Learning Policy in Practice: Insights from the Growth Lab Summer Interns in Albania

Prepared by Daniela Muhaj and Jessie Lu

Town square in Albania with a statueThree Master in Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID) students spent this past summer in Albania as Growth Lab interns, working with local counterparts to develop and implement programs on the ground and making the leap from the classroom to learning policy in practice. Recently, we hosted our interns – Damian Galinsky, Uriel Kejsefman, and Shivani Mishra – in a panel discussion to talk about the work they conducted and its role in the broader Growth Lab Albania strategy. They spoke to their experiences living and working in Albania as well as to lessons learned when trying to translate academic and theoretical insights into policy actions. Key highlights from this conversation are summarized below.

Origins of the Growth Lab Engagement in Albania

The Growth Lab began working in Albania in fall 2013 in response to a slowdown in the country’s economic growth. A combination of a stalling in external drivers of growth - remittances and exports – and restrictions against the effectiveness of fiscal and monetary policies constrained the country’s economic recovery. Albania’s economic circumstances at the time demanded a new perspective and a new mindset on the policies as well as processes leading to stronger more sustainable growth.

Working with the Government of Albania and the Open Society Foundations and led by Professor Ricardo Hausmann, the first phase of the project “Economic Growth in Albania” ran between 2014 and 2017 and focused on achieving macroeconomic stability, building medium-term fiscal strength, and developing sectors to drive economic growth. For more information on the Growth Lab Albania project, visit our website.

Development as Going Beyond Ensuring Macroeconomic Stability

Once the binding constraint of the macroeconomic crisis was relaxed, resources were released and the necessary momentum was created to engage in policy areas that would catalyze sustainable and more inclusive growth in Albania. As part of this strategy, the Albania interns worked in advancing the Growth Lab’s involvement in setting up a first-of-its-kind investment institution, strengthening inclusive growth through rural development, and assessing viable strategies to channel investment in untapped infrastructure development opportunities.

landscape in AlbaniaInvestments are considered a main source of sustainable growth, yet developing countries often lack the management capacity and knowhow to develop their assets. This is where structures such as investment agencies, granted that they are set up properly, can be instrumental in realizing investment potential. Over the summer, Damian worked with the government to lay the groundwork for the development of an Albanian Investment Corporation that will aid the government in attracting and managing investment projects for economic development. As part of this work, Damian worked with local stakeholders to define the role of the institution, scope possible investment projects, and rank potential projects based in their feasibility and potential returns.

Location matters in development. However, lack of connectedness resulting from infrastructure gaps makes it challenging for countries to tap on regional opportunities with positive spillovers to growth, and connectedness matter. While Albania is strategically located between Croatia and Greece – two of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean – it has a relatively weak tourist sector, due in part to a lack of marinas. Marinas have been on the government’s radar for years and during his internship, Uriel identified major obstacles to their development, convened key government stakeholders to align on a vision, attracted investment from multilateral development banks, and identified next steps for the implementation of the vision.

Development efforts tend to be biased toward capital cities and big urban centers, but Albanian villages have untapped growth potential especially in agrotourism and export-led agriculture production scaling. The question is, what’s the best way to unleash this untapped potential to ensure that sources and gains from growth are not unequally distributed? The Albanian 100 Villages project was created to develop and tap into the potential of rural villages and communities through attracting investment and improving connectivity. Shivani developed a framework for the project; a roadmap for implementation; structures to ensure responsibility, coordination, and accountability; and a system for monitoring and evaluating the progress of the program.

Making the Leap: Academic Theory and the Reality of Enacting Development in Practice

Based on their experiences, the interns discussed challenges faced and lessons learned, as well as what makes a good policy work and what causes a good policy in theory to go bad in practice. Particular challenges that can be addressed include ensuring work as well as policy continuity, the often-underestimated importance of back office due diligence work, and harnessing the knowledge that is generated from stakeholders who are “trying and failing” to implement policies.

City plaza in Albania with a red buildingSetting up systems for continuity is important and helps address many of the issues associated with short-term engagement. To accommodate the academic schedule, the Growth Lab internship lasts for eight to ten weeks and create a wide range of challenges including condensed time to get to know systems and stakeholders and limited influence on policies after the internships end. In this context, good policy in practice means laying the groundwork for environments that are conducive to implementation of policies and creating systems and records to ensure that knowledge is not lost once engagement ends. This is true not only for internships and short-term engagements but for government offices as well.

Adjusting mindsets, expectations, and goals are essential for effective implementation of policies. Sometimes, policy descriptions may not align with reality and projects may lack vision and proper structure, but this is not an excuse to abandon and not pursue them. Rather, creating good policies involves identifying desired goals and delineating the steps and systems needed to achieve these goals. Often, working on policy does not always immediately require the technical know-how taught in academic programs—more ground work, though less exciting, lays the necessary foundation for policies to take shape.

Finally, people are central to ensuring that good policies are created and implemented. Collecting qualitative data by talking to stakeholders can help to shed light on why certain projects are not being implemented, how intrinsic motivations affect policy decisions, and what incentive structures exist that drive or prevent action from being taken. Navigating government relationships and understanding human-centered dynamics are as equally important as the quantitative data that usually constitutes the basis of policy-making decisions.

Sculpture in a park in Albania

See also: Europe, Albania, Albania