An investigation by Balkan Insight can reveal that four former board members of the Albanian Agency for the Support of Civil Society, AMSHC, awarded grants to five organizations to which they were linked directly or through relatives at the time they were in place.
The five organizations, which received 19.9 million lek (€141,000) in grants from the agency from 2010 to 2013, are the Albanian Youth Council, Transparency International Albania, the Akses Center, UET Center and the Foundation for Economic Freedom.
Another organization linked to an AMSCH staffer, JEF Albania, also received money from the agency.
Although the sums distributed by AMSHC are significant, many established civil society organizations perceive it as corrupt and shun its calls for proposals, fearing grants will only tarnish their reputations.
Some of the NGOs funded by AMSHC are practically invisible. They lackwebsites and little is known of the projects that they implemented.
“The winning organizations in past calls were all organizations with direct or indirect connections to people inside the agency, who determined the winners,” said Gledis Gjipali, head of the European Movement in Albania, a Tirana based think tank.
“This is an open conflict of interest, which has prompted me not to apply to them,” he added.
Article 6 of the law approved by the Council of Ministers in March 2009 for the organization of AMSHC stipulates that the Agency should “guarantee impartiality during decision-making process and prevent conflicts of interest”.
The same principles are deemed mandatory in the financing procedures for grants in the official regulations of AMSHC, published on its website.
AMSHC director Rudi Bobrati has admitted that organizations headed by board members benefited in the past from grants issued by the agency.
But Bobrati told Balkan Insight that, by law, their presence on the board did not disqualify them from applying for grants.
He maintained that although there were cases of friends and relatives of board members applying for, and receiving grants, their relationship to the board did not influence the selection process.
“The law for the creation and the functioning of the agency does not forbid board members from applying for state funds with their own organizations,” Bobrati said.
“When this happens, they leave the room and do not participate in the voting process,” he added.
In January, all board members that obtained funding for their own organizations were replaced. A new director for the agency is to be nominated.
The new board members that have been nominated already come from the media and from NGOs that are perceived to be close to the ruling Socialist Party, which took power last September after June parliamentary elections.
During the election campaign, the Socialists promised to reform the agency, which they claimed had been used by the previous centre-right government to reward civil society organizations that support their policies.
Some civil society actors now complain that nomination of the new board has also been far from transparent, and the selection process was again politically orchestrated.
Conflict of interests:
According to USAID’s 2012 civil society sustainability index, Albanian NGOs remain financially weak, while the legal environment in which more than 1,600 organizations operate is ambiguous.
Established in December 2009, AMSHC was meant to boost funding for local NGOs at a time when many international donors were pulling out of Albania and the region.
Since issuing its first call for grants in March 2010, the agency has disbursed more than €2.1 million.
AMSHC’s supervisory board, which selects winning applications, is composed of nine members. Five are drawn from civil society and four come from government institutions.
Since the old board was replaced in January 2014, its composition has followed the same model, with five members coming from civil society and four from government institutions.
Board members whose organizations received AMSHC grants between 2010 and 2013 include Lutfi Dervishi, director of Transparency International Albania, TIA, and Henri Cili, founder of the UET Center and the Foundation for Economic Freedom.
Dervishi told Balkan Insight that possible conflicts of interests had made him think twice before joining the board. At the same time, he also argued that Albanian law did not forbid his organization from applying for cash.
Dervishi denied having influenced the decision process, underling that TIA received only one grant from AMSHC, and adding that he had disqualified himself from the vote when the application was being reviewed.
“We are never present at the voting process when one of our organizations was applying for a project,” Dervishi said.
“TIA won only one project, with a minimal amount of money, and plenty of organizations won much more,” he added.
AMSHC records show that TIA received two grants from the agency for a total of 3.79 million lek (€27,000).
Cili, publisher of the daily newspaper MAPO and owner of the European University of Tirana, with whom both his NGOs are associated, declined to comment about the allegations.
