TIRANA - It is a beautiful Saturday morning in Tirana city center. It is 10H51 and I am already sitting down in the ground floor cafeteria of Tirana International, one of the city’s best hotels. I have ordered a large illy macchiato and a small bottle of Pellegrino sparkling water, for which I will only pay 370 Lek or under 3 Euro, a bargain breakfast which shows the tourism potential of perhaps the European Union’s next member.
I left the Ministry of Transportation at 10H37 where its General Secretary Eduart Seitaj has welcomed me for 35 minutes in an unusually busy morning for the talented Albanian. The 37 year old University of Tirana law graduate was appointed General Secretary in the Ministry two years back after a successful career as attorney at law. He is sharp and diligent and shows he is extremely familiar with the issues and topics at stake. Off the record, civil engineering authorities confirm his appointment is a plus for the sector. The General Secretary in Albanian governance is the highest technical public servant in every Ministry. There is one General Secretary per Ministry. Mr Seitaj confirms that there are only three General Secretaries younger than him in Albania, he is a rather young and accomplished young gentleman.
Under transport infrastructure the general rule of thumb is to include roads and railroad, airports, ports and sometimes water and electricity transportation networks. Albania faces the usual challenges any developing country has to tackle given its current state and stage of development. Many indicators point out Albania’s current reality. Only three days ago the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland) published this year’s issue of the World Competitiveness Report. Out of 140 countries Albania ranks 93 in the general ranking, 83 in transport infrastructure and 87 in electricity and telephony infrastructure.
I landed in Tirana (Albania) on 30-August-2015. During the month of September I have been able to eyewitness some of the country’s major infrastructure challenges. Traffic in the city centers is jammed and chaotic. Bypasses roads are lacking. Signaling is usually deficient and driver’s behavior lousy and undisciplined. Tirana is an emerging major city which population has tripled in the past 20 years. I have driven by car to the country’s extreme south, including going through the cities of Durres, Vlore and Sarande. I have ridden a bus from Tirana to Pristina in Kosovo back and forth. The mix of old, vintage and modern is exceptional. Sometimes I feel I am driving on a German highway, sometimes infrastructure seems to belong in a more challenged developing country in Subsaharan Africa.
General Secretary Eduart Seitaj adds that his Ministry’s priorities are road maintenance and safety in view of the country’s still high road casualties ratios. Road safety is a major issue because traffic related casualties are usually the number one cause of death in developing countries. In 2013 The World Health Organization published its Global Status Report On Road Safety. Albania ranks 71 in the World in “Road Fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants per year” in between Argentina and Costa Rica and only five spots above the United States. The safest countries in the World in what regards driving and traffic safety continue to be Scandinavian. When it comes to enforcement the World Health Organization confirms that Albania has introduced legislation that makes the use of safety belts and motorcycle helmets mandatory for drivers and all passengers. There is also a national speed limit, a penalty/demerit point system in place and a national drink-driving law. 62% of riders wear the seat-belt in front seats, but only 2% of passengers wear seat-belt in rear seats. 65% of motorcycle riders wear a helmet, but only 40% of motorcycle passengers wear a helmet. Law enforcement is mild and can be largely improved particularly when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol and wearing helmets.
Albania must improve its infrastructure. In order to do so the country must ameliorate its credentials particularly in what regards its ability to attract foreign direct investment. In order to do Albania must overcome some of the challenges identified by the international institutions. In October 2014 the World Bank release its report “Doing Business 2015” quoting “Albania makes significant improvements in three areas of Business Regulatory Reform” which include: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, and registering property. The country moved up an incredible 40 slots from 108 to 68 in the past year alone. Bravo! Santander one of the world’s leading retail banks reminds foreign investors about Albania’s weakness, stressing that “the main hindrance to foreign direct investment development has been the dominance of personal relations over the law and legal procedures: competition is rarely fair and in reality far remove from the legal decisions, corruption exists and despite efforts to fight it, it remains one of Albania’s major problems”.
The Second Road Congress in Albania took place on 24-25 September 2015 organized by the Albanian Association of Consulting Engineers (AACE). The congress ‘main objectives include: requesting more rigorous implementation of standards in road design and construction; introducing the latest technologies and solutions in road design and construction; and introducing the possible platforms for a professional self-financed regulatory body for the roads sector in Albania.
A week later I pay a visit to the AACE Headquarters and meet with its President Dr Faruk Kaba and AACE Coordinator Civil Engineer Ira Kadare. Dr Kaba founded AACE in 2001 and has remained its President ever since. AACE is the only FIDIC approved association in Albania and represents the interests of Consulting Engineers from all branches of activity. Dr Kaba also founded his own consulting services and advisory firm in 1991, InfraTransProject Ltd., the leading firm in consulting, design and supervision of infrastructure projects in Albania with an impressive and successful track record since its creation.
I meet with Dr Kaba at Tirana International on Friday 2-October-2015. The ever smiling President walks me to his pristine black VW Golf car which is waiting for us at the entrance of the Hotel. His driver rides the car and four minutes and 1.2 kilometers later we arrive in the AACE Headquarters, located on the first floor of an office building in a humble neighborhood of Tirana west of Tirana International on Rruga Qemal Stafa 132. Dr Kaba is the number one authority on infrastructure and civil engineering in Albania. He is a civil engineer, an architect and holds a doctorate from the Polytechnic University of Tirana. At 70 years old he is as energetic, active and enthusiastic as the first day. After three hours together he calls me “his friend”. No doubt Albania is perhaps Europe’s friendliest republic. “I am also your friend, Dr Kaba”, I think to myself. Albania ranks the number one European country in happiness according to the latest date from The Happy Planet Index (http://www.happyplanetindex.org/data/), hard to believe when one approaches Albania from abroad, extremely obvious after only one month’s residency in the beautiful republic once the World’s most radical Maoist communist regime. By the way the overall index “ranks countries based on their efficiency, how many long and happy lives each produces per unit of environmental output”.
