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Baptism of fire
by Jean-François Berger

More than a year after the massive humanitarian operation prompted by the crisis in Kosovo, how is the Red Cross in neighbouring Albania faring and what are the main lessons it has learned from such an unprecedented experience? One thing is sure - it has shown a remarkable capacity to evolve.
In spite of appearances, the Kukes region of northern Albania is accustomed to change. Twenty years ago, the old town of Kukes and several surrounding villages were intentionally flooded by the waters that today form a large artificial lake overlooked by the present town. On the nearby mountainsides, dotted with pine trees, vestiges remain of the chrome and copper mines left idle since the end of the Enver Hodja regime.

More recently, the Kukes prefecture was the scene of one of the most spectacular migrations in the history of the Balkans, when 400,000 of the people fleeing neighbouring Kosovo reached transit camps. The majority moved further south but 120,000 remained, most of them staying with thousands of host families. Today, the refugees have all gone home, as have most of the humanitarian organizations. Here and there, a UNHCR lorry heading for the town centre serves as a reminder of last year's events. But the majority of the local people in this district - one of the poorest in Albania - continue to live on the edge, even if some profited momentarily from the Kosovo crisis.

Joint forces

Since its founding in 1929, the Albanian Red Cross has suffered its ups and downs. Reactivated in 1990 after a dormant period lasting 20 years under the regime of Enver Hodja, it is gradually reorganizing itself with the support of its network of 36 local branches. The network is kept alive by 55 full-time and 60 part-time staff members and sustained by 45,000 volunteers, 3,000 of them active members. 

In February 1997, the situation throughout Albania deteriorated suddenly following the collapse of "pyramid" savings accounts. It was in this volatile context that the ICRC, the Federation and the ARC mounted the first joint operation. This became a reference point for cooperation within the Movement.

From 24 March 1999, the conflict between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia intensified the exodus of refugees from Kosovo. The ICRC and the Federation immediately launched an integrated operation in the Balkans, which concluded its emergency phase at the end of July 1999, following the return en masse of the refugees to their homes. Fifty-two National Societies contributed to this emergency operation which required a budget of US$ 100 million. An independent evaluation of the operation was completed in April 2000, the main conclusions of which were:

- The Movement's response was relevant, rapid and appropriate.

- The operation achieved a high level of beneficiary satisfaction (80 per cent), especially in terms of delivery of food, other relief and medical assistance. One-third of the beneficiaries, however, would have liked a more rapid response to tracing and psychosocial needs.

The evaluation also highlighted areas where improvements could be made in the organization of certain aspects of such an operation in the future, in particular:

- Devise an integrated strategy for emergency assistance operations based on greater harmonization of the different fields of intervention (human resources, logistics and relief, information and reporting).

- Use more experienced staff.

- Pre-empt and rectify uncoordinated interventions by participating National Societies and attempt to integrate them progressively into the operation if need be.



Strengthening the base

"Our priority is to help villagers affected by the conflict in areas along the 130-kilometre frontier with Kosovo," explains the Kukes prefect, Qemal Elezi, with particular emphasis on the "urgency of demining". Indeed, cluster bombs scattered by NATO in the border zones, as well as anti-personnel mines, regularly claim new victims. The Albanian Red Cross (ARC) and the ICRC sometimes have to act as an ambulance service to transfer amputees to the limb-fitting centre in Tirana. They have also set up a campaign to spread awareness of the dangers of these unexploded devices. Since the crisis the ARC has been active in other ways, particularly in looking for missing persons from Kosovo, under ICRC auspices, and in providing assistance to the most vulnerable.

Ilmi Cena, secretary of the Kukes branch, believes that "the distribution of food and other assistance is just one stage. We also need to provide longer-term services, such as health education." This diversified approach is at the heart of the development strategy for the next five years devised by the society in conjunction with the International Federation. "What matters is that we reinforce the services we offer the community, while giving greater responsibility to the regional branches," says Pandora Ketri, ARC secretary general and no newcomer to large-scale international operations. She is currently overseeing the process of decentralization, which includes the acquisition of 10 buildings to house regional committees.

In fact, this strategy is also enabling the Albanian Red Cross to reaffirm its role as the pillar of the country's humanitarian action, capable of defining and orienting its activities more clearly, rather than just being content to deliver services in a mechanical fashion, or to implement projects put together by participating National Societies. But how do you ensure your autonomy when three-quarters of your budget comes from outside? According to Rudina Pema, in charge of branch development: "The experience we gained during the Kosovo crisis has been most useful because we can now evaluate needs and priorities, even if we still need to improve the criteria determining who should be the beneficiaries. We have also made progress in information gathering and reporting."

Finding the funds

In any case, the Kukes Red Cross branch seems to have embraced Tirana's new approach, which has self-financing as a prerequisite. You only need to watch Mailinda, one of the youngest workers in the local branch, giving an English lesson to 15 pupils in a small room in the basement of the new Red Cross building. "This is a spoon... This is a knife... Your turn Emir!" Costing around five lek (US$ 5) a month, these private lessons make it possible to finance an assistance programme for several hundred orphans, such as a holiday camp on the slopes of Mount Gallicka overlooking Kukes.

While various projects founded on local initiatives are in preparation elsewhere in the country, the management of the Albanian Red Cross is striving to relaunch a national lottery with Federation and Spanish Red Cross support. If it succeeds before the end of the year, the ARC will have taken a big step towards being self-financing.

In the view of Frank Kennedy, head of the Federation's delegation in Albania: "The Albanian Red Cross has two major advantages. It is well established in the local communities and its leadership has demonstrated a desire to adapt the way the National Society functions according to the socio-economic situation." This perhaps explains why for three and a half years the essential components of the Movement have been working in a better coordinated manner under the umbrella of joint operations (see box above) - with the notable exception of certain unilateral bursts of solidarity from governments in tandem with their respective National Societies during NATO's intervention last year.


Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

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