How Trash Paves the Way to Democracy

TEXT: Shayda Smart, Masha Scholl - 10. December 2020

At six o’clock in the morning each day, Milot Hasimja is ready to help clean up Kosovo. Often, this involves drawing attention to problematic areas on social media, tagging the head of the municipality involved. Other times, he takes a more hands-on approach. “It started with my father,” he says. “As a child, I always saw him taking out the rubbish behind the building, in the entrance of our home… everywhere. Most people saw him as crazy. I continued to do the same work as my father did. I always have plastic bags. I’m always cleaning.”

Milot is not alone. Across the Western Balkans and beyond, civic activity surrounding waste management is bringing people - many who are normally more politically passive or skeptical - together for a common cause.

“When the DEMOS project in Kosovo started facilitating meetings between municipalities and citizens to improve the civic dialogue, participation at the beginning was generally low,” recalls Majlinda Jupoli from Helvetas in Kosovo. The topic of waste management, however, guaranteed a high turnout. Her colleague Norbert Pijls offers an explanation: waste is “the same problem for everyone. There is no ethnic positioning around waste. A Kosovo Serb and a Kosovo Albanian would agree that they want to live in a clean city. It [waste] unites across borders, ethnicities and religions.” Milot agrees that the issue transcends traditional divisions. He believes that above all, people appreciate seeing the changes. Reflecting on a neighborhood that he managed to help transform, he says, “now if you see the place it’s completely different. It was hell. It was terrible. Now it looks nice. The plants are four or five meters tall.”

One of the obstacles Milot faces in his activism is the mentality of not feeling responsible for keeping public spaces clean. Historically, they were controlled by the state - in the case of Kosovo, by the communist Yugoslavia, hostile to Kosovar Albanians. “If you go inside people’s homes, it’s clean,” Milot says, “because they used to stay in their houses a lot.” Here, on the doorstep, lay - and often still lies today - the border between an individual and the distrusted government.

Milot Hasimja, a journalist and chief editor at the Kosovar television network Klan Kosova, was featured in a campaign by the DEMOS project, which promoted local heroes who actively promoted cleaning illegal dump sites.
© From Milot Hasimja's personal archive
“If you want to fix something big, you have to start with small things - planting trees, taking out the rubbish, trying to push government officials to do the work they’re paid for,” says Milot. © From Milot Hasimja's personal archive

The waste problem and echoes of the communist past

The newly liberated countries of Southeastern Europe were eager to move away from the centralization of communist rule and strengthen their local governments. But this hasn’t been an easy journey. Local governments rely on the cooperation of citizens, which is only possible if there is mutual trust. Trust is not easily earned after a history of excessive control. 

“The notion of civic engagement was misused for a long time,” Valbona Karakaçi from Helvetas says. “The communist regime abused citizen participation by using it for ideological purposes. When the regime changed, people wanted to get divorced from the state. The abuse from the regime widened the gap between the state and people.” Her colleague Arben Kopliku from the Bashki të Forta project in Albania agrees that this impact on today’s problems in communication between state and citizens has been part of the legacy of the communist period. “People do not see the state as their own, but as separate.” 

Today, the nations of the Western Balkans might be past espionage and central planning, but old ways and continuing problems such as corruption and political turmoil don’t help the cause. When Antike Torba became responsible for waste management in the municipality of Diber, Albania, she faced distrust and skepticism from all directions: the citizens, the municipal councilors, and even Diber’s numerous mayors (at one point, the municipality went through four mayors in 18 months, including one arrested for sexually harassing an employee). “Citizens had a fixed conviction that even if they knocked on the doors of the municipality, the municipality will continue doing its own thing. They did not expect to be heard. Even the complaints were made through friendly channels, not in an official way,” she recalls. 

One of the challenges that Antike Torba had faced from her first working day in municipal waste management is that the sector was only comprised of men, who were not used to working with women, let alone being led by them.
In this and the previous photograph, Antike Torba talks at the final event of the dldp project.

Antike faced widespread skepticism, political turmoil, and corruption; but with significant effort, she also saw things gradually change before her eyes. Counterintuitively, one sign of progress was an increase in official complaints from citizens. If they took the time to submit a complaint, it meant that they expected to be heard.

Invaded by a swarm of plastic bags, beer cans, and candy wrappings

Capitalism brought hopes of a new relationship between the state and the citizens - but also an abundance of trash. “The waste problem came with capitalist production methods and the amount of packing involved,” says Norbert Pijls. 