It was precisely during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship that Albania built its railroad network. At the time Albanians could not afford owning cars and roads were very underdeveloped. According to the Albania’s Institute of Statistics, Railroad passengers peaked at 4 022 000 in 1994, twenty years later in 2013 the number of passengers had radically fallen to a meager 329 000.
We sit down in the main conference room of AACE. I am backing the window, in front of me I have Dr Kaba and AACE Coordinator Ira Kadare sitting next to each other. We speak for two hours. My insight about Albanian infrastructure increases at the speed of light. Dr Kaba offers me a macchiato and a small bottle of water.
I ask Mr Seitaj and Dr Kaba why railroad infrastructure is so poor and not a priority as it is in many other more developed countries. Mr Seitaj reminds me that except for high speed trains, railroad transportation is usually subsidized and in what regards merchandise, roads are way more efficient and cost-effective. Dr Kaba acknowledges that prosperity is enabling Albanians to buy and use private cars, which they could not during Enver Hoxha’s tight regime. The number of cars in Albania was a mere 7 000 in 1991. Today this figure has almost reached a half million. Driving is so chaotic and lousy because Albanians have started driving only recently.
Dr Kaba is concerned with transparency and corruption in public works contracting and project management. I remind him that once Albania successfully joins the European Union as it is projected will happen in the forthcoming years, an influx of Structural Funds will flood the country’s arks. He reminds me that the Albanian government must welcome and promote FIDIC-type contracts which guarantee that the emergence of corruption and bribery will be minimized. FIDIC is the International Federation of Consulting Engineers. FIDIC contracts abide by the organization’s code of ethics and comply with a strict set of guidelines regarding business integrity.
I ask Dr Kaba about the quality of engineering education in Albania. Before 1993 the Polytechnic University of Tirana was the only university granting engineering degrees. Since then the emergence of a myriad of private universities many of which of very poor quality and caliber, has deteriorated the standard of education which ironically was perceived as much better and rigorous during the times of communism. There might be as many as 10 000 engineers in Albania. AACE enlists about one thousand.
In 2011 Transparency International evaluated progress made in the fight against corruption in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Turkey. The report identifies one of Albania’s challenges in that “parliamentary decisions are often made behind closed doors and without consultation. It is common not to hold meetings with civil society and other interested groups when measures are up for discussion. This is due to the fact that draft laws are not published and access to them takes time, despite a general access to information law that has been in place since 1999”.
It’s time to go. Dr Kaba rapidly shows me his firm’s facilities and introduces me to the entire team including his son the manager and administrator of the company, and the remainder of the staff mostly consisting of experienced civil engineers. I asked Dr Kaba if he recommends speaking to any other authority on the subject at stake. He suggests I should speak to the country’s best-known environmentalist Dr Sazan Guri. One day later on Saturday 3-October-2015 I am waiting for Dr Guri at The Sheraton Hotel cafeteria where I usually order a macchiato and a small bottle of Pellegrino sparkling water, both at a cost of 450 Lek slightly higher than at Tirana International but always a bargain provided this is a five star Hotel, perhaps Tirana’s trendiest and most exclusive. Great personalities must be interviewed at great venues in spite of the very modest budget I run. Of course I will invite Dr Guri to whatever he wishes to order, to find out wait until the end of the chronicle.
Dr Guri’s assistant shows up at 17H20. Her name is Kriss Tirana. The beautiful Albanian is completing her degree in Architecture and is supporting Dr Guri in his efforts to promote civil society participation in public and political debates. Ms Tirana confirms Dr Guri will be arriving slightly late because he is heading back from Shkodra where he has intermediated between civil society and a mining contractor.
Dr Guri ran as candidate for the Tirana Municipality in the recent June 2015 elections with his movement “European Ecological Alliance”. He obtained 1.1% of the popular vote. In his plan for mayor he incorporated a set of proposals to bring about more involvement of civil society in the decision making process of the political establishment. Dr Guri understands that involvement of civil society was negligible during Enver Hoxha’s communist regime. He even justifies a minor involvement during Albania’s first years of democracy. He remains however astonished by today’s immobility which he presumes has to do with the fact that certain stakeholders at the governmental and corporate levels may be extracting a benefit from the lack of public accountability in the signature of energy and infrastructure contracts. His original mindset philosophy includes respect towards the thousands of abandoned dogs wandering around Tirana and a moratorium on hunting. Is it possible to protect investors at the same time that the environment is respected and citizens’ interest incorporated? He asks himself. There has to be willingness on behalf of policymakers. A good Samaritan attitude is however not sufficient. Embracing international standards and involving non-partisan stakeholders such as Transparency International and FIDIC can help boost the country’s credibility vis a vis international foreign investors.
Dr Guri orders a small bottle of Pellegrino still water. We conclude our conversation after two hours. My next visit will be this coming week to his office at the University of Tirana where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. I close my Lenovo laptop at The Sheraton Hotel cafeteria. I will finish the chronicle tomorrow Sunday.
Jointly published on The Huffington Post