These days if you Google “Tirana,” Albania’s vibrant capital city, you will find a plethora of articles highlighting the city’s rapid transformation and reinvigoration, with much of this positive change attributed to the vision of its young, Western-educated mayor Erion Veliaj. Mr. Veliaj, who took office in 2015 after a career in the NGO world, was a political outsider and rose to power on a wave of hope that he would introduce a new brand of governance—one that included cleaning up entrenched, systemic corruption. Mr. Veliaj frequently emphasized this theme, together with the need for greater accountability more generally. He represents a cohort of young politicians in the region who promise radical change to voters craving leaders truly dedicated to fighting for everyday people instead of special groups and political machines.
Yet despite his professed commitment to clean government, Mr. Veliaj hasn’t been terribly vocal about high-level corruption (including the scandals within his own Socialist party), nor has he done much to address concerns about a lack of transparency in public procurement. Instead, he has focused on going after some of his municipality’s most vulnerable populations, like street vendors (see here). Yes, it’s true that these vendors typically do not have the requisite licenses, and some pay bribes in order to be able to operate. However, these street vendors, who work in the informal economy out of necessity, are hardly the engine of corruption in Tirana and wider Albanian society. Rather than treating the street vendors as criminals, Mr. Veliaj would do better to adopt an alternative strategy that would both protect this vulnerable population by integrating them into the formal economy, and tamp down the associated corruption problems.
- First of all, many street vendors operate in the informal economy not because they are scofflaws, but due to unnecessary barriers to formal participation, including the lengthy and confusing business registration process. This process enables unscrupulous government officials to demand informal payments (that is, bribes), which exacerbates the problem. The vast majority of street vendors would like to get permits for their businesses and operate legally. Treating the vendors as perpetrators of corruption attacks the wrong end of the problem, because it is often corruption (in the form of bribes demands during the registration process) that makes it impossible for the vendors to participate in the formal sector in the first place.
- One concrete way to address the problem would be for the municipal government to allow vendors to register with city and tax authorities in one location with extended hours and more staff to minimize long wait times. Publicizing this simplified procedure (preferably on television or online) would encourage entrance into the formal economy. This one-stop-shop model has been piloted in the Republika Srpska (the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina) with large success.
- The municipality should also focus its crackdown not on the street vendors, who are more victims than instigators of corruption, but instead on the corrupt public officials who extort bribes from would-be business registrants. One way to do this would be to set up a corruption hotline or online portal where citizens could report bribe requests. Another, potentially more controversial strategy would be to work with local civil society to do spot checks for corrupt practices—for example, law enforcement agents or civil society members could pose as registrants and documents their experiences, including whether they were solicited for bribes.
- More generally, the municipal government can work with civil society to learn more about the needs and challenges of the street vendor community, including corruption-related problems. This sort of engagement can help transform the negative relationship the government has had with these populations into something more positive. It might also help the government figure out how best to further reform the business registration requirements and adjust permit fees to a more reasonable price, so as to encourage better compliance and generate more income for the city. This attempt to tackle corruption in a nuanced way, while also building better relations with this community, shows other constituent groups and cities that reform is possible and the local government is meeting people’s needs.
Mr. Veliaj often speaks about his childhood, recounting stories about selling figs on the sidewalks of Tirana to support his mother and make ends meet. He, as well as anyone, should understand what it’s like to be in a vulnerable situation. His misguided focus on cracking down on informal street vendors may play well with some of his more affluent supporters, but if he’s serious about fighting corruption and improving the lives of all of Tirana’s citizens, he should recognize and address the root causes of the problem, rather than further penalizing the victims. It’s true that tackling the more serious forms of engrained, high-level corruption is of course much more challenging, but a mayor like Mr. Veliaj has considerable power to usher in structural change within his sphere of influence, and more broadly to set the tone for other leaders.