Letter from Prishtina

According to the electronic sign outside the Meridien Supermarket and Baku (Bakery), the temperature this afternoon is 35 degrees. Luckily I am leaving later today, as it supposed to get hot later this week.

I have spent the past week here in Kosovo, doing some work with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST). The World Bank is funding the Education System Improvement Project (ESIP) and I have been asked to give support to MEST and the State Council of Teacher Licensing (SCTL) in implementing the sub-component Implementation and Improvements to the Teacher Career System. Specifically, I am working in the three areas of teacher licensing, teacher professional development, and the induction of new teachers. It seemed as good a way as any to spend a week of my holidays!

It’s good to be back in Kosovo. I made multiple visits here from 2001-2007 as part of the Kosovo Education Development Project (KEDP), which was funded by CIDA and implemented by Universalia Management Group and the University of Calgary. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Balkan wars of the late 1990s, and it was an interesting and invigorating time to get introduced to some of the nuances of post-conflict education. I was responsible for the leadership components of KEDP, working initially with school directors (principals) and later with regional education officers, municipal directors of education, and ministry officials. We had a strong office team of Kosovars and an eclectic mix of Canadians who came and went for different parts of the project.

And now I’m back.

It’s not for the first time. I was here briefly in 2014, when as part of the Teacher Certification and Accreditation of Teacher Training Institutions project (TCAP) we brought a group of Afghani educators to visit. The idea then was to show them how Kosovo had evolved, and to show that there were possibilities for growth along the post-conflict continuum. We felt that engaging with people who had gone through what Afghanistan was – and is – experiencing would be helpful. I like to believe it was, for both sides – one to see where they could go, and the other to see how far they’d come. But I only stayed for a couple of days, and didn’t really get a chance to immerse myself back in to Kosovo. Over the past week I’ve had a bit more time, although perhaps not as much as I would have liked. It was all a bit of a rush to get here and fit in a mission before everyone goes on holidays in August.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly the news of my being here was spread around. I have met a lot of people who were in those workshops, in 2001 or 2002 or later, who are now in all sorts of positions of responsibility and authority. It’s always good to see ones’ students doing well, and to have them remember stories from my workshops was quite humbling. It reminds me to be careful of what I say – one never knows where it will go!

In addition to my work with the SCTL, I have managed to spend a bit of time wandering around Prishtina, was able to get away to Prizren for a day out, and last night we had a KEDP reunion. All three have given me some interesting things to think about.

Prishtina is still the busy city it always was, with crazy traffic, blaring car horns, and people sitting in sidewalk cafes for hours with a small macchiato – albeit the best macchiato in the world! But it has also changed. There has not been one power cut in the time I have been here, the water pressure has been good, and the huge number of new high-rise apartment buildings means that the great towers and smoke stacks of the Obiliq power station are no longer visible from the city centre. They used to be ubiquitous, belching flumes of smoke, but now renovations to the burners, new filters, and other advancements have reduced the levels of pollution. I seem to recall that there was a research project, in the early 2000s, either Finnish or Dutch in origin, which claimed that on any given day Obiliq produced as much pollution as Belgium! Perhaps it still does, but not in the same visible ways as before.

I took the bus to Prizren on Sunday. It took the old road, through Shtime and Suhareka, following the same route I travelled on my very first mission to Kosovo in June 2001. Two colleagues from the University of Calgary and I were taken in an old VW Kombi, our driver a German consultant. The road is still the same, but the old military bases are empty now, and the quiet valleys filled with new houses. One thing I noticed was the lack of garbage. There used to be piles of refuse, and thousands of plastic bags littering the roads, but Kosovo is clean now, a huge improvement in both visual and health terms.

And so to Prizren, ah Prizren, which I think is one of the most beautiful cities in the Balkans. The cobbled street, the 15th century mosques, the castle on the hill, the river … all supporting the shops and cafés of modern society. There is an old fountain in the central square, and the legend has it that if you drink from that fountain you will always return. I guess it’s true, I’ve been coming back for 16 years! The German tanks have gone from the checkpoints now, and the BMWs park where the horse carts used to be stacked, but the roasted corn guy still has the brazier going in the same spot, and will no doubt switch to chestnuts in the fall.

After a lovely day spent wandering the city with my friend Sherif and some of his family, drinking coffee, eating ice cream, and watching people watching us, we headed out to Vermice. This small village near the Albanian border is on the edge of a lake, a reservoir really, and has a number of excellent fish restaurants. The restaurants are still there, but the lake has gone! It seems that in reaction to the long hot summer, the Albanians have decided to not open the spillway in the dams on rivers upstream. Unfortunately this means that there is no water at Vermice, and there are now cows being pastured on what was once the lake bed. The restaurants are having to bring the fish in from the rivers of Peja, but that’s OK, the grilled trout is still a wonderful meal!

Yesterday the KEDP gang got together. The numbers are much bigger now, with spouses and children joining the original group. We went to a place which is very popular, it has a bar and tables for the adults, and a fenced in playground for the kids. We told stories, laughed, and had a good evening while the children played. One story sticks in my mind.

One of the team told me that KEDP was different from any other project with which she had been involved. In most projects, she said, questions of impact are limited to results, the measurable outputs. KEDP was successful like that, but it was most successful in the people. “I would never have been confident to do what I do,” she said, “but KEDP gave me confidence. You Canadians gave me that.” The Kosovar team is now diffused in many different areas – people work in government, in foreign embassies, in the private sector. These are the unmeasurable impacts of capacity development, the changes which happen long after the last cheque has been paid and the consultants have, as one once told, “declared victory and gone home.” We tried to bring this same essence of development to TCAP, and faced the same resistance from our government desk officers as we did in KEDP. How does this contribute to results? What are the numbers of people in your workshops? What is the gender ratio? These are important variables, of course, but sitting around a table with eight ex-colleagues, now friends, their partners and families, and listening to them talk about the things they were doing with their lives and how KEDP had helped them to get there, and how they were now taking those principles into their own work – this is true capacity development, I think.

But it’s not all sunshine and macchiato and Peja beer. The birthrate is falling, and Kosovo is facing a similar demographic crunch to many jurisdictions. Indeed, the similarities to PEI are astonishing. A reduced school-aged population, with most of the new families now located in the big cities, raises questions of rural education and the survival of rural schools. In 2015 Kosovo took part in the PISA process for the first time and the results were abysmal, just like they were in PEI. There is an aging teaching population, but young teachers don’t want to go to resource-poor schools outside the urban centres. The SCTL wants to introduce a licensing system that recognizes and rewards teachers who undertake additional professional development, but the financial where-withal to fund these initiatives is not guaranteed.

And so it goes. Education is still the key to development, and responsive systems – not necessarily rich ones – are needed to help prepare the young men and women who will be the future. I hope that my work on this project will make a small contribution to that future, and to Kosovo, a county where I have had the great good fortune to work for many years now, and where I have made many friends.

Falëminderit shüme (thank you very much).

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