Redrawing the map: UNDP helps coordinate territorial reform in Albania

May 28, 2015

During communist rule, Albania was one of the most centralized countries in Europe. When the regime collapsed in 1991, the country was faced with the dilemma of how to structure a local government system with a degree of autonomy.

The first central government that emerged from the multi-party elections in 1991 used the administrative lines of agricultural cooperatives, an economic unit created in the 1960s and ‘70s, as a model for the creation of new administrative units.

In a country of only 28,700 square kilometres, 373 administrative units of local government (LGUs) were created, and further divided into municipalities and communes. By 2003 however, the administrative division of the country had become clearly ineffective as majority of small local government units lacked capacity, argued multiple analyses, including UNDP’s 2002 regional Human Development Report.  

Local government units had lost up to eighty percent of their population in little more than a decade as a result of migration; many communes were left with a population of only a few hundred people. In order to resolve the administrative fragmentation of the country, Albania initiated a territorial reform process. However, that first attempt failed because of a lack of agreement among the political parties.

It has taken more than a decade for another initiative to redraw the map.

The creation of new LGUs essentially means rebuilding of the functions and capacities of the state. It is a complex process and it has costs.

“Development partners were invited in September 2013 to support the government’s priority for the process of drafting and implementing a territorial reform, and UNDP volunteered to coordinate the donor contribution,” explains Vladimir Malkaj, Programme Officer with UNDP in Albania.

To support this major reform of local government, the international community agreed to establish a multi-donor funded project under the management of UNDP entitled “Support to Territorial and Administrative Reform” (STAR). International partners— including USAID, SIDA, Switzerland, and Italy - joined forces to assist the government in this sensitive process. UNDP is managing and coordinating of the funds and supports the project’s implementation.

In recent years, territorial reform has been common across Europe often to reduce the number of local administrative units, with the main aim of increasing efficiency.  In many cases political disagreements accompany such reforms.

“The development partners and UNDP do not decide how the territorial reform is done. We simply support a nationally driven process and help finance it,” Malkaj notes.

In July 2014, the Parliament of Albania approved the law on administrative reform, dividing the country into 61 units. Now, with the approach of the next round of local elections in 2015, implementation of the new law has become a matter of urgency.

Despite the major task at hand, the new municipalities will help strengthen local economic development and efficiency in Albania. Meanwhile, the STAR project is helping to make this a reality.  According to Malkaj:

“Larger administrative areas create the appropriate framework for further decentralisation and empowerment of local governments to engage in more effective planning and promote economies of scale.”

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