“The society in the Western Balkans was exposed to the marketing part of economic development very quickly - faster than public awareness could keep up about the implications of waste for the environment,” Valbona Karakaçi adds. Suddenly, she says, “there were hills of waste in the rivers and plastic in the forests. Both the people and the state were unprepared. Notions like waste treatment, incinerators, landfills, carbon, pollution … were new for our education system.” All this, she says, led to disaster. 

Governments, nonprofits, and citizens rushed to find solutions. In the process, they not only learned a fair deal about waste, but also transformed their perceptions of a democratic society.

Why waste management is fertile ground for governance learning experience

“For politics, garbage is a very powerful tool,” says René Véron, professor of social geography at the University of Lausanne. “It starts stinking, looks ugly, attracts pests. It doesn’t go away. If you can control the waste, it gives you a lot of power.” René argues that by studying the waste, one can analyze larger political processes. “Corruption, modernization and social spatial segregation can all be better understood by looking into waste management. It helps to have something very concrete to start with. Something that at first sight does not look political, even though it is very political.”

Félix Schmidt, an international consultant and lecturer at EPFL Lausanne, believes that waste management is “a fantastic tool to improve all levels of local governance.” Municipalities are obliged to learn financial management (e.g., budgeting, setting tarifs), logistics (e.g., managing equipment, contracting), and governance (e.g., HR management, consulting citizens). If one link of the chain doesn’t function properly, the whole can’t work either. 

Waste management also serves as a litmus test for a working social contract. “In a social contract, everyone has to play their role,” Valbona Karakaçi says. When people avoid responsibility or shift blame to others, as is often the case with waste, the social contract is broken. Félix Schmidt recounts how mayors sometimes said to him: “Help us educate people to be clean.” He objected: “No, first we should organize and provide a basic service to the population by collecting the waste regularly, then we can educate people to put waste in the containers and clean the public spaces.” Cleaning up streets requires relatively low investments in trucks, containers, and staff - but with these low investments, the government can achieve a quick and tangible improvement in the quality of life, inspiring the trust of citizens and motivating them to contribute their share.

© Felix Schmidt
These two photographs show the same location in the Albanian municipality of Shkodra. The first one was taken in 2007 and the second just before the publication of this article.  © Felix Schmidt
"These photographs show how waste management can be a tool to improve the quality of life of the population," says Félix Schmidt (who provided the images).

While some governments seem to be unaware that they need to purchase a container before asking people to throw trash in it, purchasing equipment is actually the easier part. They are even less inclined to take unpopular measures such as enforcing fines and raising taxes. Mayors, for example, are unlikely to jeopardize the significant perks of their position merely to ensure the collection of relatively small fees.

Fee collection has its own set of barriers. Valbona Karakaçi attributes a general reluctance to pay to the lingering communist mentality outlined above. “During the communist regime you expect that everything is provided by the state, and you don’t pay taxes. People are not very aware that the state works with their money. The expectations towards the state are much higher than the payment of the tariffs and taxes.” Additionally, she adds, a segment of society cannot afford to pay.

This is further complicated by a lack of incentives to encourage tax compliance. Because of the health, economic, and political implications of poor waste management, the state often chooses to subsidize waste services. Unsurprisingly, providing services regardless of fee payment creates, as Valbona terms it, a “vicious cycle,” where people see no reason to contribute.

Félix Schmidt has developed a long collaboration working on improving waste management in the Shkodra municipality in Northern Albania. “Collecting money needs political support. At the beginning it was difficult for the authorities to convince the people to pay the tax.” Félix recalls the mayor’s words: “Even though the waste collection tax is very low … How can I force my people who voted for me to pay taxes? They will no longer vote for me.” At the next election, he faced a female opponent, who made an intriguing proposal. She promised to make everyone pay the tax - and explained that collecting more money would allow for a reduction of the tax per household. She was elected. The new mayor signed personal letters to every non-paying citizen, stressing the importance of their contribution. In a few weeks, the municipality had collected more money than the budget, which allowed for improvements to the service.

The story of how respect towards citizens overcame blatant populism is inspiring - and hopefully just one example of many in a new normal for the Western Balkans.

Moving on to bigger issues

Addressing all logistical, financial, and governance challenges to make towns and villages clean is a long process. Waste management opens the gate to daunting questions beyond cleanliness, too. Making sure all waste goes to landfills is an important milestone. Unfortunately, waste accumulates, and landfills inevitably encroach nearer to people’s homes. This leads to a whole new set of problems - yet also creates opportunities for more meaningful change. This will be a topic for one of our next articles.

Shayda Smart is a student of International Studies with The Open University. Masha Scholl is responsible for global communications and regional communications in Eastern Europe. 

This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

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