The Foundation for Economic Freedom and the UET Center received 4.2 million lek (€30,000) in total from AMSHC.
Altin Goxhaj, a consumer protection activist and former board member of the agency, was the former executive director of the Albanian Youth Council, which received 6.79 million lek (€48,400) from AMSHC in its first call in 2010, while he was a member of the board. Goxhaj did not reply to a request from Balkan Insight to comment.
The organization, now run by Argyrina Jubani, works to improve democratic participation among young people and to contribute towards developing their skills and knowledge.
The Akses Center, run by Marjana Papa, the sister of former board member Helena Papa, received 6 million lek (€42,800) from AMSHC.
Young European Federalists, JEF Albania, an organization formerly run by Endrit Pollo, a finance specialist at AMSHC, also received 3.7 million lek (€27,000) in grants from the agency.
Bobrati said that there had been other cases of friends and relatives of board members applying for grants.
However, in each case, he noted: “Board members did not taken part in the selection process.”
Lack of transparency:
Some of the organizations funded by AMSHC are nearly invisible to the Albanian public. They either have no websites or only poorly maintained web pages, which contain little information.
Although AMSHC has a list of all NGOs that have registered for funding, it only publishes the contact person, and in many cases it is unclear who runs the organization.
The Albanian Youth Council, formerly run by board member Altin Goxhaj and the second most funded NGO by AMSHC, has no website, for example.
According to a newsletter published in 2012, the organization has implemented nearly two dozen projects from different donors since its creation in 1994.
On the web, the organization has a project website (projektiqytetar.org), funded by the World Bank, but this contains no information about the implementation of the AMSHC grant.
The Action Center (Qendra Action), an organization that received 5.1 million lek from AMSHC, also has no official website.
Likewise, the Center for Education and Citizen Participation, the European Center For Development and Education and the Albanian Youth Alliance, which received 5.2 million lek, 5.1 million lek and 3.7 million lek respectively, all lack websites.
Xhemal Mato, executive director of EkoLevizja, an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, described the funding arrangements at AMSHC as clannish.
He accused former board members who funded their own NGOs of conflicts of interest.
“There was a lack of transparence and communication and in reality the agency was controlled by politicians, despite their claim that the board was selected by civil society,” Mato said.
Mato recalled that when his organization applied for a small grant of $10,000, it was awarded only $2,000.
“We returned the money because we understood this as just a process of distributing cash to keep NGOs from complaining,” he said.
“We applied with a project to do something for the environment, we did not ask for charity,” Mato added.
Lutfi Dervishi admitted the existence of skepticism about the agency among civil society organizations but insisted that the selection process for grants had been transparent.
“Skepticism is legitimate because many NGOs look at AMSHC and see a government agency,” Dervishi said. “But we have made the calls public and everyone was judged on merit,” he concluded.
New board, old story:
The reform of the AMSCH and the replacement of its board with people “of integrity” was an election pledge of the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Edi Rama, who took office last September.
In January Adrian Thano, editor-in-chief of the left-wing newspaper DITA, was nominated as the head of the supervisory board of the agency.
Other members of the new board include TV presenter Alban Dudushi and Aldo Merkoci, from the Mjaft Movement, among others.
Founded by the current Minister of Social Welfare, Erjon Veliaj, Mjaft has been accused of supporting Rama’s Socialist Party; part of its former staff have since joined the new government.
Some civil society activists say the selection of the new board again looks politically compromised.
“Despite promises to change things radically, the reform of AMSHC is degenerating into firing and hiring board members,” Gjergji Vurmo, a program director at the Tirana-based Institute of Democracy and Mediation, said.
“I fear we are fast reaching the point where the government, despite its promises, understands the importance of controlling a source of funding for NGOs,” he added.
Mato agreed, arguing that the selection of the new board members had not been transparent.
“Three people from our network of NGOs applied to join the board, but the selection process was done without interviews and no explanation was given concerning those who won,” he said.
“This is another step that shows that the future of the agency will lack transparency,” Mato concluded.