A conversation with the Open Society Foundations about public sector reform in Albania on October 29, 2013


Note: These notes give an overview of the major points made by Jonas Rolett.


Good Ventures spoke with Jonas Rolett to learn more about the Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) plans to support public sector reform in Albania, as part of Good Ventures’ exploration of co-funding opportunities with major foundations. The conversation also touched on funding opportunities in Moldova.

Opportunity for reform in Albania

Historically, Albania has been characterized by a highly polarized and dysfunctional political culture that prioritizes personal interests and family connections. The election of Edi Rama as prime minister in 2013 and the appointment of other reform-minded politicians have created opportunities for reform in Albania. These new leaders have the potential to promote social and political development in the country, and reform efforts are now expected to proceed at a greater pace. OSF is optimistic that this group will break from its predecessors and think differently about the roles and duties of government. The test of the new government’s success will be whether it can frame its work as being focused on public rather than personal interests.

Progress in Albania

The new government's major initiatives include:

Public finances

The new government is working to understand the state of the country's public finances. The World Bank and Harvard University, with support from OSF, have provided technical assistance for this work. The public finances initiative has not been controversial, despite public interest in the severity of the country’s financial situation.

Public administration

The new government is also working to reform Albania’s public administration, which is ineffective, highly politicized, and highly personal. Many public officials lack the qualifications required by their positions. Reform has been difficult because Albanian politics has long operated according to a patronage system in which incoming governments replace existing public servants with their own supporters. The new opposition and some international organizations are concerned that the new government is acting in the same “revenge and replace” pattern as its predecessors. The onus is on the new government to explain what they are doing and why.

Illegal construction

During his time as mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama led an initiative to reclaim public spaces that were being used by illegally constructed kiosks, restaurants, and shops. Rama has begun to do similar work at the national level. The initiative has been controversial, because many individuals have life savings tied up in these structures.

OSF’s main efforts

OSF has been working in Albania for 22 years. It recently launched a new initiative related to government capacity building. OSF has long-standing relationships with many members of the new government. The prime minister is a former board member of OSF’s local foundation in Tirana and roughly half of the cabinet have worked with OSF as grantees, partners, recipients of scholarships to study abroad, or debaters supported by the local foundation.

OSF has committed $1.5 million over two years to improving governance in Albania through a Harvard University program. The grant includes an opt-out clause that allows OSF to end the project early if the government pursues policies that conflict with OSF's goals.

One of OSF's strategies in Albania is to provide the government with customized advice and expertise and to connect Albanian officials with experienced ministers from other countries who have overcome similar obstacles. OSF also has supported multi-day colloquia in the US to provide an informal setting for Albanian officials to learn from other countries' experiences. This approach distinguishes OSF from the World Bank, which tends to provide generalized advice and expertise, promoting similar reform templates in multiple countries.

Local foundation

OSF has a local foundation in Tirana, as it does in many of the countries where it operates. The local foundation is a semi-autonomous entity with an Albanian staff and board and is funded by OSF. While the local foundation is more familiar with the Albanian context and has stronger ties to members of its government, OSF, rather than the local foundation, is funding the reform efforts in Albania because doing so allows the local foundation to maintain integrity in its role as government watchdog. OSF is sensitive to an inherent conflict of interest in supporting government reform efforts on the one hand, and supporting civil society watchdog efforts on the other.  However, it believes that the local foundation will be willing to criticize work that OSF has funded if the government doesn’t perform well.

Other funding opportunities in Albania

The new government is struggling with its public messaging and could benefit from support in that area. It could also benefit from the opportunity to discuss principal challenges and needs that are not yet being addressed. The government has approached OSF to organize a forum for discussing policy ideas that fall outside Harvard University’s area of expertise or that OSF isn’t currently equipped to handle. Although OSF has declined to fund such a forum for now, it might co-fund further work in Albania if another funder were to step in. One of OSF’s goals is to bring additional donors and attention to Albania.

Measures of success

It is difficult to assess the impact of OSF’s grant-making in Albania. OSF will measure its successes in part by looking at the passage and implementation of specific pieces of legislation, job growth, economic growth, the establishment of new institutions whose staff and board are not dominated by politicians, and movement and balanced rulings on stalled court cases. OSF is also interested in qualitative evidence of success based on conversations with trusted partners in Albania.

OSF’s programs in Liberia and Moldova

OSF has funded similar capacity-building programs in Liberia and Moldova. In both countries, OSF believes the governments are pursuing genuine reform agendas, in part because it has long-standing relationships with local leaders.  For example, in Liberia, OSF has long known with the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In Moldova, many government officials are former board or staff members of OSF’s local foundation, including the prime minister, the prime minister’s spokesperson, and the UN ambassador.

The reformist government in Moldova is seeking support on a number of human capital and infrastructure projects. The government is particularly interested in education reform, which includes addressing corruption around school testing and consolidating schools that have been left essentially empty by mass migration. It is seeking technical assistance to make these newly consolidated schools more attractive to families. The government is also seeking support to set up classroom “learning laboratories,” with computer equipment, software, and distance learning programs. This would be an expensive project, and OSF will probably not pursue it unless it finds a funding partner. The government is also looking to support English language learning programs, which it believes will make Moldova more competitive and less politically and culturally isolated. OSF has made a grant through the United Nations Development Program to help Moldovan ministers hire local experts to assist in the development of legislation on issues such as maritime practices and the registration of boats.

Lessons learned

In 2004, OSF set up a fund to supplement Georgian state salaries so that the new administration could attract experienced professionals to government jobs. The fund quickly aroused the suspicions of the political opposition, which was strongly opposed to having a private foreign citizen pay the salaries of state officials. An anti-Soros political party was established. OSF is now more cautious about funding governments directly; in other countries where it has undertaken capacity-building projects, OSF looks for ways to make grants through intermediaries such as the United Nations Development Program. OSF now also relies more on connecting governments with consultancies, rather than supplementing state salaries.