Friday, January 06, 2006

The Albania Bridge Project

Albania, as most people probably know, is a small country, on the east coast of the Adriatic, about level with the boot-heel of Italy. It's dirt-poor, at least by the standards of Europe, having suffered first under a seemingly wilfully paranoid and xenophobic communist dictatorship during the Cold War, and through an often violent and destructive transition process after the fall of the Berlin Wall. First, as the communist regime gradually tettered towards collapse in 1990 and 1991, vandalism, theft and destruction of state property ballooned in what seems to have been an atmosphere of uncertainty and a degree of licentiousness, often destroying what little infrastructure there was, and second, a financial scandal, involving pyramid schemes, led to heavily-armed chaos, widespread violence and eventual collapse of the government in 1997. The privatisation of the large state-owned collective farms was also bungled, leaving ownership unclear, displacing large numbers of people, sending agricultural production into total free-fall and creating too many small and often uneconomic plots. Corruption and crime are serious problems, with a resurgent culture of blood feuds in the often clan-based society of the north in particular only recently coming under control and smuggling into Italy apparently as endemic as the practice of having relatives working illegally there.

The lack of adequate infrastructure within the country is a recurrent problem. It is quite mountainous, as indeed much of the Balkans is, and the quality of the roads is generally poor, whilst running water is often a dream outside of the cities and electricity erratic even within them. Having to spend several hours a day collecting drinking water, or gathering firewood, quite apart from being a fairly miserable thing to do in any conditions, let alone blazing heat or driving snow, is an obstacle to economic development: it uses up valuable time and energy, making it a drain on other, more productive, activities. Equally, a poor road network, which is vulnerable to the weather, can not only prevent individual attempts to get goods to market, but, by creating uncertainty, undermine the possibility of building stable and long-term relationships with possible customers. It can also, on occasion, cut people off from their land. Yet even the relatively small-scale infrastructural projects which would alleviate these conditions are often beyond the means of many Albanians: they don't always have the access to credit, the skills, or the materials. Likewise, the Albanian state, even when operating at its best, which it has not always done consitently, has extremely limited resources and a huge number of competing priorities in a society which has come close to something like total collapse twice in the past fifteen years.

My partner - sometimes also known as the other half - was in Albania in early September last year with Oxfam. Oxfam operates a programme where they send volunteers to go and visit some of their projects, paying their expenses and so on, in return for doing publicity work, on the basis of what they have seen, when they come back. Whilst she was there, she visited an Oxfam project in a village of around a thousand people, Ure e Shtrentje, in the north of the country which is divided by a gorge. The gorge used to have a relatively sturdy stone bridge over it, but this was washed away in an unusually high spring flood, and since then, an improvised structure involving, basically, a plank, has served as the only means of easily getting across the gorge. The project which Oxfam is running is a beehive cooperative, but the lack of an adequate crossing over the gorge cuts much of the village off not only from the beehives, but the road to Shkodra, the local commercial centre and nearest hospital, where ideally the honey would be sold, as well as the school and the other part of the village.

Obviously, sometimes the plank is enough, but when the weather gets poor, or the river is in flood, the impassability of the gorge adds several hours to the work-day and makes gaining a foothold in the market, thus leaving subsistence farming behind, difficult for the inhabitants. It also cuts them off from modern medical treatment, not only in the form of the hospital in Shkodra, but also the village nurse, who is on the other side of the gorge. The inhabitants could leave the village, but the flight from the land and from Albania itself has been one of the serious social problems which has afflicted the country since the fall of communism, associated with the rise of criminality, dependence on food aid, and the growth of slums around the capital Tirana. Ensuring that there is the genuine possibility of a decent life in rural Albania is an important part of creating a stable and prosperous future for the country as a whole, while providing Ure e Shtrentje with a proper, weather-proof bridge would be a small but helpful step towards that. The labour can be provided by the villagers themselves, but the materials need to be bought, at the cost of around £9000, which my partner is trying to raise, although once it has been raised, the project will be passed back over to Oxfam.

I am therefore soliciting for donations. There's a paypal button in the sidebar, and as soon as the website for the project is up and running, I'll link to that, where more details about the bridge and so on will be available. I'm also considering doing sponsored blogging, on more or less anything within reason. Anyone interested in that, contact me at robjubbATgmailDOTcom, and we can discuss the relevant details. Otherwise, please give generously using the paypal button.

1 comment:

Christian Guthier said...

Hello World!

The site is now up and running. Take a look at: http://www.albaniabridge.co.uk

We have now also posted a price breakdown, showing what the costs for rebuilding the bridge will be: http://www.albaniabridge.co.uk/donate.html

There are also lots of photos and free Albania wallpaper to download.

Regards

Christian