Many consider the village of Jale to be one of the most beautiful hamlets on Albania’s Riviera. Two authors of children’s books who come from the area have often featured its deep-blue waters and sandy beaches, giving this coastal village on the Ionian Sea the image of a paradise on earth.
The families living here have a history dating back 300 years, owning small plots of land that were handed down from father to son. Their prosperity has ebbed and flowed like their sea-surrounds. Neglected by the Stalinist regime of the late Enver Hoxha, the village was spared the mass industrialization that blighted the landscapes of other parts of the country. The majority of houses in the village were little more than shacks when the regime imploded in 1991.
But the World Bank has recently achieved what Stalinism did not. Amidst accusations of corruption and attempts at a cover-up, a World Bank project meant to safeguard Albania’s coast was used to demolish parts of Jale and leave many families homeless.
It happened like this. After a decade of tumultuous transition to democracy, Albania’s tourism industry started slowly to recover, bringing a renaissance to Jale. The old houses serving the growing numbers of tourists were suddenly not big enough. Residents applied for but were refused building permits. Driven by economic necessity, they went ahead and added rooms within their fences.
These were a fraction of the estimated 220,000 unauthorized buildings that sprang up across Albania as a result of wildcat construction. So the country adopted a law to legalize illegal construction. Although the Jale villagers applied under the new law, on 3 April 2007 they were notified that their houses were illegal and would be demolished. They launched an appeal at the local court. But construction police did not wait for the case to come to trial, and on 17 April 2007 they demolished all the newly built houses in the village.
‘They surrounded the village like we were in state of war,’ recalls Vasilika Koka, who saw her parents’ house in ruins. ‘For three days the road was blocked and no-one could bring even food.’
The televised scenes of the demolition caused a furore. The head of the Union of Civil Liberties Party, Vangjel Dule (who represents the area in Parliament), slammed Prime Minister Sali Berisha, arguing that the demolition was being done for business interests close to Berisha. One week after the demolitions, then-Minister of Transportation Lulzim Basha told Parliament that the demolition was a result of a scheme backed by a World Bank project on ‘Integrated Coastal Zones Management and Clean-Up’.
It transpires that the project was significantly funded by a $17.5 million World Bank loan, distributed through the International Development Association (an arm of the World Bank Group). A subsequent investigation by the World Bank’s own Inspection Panel found that the project acted in disregard of World Bank policies. The Panel’s leaked report finds the project aided the forced displacements of Jale villagers by pressuring local construction police to take action and by supplying them with equipment and aerial photos of the homes to be demolished. The investigators also noted allegations of corruption, in addition to complaints that the demolition of the Jale settlements was part of a bigger scheme to develop the area as a tourist resort. The Panel accused World Bank management of misrepresenting facts during the probe and hampering the investigation by withholding access to data.
The investigation – described by the Panel as one of the most difficult in its 14 years of operation – raises a number of critical issues about standards of transparency and accountability that ought to trigger major changes in the way that the World Bank Group does business.
Besar Likmeta and Gjergj Erebara