Alice Reeves | KF18 | Kosovo & Albania
Pop Quiz! What do you think about when you think of Albania? On asking some friends before leaving home, the answers that came back varied wildly: ‘economy based on pyramid selling’, ‘blood feud’, ‘one bunker per family policy’. Preconceptions are interesting things….
Being a Kiva fellow certainly challenges any preconceptions you forget to leave at home, never more so than in the rapidly developing Balkans. It also opens your eyes to the real economic challenges that lie in Europe’s mountainous south eastern corner.
Albania is home to ancient heroic folk songs, castles and legend. The land it occupies has been Roman and Ottoman, and seen Italian and German occupations.
It laboured under the quasi-communist authoritarian regime of Enver Hoxha for half a century, finally emerging in the early nineties with a reputation as Europe’s mysterious last hermit state.
Albania’s transition to democracy has not been smooth: nation-wide pyramid selling schemes (Ponzi schemes) caused and inevitable economic collapse that took Albania uncomfortably close to civil war in the late 1990s. An influx of Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing wars in neighbouring states further stretched this small state’s ability to cope. Partly because of this traumatic twentieth century, Albania remains one of the poorest European countries.
Geography, too, has a huge effect on Albania’s economy. National borders are a wall of high mountains, and much of its population live in remote rural areas isolated in winter.
But this land is home to a thriving and fascinating multi-ethnic community. Historical accident means Roma, Greeks, Egyptians (etymology enthusiasts: this is the origin of the word gypsy – the group traces their origins to Egypt centuries ago), and others exist alongside Greek and Albanian communities.
Sadly, a long century of policies that actively marginalised these groups means they continue to live on the edges of society – often scraping together any meagre income they can to survive from one day to the next.
The reality of poverty in this potential EU accession state, that for me is so close to home, is truly shocking.
And this is where the fantastic work of one of Kiva’s newest field partners, VisionFund Albania (VFA) comes in. VFA is one of a small number of MFIs operating in Albania, what makes it so special is its mission to engage actively with these communities, as well as serving the broader need for micro-loans.
Loans to rural groups and minorities are considered high risk here, too high for most. Catastrophic winter weather can kill livestock, misconceived preconceptions that minority communities somehow lack entrepreneurial skills exist, and then there are the small number of mountain backwaters where blood feuds prevent generations from accessing education or a decent income.
Yet there is a palpable sense of activity here in Albania. So many individuals are keen to improve their livelihoods, small businesses and personal circumstances – and are seeking loan funding to do so.
With job opportunities scarce, an entrepreneurial spirit is crucial to survival in an environment where extended Egyptian and Roma families often call one room their home.
By partnering with VFA, Kiva is increasing the number of loans available to communities here, and much-needed access for individual empowerment. I consider myself extremely lucky to be the first Kiva fellow to be working with such an inspiring Kiva field partner, and along the way learning so much about this mysterious country.
Alice Reeves is a Kiva Fellow, working in Kosovo and Albania this summer with new Kiva partners Kosinvest and VisionFund Albania. Find out how you can become a Kiva Fellow or just more information on kiva and microfinance in general on kiva.org.