Civil society advocacy essential for skills development: An interview with Irena Topalli, Albania

“More cooperation among civil society organisations across Europe, as well as sharing best practices and knowledge in skills development means more power to advocate for common skills development initiatives", says Irena Topalli of the National Youth Congress (NYC) of Albania, an umbrella organisation of 140 youth entities across the country.  “Collaboration initiatives that focus on skills development for young people should have great support internationally, and also nationally from governments. Not just the affirmative words ‘we support you’, but also proper economic packages to leverage meaningful support,” adds Topalli. 

Topalli was speaking ahead of a conference on 23 May in Brussels, entitled “Civil Society for Lifelong Skills Development in Europe and Partner Countries” at the European Commission Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.  

The European Training Foundation, the Lifelong Learning Platform and European Association for the Education of Adults have joined forces to promote policy dialogue and partnerships between governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) active in skills development and lifelong learning. The objectives are to highlight the advantages of dialogue between the public, private and civil society sectors at all stages of policymaking, and to agree follow-up actions. It is a significant meeting because, in the European Year of Skills 2023, the need to enhance skills and lifelong learning is more important than ever. 

The National Youth Congress 

For two decades Irena Topalli has worked with CSOs and young people nationally and internationally as part of the Beyond Barriers Association in a programme manager role. She joined the National Youth Congress as international relations manager in December 2021.  

Civil society began to emerge in Albania after the fall of Communism, sparked by student protests in December 1990. The sector developed gradually, spurred and defined by political changes, 1997 unrest and a wave of migration during the war during the war among Serbia and Kosovo. The National Youth Congress started 10 years ago. “A group of bright young people came together due to the need to be organised and represented, because the voices of young people were missing in policy-making in Albania,” Topalli said. 

The NYC took a couple of years to find its shape and form as a CSO. Today, it counts some 140 member organisations in a network that covers a variety of thematic needs and vulnerable groups. The power of NYC today is in fact its member organisations, which range from 20 years old to younger groups that grow within the network. The secretariat is in Tirana but a structure of 12 local coordinators covers all of Albania. 

The NYC has three main work pillars. Each can offer lessons for CSOs regarding partnerships, skills development, service provision, outreach and inclusion. 

One pillar is institutional dialogue and cooperation. “It is a priority to boost dialogue at every possible level closely cooperation with different stakeholders where we can improve policy development and the quality of life for young people,” Topalli said. “Albania is essentially run by young people, and they must have a stronger voice and take more action. 

The second pillar is research, monitoring and evaluation. “To build and develop quality policies, you need quality data and analysis, position papers and research, which is lacking in our field.” 

A good example of the work of these two pillars is Albania’s youth law. NYC was involved in the consultation process initiated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of Albania. “We fought hard for a quality consultation process with youth and youth CSOs and to have our recommendations taken on board. We were not 100% happy with the final law approved in 2019 but progress has been made and we will continue to work to improve it,” says Topalli. 

Last month NYC published a monitoring document that evaluates the Youth Law implementation and its impact so far. “This has helped to establish our role as a watchdog of youth policies, and of the institutions in charge of those policies.” 

The third pillar is political education – in the broad sense – and capacity building. “We have a new and rather fragile democracy in Albania. We saw a need to educate young people in politics and policymaking, to empower them to participate in political life and contribute to shaping better policy developments actively and critically. We do this through different types of programmes,” said Topalli.  

For three years now, NYC has run a political academy for youth, including young people from marginalised areas, who do not typically get visibility in public media. They are trained by political experts and then interview local candidate mayors on public TV in a series of debates, called RinVote. 

The successful initiative has provided young people with a voice in public media, has compelled politicians to elaborate on the value of their agendas, and has shown young people why it is important to vote and how to critically decide who to vote for.  

CSOs and skills provision 

Topalli said one reason why she is attending the conference is because, especially in the Western Balkans, CSOs undertake a substantial part of the work on skills development and learning, providing up-to-date social and life skills that are not found in the standard curricula of universities or employers. 

“Also, CSOs have lots of connections with external partners, in the region and internationally, that have brought different approaches to the development of skills in various fields. This helps in connecting to priorities at the European level and exposing young people to broader markets.” 

Topalli describes two categories of skills providers in civil society in Albania. There are established CSOs that are well funded and offer successful skills training that runs through cycles and sustainable programmes. There are also CSOs that work in survival mode, with lack of funding that is secured on a project basis. 

One of the eight programmes for Tirana: European Youth Capital 2022, implemented by NYC in partnership with Tirana Municipality, was “Youth Develops Capacities”, which has financially supported numerous skills projects. Likewise, a second programme, “Youth Makes Creative Economy and Innovation”, also financially supports local and national projects focused on skills for entrepreneurship, innovation, creative economy and networking etc.  

“We had projects where youth could improve their public speaking, presentation, management, team working etc skills.” Entrepreneurship skills learning is high on the agenda as well. Young people believe that gaining entrepreneurship and social enterprise skills will open new possibilities for employment and their professional growth.” 

Mechanisms for policy and civil cooperation 

Key conference questions include how government and civil society engage in dialogue and partnerships around skills development; whether there are concrete mechanisms available; and how to enhance dialogue and collaboration. In answering these questions, said Topalli, context is all-important. 

A major step was securing Tirana: European Youth Capital 2022. “When we proposed the idea to the municipality of Tirana, it was with very clear demands about how we wanted to work and what we wanted to bring to our youth through it. We should be an equal partner with an equal voice.” The board that governed the whole project comprised two municipal members and three young people, the latter selected through an open voting process.  

The initiative had the support of the Tirana municipality, ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, international organisations and others – even the business sector, which in Albania is not close to civil society. “The experience helped us at NYC to build capacity and support local youth organisations, non-formal groups and individuals: for instance, we established a granting scheme through which we financed 440 youth projects throughout the whole country. 

“We also boosted cooperation while remaining non-political and non-partisan. We proved that we have the skills and capacity to produce results,” said Topalli.

Today the National Youth Congress represents a driving force in civil society, and a bridge between the voices of young people and policy-makers, doing what any civil society organisation should do – pick up an issue of interest and need, develop it with a target group, raise it to advocacy level, and pressure policy-makers for support in pushing it forward.”  

A vigorous and effective civil society is difficult to ignore. 

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