Just off a busy street in the heart of downtown Tirana close to 20 Harvard students, faculty and staff gathered at the historic home of the former Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, for a welcome reception with H. E. Prime Minister Edi Rama and several Cabinet Ministers.
“[Hoxha] would have hated that you are here,” joked the Prime Minister in his welcoming speech. And rightly so, as Rama’s government is moving the country in a new direction from that of the former dictator and his communist party, and has sought the support of Harvard University to do so. The Harvard Kennedy School faculty and students are part of a large project that the Center for International Development (CID), with financial support from the Open Society Foundation, has undertaken to support economic growth in Albania.
Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe but seems to be brimming with potential. Located on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, it remained in isolation during 46 years of communist rule. While democracy was established in 1991 the country has since faced severe problems of high unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and fiscal mismanagement. When Rama’s Socialist Party came to power on September 10, 2013, they came with a desire to implement strategic and innovative policies to address some of the country’s greatest challenges.
Immediately following the June 2013 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Rama invited Prof. Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development, to Albania. He came with Research Fellows Brad Cunningham and José Ramón Morales to meet with the new Prime Minister and discuss some of the challenges facing the government as it took office. This initial meeting has developed into the largest initiative ever undertaken by CID with another government, involving:
- 5 Harvard professors
- 3 Research Fellows
- 2 external experts
- 13 graduate students
After 10 years in the opposition, Rama’s party has a lot they want to accomplish, and this affiliation with Harvard aims to support them in their efforts.
The welcome reception provided the team with the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister in person, along with many of the key government ministers and high-level officials.
“It is rare that a team of foreign scholars is greeted at the highest political level,” noted Konstantine Kintsurashvili, who worked in Georgia as Deputy Finance Minister and is now a Master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Our welcome reception was hosted by H.E. Prime Minister of Albania with all the key economic portfolio ministers in attendance. I think this added a lot of enthusiasm to our summer engagement in Albania.”
This summer graduate students will spend two months working alongside counterparts in six different ministries, including Energy, Tourism, Agriculture, and Education.
“These are not just students,” explained Hausmann when introducing the group to the Prime Minister and government officials. “They are also professionals with years of experience prior to studying at Harvard.”
The students that make up “Team Albania” have worked in industrial policy, finance, engineering, agriculture, labor market policy and the education sector and have experience with the World Bank, the United Nations, international consulting firms and various Ministries within their own governments. They are an incredibly diverse team, coming from Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, and their combined experience in on-the-ground government implementation and rigorous academic analysis places them in a unique position to provide innovative advice and support to their Albanian counterparts.
“Innovation is a keyword for this government” stated an official from the Prime Minister’s office, and they hope the team from Harvard will bring new ideas and initiatives to the country. Under the leadership of Prof. Ricardo Hausmann and in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Matt Andrews, Robert Lawrence, Francisco Monaldi and Eduardo Lora, Harvard Business School Faculty Noel Maurer, Research Fellows Ljubica Nedelkoska, Brad Cunningham and José Ramón Morales, and external experts Paula Marra and Gustavo Grobocopatel (Los Grobo), the students will be working on some of the most critical issues facing the country. Already the Center for International Development has supported the government in stabilizing macroeconomic issues and they are now working on improving productivity in key sectors, including tourism, agriculture and light manufacturing, as well as improving the government’s access to resources through energy, oil and the bond market.
For their part, the students are eager to get started. At the reception many had the opportunity to speak one on one with ministers and deputy ministers to discuss the ways they may be able to contribute to project planning and implementation.
“[The Deputy Minister of the Economy] knows a lot about the subject we are working on,” commented Hanieh Mohammadi, a Master’s student at Harvard Kennedy School who already holds an MBA and has experience in the public and private sector. “They are very proactive and have achieved a lot already but they are looking for new perspectives.”
In speaking to the team at the welcome reception, the Prime Minister said: “I do know you will not be bored.” As the students begin to incorporate into the various ministries that are spread around Skanderbeg Square in downtown Tirana, they are quickly discovering both opportunities and challenges that they will face throughout what will likely be an interesting and educational summer.
About the author: Karen Vanderwillik is a summer intern for the Economic Growth in Albania project.