Apparently, Albania is a nice place to be from.
The emphasis in this case is on the word “from,” since more than half of Albanians seem to be looking for a way to get out their homeland.
In fact, according a Gallop poll released in June, a whopping 56 percent of citizens of the so-called Land of Eagles want to take flight and soar to another country.
That puts Albania in second place — right behind Haiti, with 57 percent — in terms of countries whose citizens are most eager to get out of Dodge and find a new country to call home.
Haitians seeking political, social or economic asylum somewhere outside their borders is nothing new.
But for Albania — a little European country on the northern shore of the Mediterranean with a solid 3.2 percent GDP growth in 2016 and a projected 2017 growth of 3.8 percent, according to the World Bank — the urge to relocate is a relatively new phenomenon.
The last international Gallup poll on the subject, conducted in 2012, indicated that only about 36 percent of Albanians wanted to emigrate at that time.
So what happened in Albania over the course of the last five years to make its citizens want to abandon their fatherland?
According to Gallup, the main reason Albanians are itching for a change in address is endemic unemployment.
Last year, unemployment in Albania topped 15 percent, and the hardest sector hit was the country’s young people.
According to the International Labor Organization, the youth unemployment rate in Albania in 2016 was nearly 30 percent, a staggering number compared to other European countries such as Germany, where only 7 percent of young people are without jobs.
In addition to rampant unemployment, Albania is facing serious challenges in terms of high public debt, which exceeds 71 percent of the nation’s $34 billion GDP.
Albania’s external debt is about $7.8 billion, and its foreign reserves total about $3 billion.
There are also major inefficiencies in the energy and transportation sectors, and a very low standard of public education, meaning that most high school graduates are not qualified for what few jobs there are available in Albania’s shrinking labor market.
If the Albanian government wants to keep its 2.7 million citizens within its borders, it will have to invest heavily in both rail transport and maritime infrastructure, and it will have to completely revamp its education system to compete with other European standards.
Also, agriculture, which accounts for nearly 22 percent of the country’s overall economy and about half of all employment, has been shortchanged in terms of investment, while most fresh capital has been earmarked for the business sector, where the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama has begun to implement much-needed reforms.
Most farming is still limited to subsistence and small family operations, hindered by a lack of modern equipment, unclear property rights and the prevalence of small, inefficient plots of land.
Attracting foreign capital into Albania is an uphill endeavor.
Complex tax codes and licensing requirements, a weak judicial system, endemic corruption and poor enforcement of contracts make Albania’s business environment a complex labyrinth of red tape and bureaucracy that most transnational corporations prefer to steer clear of.
In terms of GDP growth, Albania’s economy looks to be doing well, but under the surface, the former socialist state is coming apart at the seams.
And unless its government takes major steps to reboot the economy, Albania may soon be seeing more than half of its population heading for distant shores.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].