to occur.’ But now I have drinkable water and electricity in my home. If you called me at 12 o’clock at night, I will get up to work. I know it is in my interest."

Water, electricity and enterprise

In Gabrice, which is in Kukes, the poorest region in a country where 14 per cent of the population, or 461,000 people, live on less that US $1 a day, one of the first discussions of the newly-formed association involved how to improve the supply of drinkable water in the village.

Mr. Jonuzi helped fashion the villagers’ ideas and suggestions into a project proposal, which in turn, was approved by the Bicaj Commune Authority and later by the Kukes Regional Council. UNDP provided the financial support, while the village provided the work force.

In less than half a year, almost every household in Gabrice has easy access to potable water in their homes. “Before,” Mr. Gjana says, “we had to walk one hour to get water for our cattle and sheep. As for drinking water for ourselves, we had to spend long hours queuing for some six or seven common drinking taps. Now we have 87 taps and almost each family in the village has its own.”

The community wanted more: “We wanted electricity for each family,” says Liman Bilali, a group member. “So we organized a meeting where it was decided to offer the labour of all village residents in order to get the project.”

The village residents dug a 4.5 km channel for a cable as part of the $10,000 project that resulted in a new electric transformer and power distribution cable that provides Gabrice with sufficient electricity. The villagers contributed 35 percent of the cost.

With access to electricity, Mr. Gjana, Mr. Bilali and the other community members decided to construct a mill for their corn, with the villagers covering all the costs. “We saw the benefit of working together in an organization,” says Mr. Gjana. “We found a common language and we do not need to spend days asking things from others and from central authorities in Tirana. We can do things by ourselves.”

Building consensus and a regional strategy

The initial skepticism encountered in Gabrice was shared by people in most of the other 51 towns and villages where UNDP has helped establish the programme, according to Mr. Jonuzi. "With time, they began to talk among themselves and set priorities for their villages’ needs. We prodded them to send these priorities to the Commune Council." These priorities were then used to set a regional development strategy.

Bhuvan Silwal, an International UN Volunteer and Regional Coordinator for the Kukes UNDP Local Governance Programme, says that the 51 community-based organizations, which took a year to establish, are working with communes, municipalities and the regional council to prioritize their needs and draft annual plans for intervention.

Much of the work occured as part of preparations for a regional Millennium Development Goals strategy. "For the first time in Albania, a region had a development strategy with clear objectives, intervention plans and costs calculated up to 2015," says Asllan Noka, chairman of Kukes Regional Council. And Isuf Omuri, an expert in the Development and Planning department of the Regional Council adds that for the first time, “we were able to calculate the Human Development Index at the commune level and this helped us to set our priorities.”

The Kukes Development Strategy also embodies the goals of the national government’s “Strategy for Social and Economic Development” as well as Albania’s EU integration targets.

Asking for more

West of Gabrice village lies Osmanaj, with 120 families. For many years, the village has had no medical centre. Naile Doxhani, the village midwife, used to provide her services at home, in inadequate conditions. One year ago the village community-based organization decided to set up a health centre.

Ms. Doxhani says that villagers collected five million Lek ($4,800) to buy an old house. “In the beginning,” she continues, “they were suspicious if this money would have served for anything. But the UNDP Local Governance Programme helped with the funding to reconstruct and refurbish our health centre.” The labour and expenses for the reconstruction work were provided from community members.

“Now all village women come here to get advice on pregnancy and on how to raise their babies better after the birth,” adds Ms. Doxhani. In the meantime, the centre is also serving as a kindergarten.

Not far from Osmanaj, in the village of Bicaj, work is under way to construct a kindergarten. Lulzim Brahaj, head of the Bicaj community group, who is helping with the kindergarten says, “I am able to mobilize 100 young people ready to work. All we need is some initial money. We know that UNDP will either help us directly or properly orient us. We can do a lot of things because many of us have different professions, such as bricklayer, carpenter, plumber or builder. Now that we have an organization to discuss our needs, we ask more from ourselves.”

Nature and philosophy

Entela Kerxhaliu is the best in her class at the Bicaj commune high school and she is also the chairperson of the school Green Club. “It all started from my classmates,” says Ms. Kerxhaliu. “The UNDP officer—everyone in Bicaj knows him—gave them the idea to organize a club to protect nature. They liked the idea.” Subsequently, she and her friends started an initiative for every student to plant a tree.

Now there are more than 200 trees around the school. “It all depends how you see your future: a glass of water half plenty or half empty,” continues Ms. Kerxhaliu. “And the future is in your hands when you see it half plenty.”

By: Fatos Çoçoli, freelance journalist, for UNDP Choices

From: UNDP Choices, September 2004