Tales from the past: Albania

In 2015 I was working for the UN World Food Programme based out of Cairo, an entire story in itself.  I was working as an analyst, dealing with food security and market price data.  We supported our offices across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia (with the notable exception of Afghanistan).  Needless to say it was a lot of work, what with the crisis in Syria and all of the chaos that this produced, and the madness in Ukraine… not to mention Libya and Sudan.

In the middle of all of this was an interesting trip to investigate and potentially support around 30,000 people that had been affected by a significant flood event in Albania.  So we packed our bags and headed to Tirana, skipping over incredible mountain ranges along the approach.  The airport was a small, simple, but clean affair.  The plane was small and had left Athens less than 2 hours previously.

After a couple of days in Tirana, meeting with local organisations, banks, and the government, we headed out to the area affected.  Sitting in an office for too long, away from people that have been impacted by a crisis, has a numbing affect.  It becomes numbers, and a very theoretical set of steps and recommendations, and on reflection this was my first field assessment in a European country (geographically, not politically).  A far cry from the semi-arid, or arid regions of the Middle East, or African countries where I was more accustomed to.  Our first stop was the official introduction to our work, after which we were taken to various spots along the river where the flooding had been at it’s worst.

I have to say that, as we squelched through saturated fields to look at spoiled harvests, destroyed farm equipment, ruined livelihoods, the tears of the farmer who was sifting through what remained of his property was quite heart wrenching.  There were places were you could still see the water sitting in low lying areas and with agriculture accounting for 40% of the national income, destruction of agricultural activities was of particular interest to the politicians.  The damage to river banks, and the orchards lining their banks, was dramatic, but in a very local sense.  One think that struck me was the wide gap between income of those who’s homes and farms had been stricken.  It always amazes me how some families survive, even in the best of times.  It was clear that there were a reasonably large number of poor households that had been affected by this flood event, and of course they had lost proportionally more.

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I was reminded of the humanity of it all, the despair of a lost world.  The contrast between this open emotion, and the stoic faces of those that have lost so much in East and Southern Africa was like night and day.

Part of the task we were set was to understand the scale of the losses for the farmers and the proportion of whom had lost some, much, or all of their livelihoods.  Not as easy to do objectively as one might think, or at least in the timeframe set.  I have to say the process of doing so resulting in considerable tension within our team, much to my frustration.  Part of this was due to the fact that, in my eyes, much of the land affected was prime land, utilised by better off farmers, and for commercial use.  And compensation and support really lay within the realms of government support (or at least it was less a humanitarian issue than if it was purely the poor that had been affected).  In the end we managed to come up with a response plan that would, in the end, take another 6 months to realise for those affected.

I scatter some images of the experience through this relocation to get a sense of what I’m talking about.  I think the take home for me was to keep my eyes open to all the factors, rather than simply be driven by the emotion of the moment.  It probably didn’t help that one of the team was from Albania.


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