Our profession accompanies us all life long. Was your decision to pursue this profession a calculated one, or was it more spontaneous, like an inner vocation or calling?
I am an economist by training, and I would say it was more of an inner calling. I was always interested in the real world and policy issues, and I believed in the idea of economic justice even as a kid – like most kids instinctively do.
I was 19 in college in my second year at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, majoring in mathematics. I recall walking on campus one day and thinking to myself “Math is too abstract and theoretical” so I switched to economics since i was interested in policy and using quantitative analysis to address real world issues, and economics seemed the best way to combine them.
What have been the key moments that have marked your professional and personal journey?
They key moments in life are always the earliest ones since they determine your path.
At the professional level, the first key moment was an internship in Washington DC while in college that gave me a taste for economic policy analysis. That led to a job as Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution in Washington, graduate school in Economics at the University of Wisconsin, and later jobs at Dartmouth College, the World Resources Institute, and the World Bank as an energy and environmental economist. Then I left it all to be engaged on Albanian issues for the last 20 years, but I think it was all good preparation for my life as a “Born Again Albanian”.
At the personal level, the first time I really went out on my own was hitchhiking 10,000 miles around United States at age 21. This combined with a trip around the world for three months at age 28 cemented my sense of adventure, my desire to work internationally, and my basic instincts to trust that strangers will usually help you so its better to be open with people instead of guarded and careful. I was never on a plane until age 15,, and growing up middle class in Braintree Massachusetts (ten miles south of Boston), I guess I had a lot of catching up to do!!
It is often said that when it comes to success there is no master key to open every door, but in your case, was there a key to open up your own road to success?
It might sound like a cliche, but I guess the key was my parents and brothers. Looking back, nothing stands out. My parents never were able to go to college, but they pushed my older brothers and myself and my twin brother to study a lot and do well in school. I was too scared of my Albanian-American mother to not do well in school!!
In terms of professional events, nothing stands out — no outstanding mentors, no awards, no shining moment where I stood out, nothing special. My professional life has been more like a series of small continuous events building on each other, but without any set plan. It’s kind of like in a basketball game — you don’t notice all the passes that might set up a big shot, but they are just as important as the shot in the end.
We do not grow through easy times but through adversity. What have been some of the most difficult challenges you would identify in your own life?
I recall having a major anxiety attack when I was around 35. I was on medication for a few months, questioned my sanity, couldn’t work for about a week. A few times not knowing if I would get a good job made me question my self-confidence. In graduate school there were a few bumps in the road in the beginning where I wondered if I would ever do a PhD or not – I guess it was the first time in my life where I was a below-average student compared to my peers, so sometimes my self-confidence suffered. But, I have never experienced major tragedy and difficulty like some people have. Still it’s good to struggle and fail since it makes you stronger and tougher. if I were a boxer I would not be the type who could throw strong punches to win by a knockout, but I think I can take plenty of punches and outlast others.
We are often caused to look back and ask ourselves what our lives would look like had we chosen differently. How has the final balance of your decisions worked out so far?
Its worked out good enough. I saw an interview with Madonna once and they asked her about mistakes she made earlier in her life and she replied “I don’t believe in mistakes…everything you do in life get’s who to where you have been and where you are going”. I have the same deterministic outlook on life. I don’t really have regrets or question the past – what’s past is prologue as Shakespeare said.
If the greatest achievement a person can make is to continually outdo himself/herself, which of your personal accomplishments do you consider your most triumphant?
I don’t really think this way. I guess the fact that I never went to my high school, college, or graduate school graduations indicates that. The only diploma I have in my possession is my high school one, and I lost my PhD thesis probably 30 years ago. So, what I am trying to say is I don’t think of anything I have done as any sort of major accomplishment, and certainly I have no sense of triumph about anything. You just go through life doing things, and trying to make the world a better place as you go. It’s just all part of a process. As one of my older brothers once said to me “you don’t want to be something (doctor, lawyer, etc..)…. you want to do something (help people, promote justice, etc…)”. I never wanted to be an economist or an active member of the Albanian community – it just happened as as life evolved. Life is like a soccer or basketball game – sometimes you shoot and sometimes you pass, but you spend most of your time moving around without the ball. Every once in awhile the ball comes to you, and you do the best you can when it does, but to be effective you can’t dwell on past accomplishments or failures.
What memories of the past and experiences of the present does the word “Homeland” evoke for you?
I was born and raised in Boston in the United States. My family came to America 100 years ago from Korce. We were American Monday to Saturday, and Albanian on Sundays. I did not learn Albanian as a kid – except for how to swear. I describe myself now as a “born-again” Albanian so I feel a connection to the “homeland” of Albania in that sense. I know that being Albanian is a big part of my identity and the values I have, but I did not begin to realize that until I was in my mid-thirties and started going to Albania for the World Bank in May of 1992. Eating lakror at grandma’s on Sunday only teaches you so much, you know. I had to travel to Albania and the ancestral villages of my grandparents and to live in Albania to begin to appreciate the influence of Albanian culture on me since I grew up at a time when Albania was hermetically sealed. To me, as a kid and a young adult, Albania was like the moon – far away, mysterious, and you couldn’t go there. I spent a lot of time in Albania from 1992-1999, but have only visited maybe 5 times in the last 20 years. My most vivid memories are I guess living in Albania in March 1997 and the aftermath, hiking in the mountains to my grandparents village Trebicka, and the fun and joy of meeting many nice long lost cousins as an adult whom I am still in touch with.
What quality have you inherited from your homeland that has most helped you to integrate and become successful?
I think the best quality I inherited is the fun-loving Albanian nature. Whether an immigrant or native-born American, few things make you more effective than getting people to like you, smile, and enjoy your company. I don’t mean that you have to go dancing or drinking and that only “aheng” is fun – fun isn’t what you do, it is a state of mind and either you have it or you don’t. Most Albanians have it – albeit often combined with some other not so good qualities. My father and my uncles were all fun and lively guys joking and singing all the time (when they weren’t arguing with each other), and that joy for life rubbed off on me, and I try to use it to do good.
Based on your personal experience, what does the word “immigrant” mean and have you experienced any consequences of this status?
I am not an immigrant, so I cannot comment on that. I know lots of immigrants (not just Albanians) and am engaged with some immigrant organizations, so I think I have some appreciation for the struggles immigrants go through, but I can never understand it as an immigrant can. Its like if I see someone get punched in the nose and i can think to myself “that must hurt”, but until I get punched in the face, I can’t really understand it.
How do you think cooperation and collaboration between Albanians could be improved?
I could write forever on this. The most important thing is to create institutions at the national and global level that promote more engagement in the Global Albanian community. For the most part, Albanian diaspora organizations are only effective at the local level. At national levels they are weak to nonexistent, and for sure at the global level we have nothing. Combine this with weak government institutions for engaging the diaspora and much is left to be desired to improve collaboration among Albanians. This is why I am happy to be engaged as the Chair of Germin, the Global Albanians Foundation, and the Massachusetts Albanian American Society.
What should have been different in your home country?
I was born and raised in America and not Albania like my grandparents. It not that fair for me to judge Albania as a whole since I have not spent much time there in the last 20 years. But I can say there are certain qualities that Albanians in Albania have that I think are unhealthy and counterproductive. Albanians dwell too much on pessimism, cynicism, unsubstantiable gossip, ethnic stereotyping, and belief in conspiracy theories – like many other people in the Balkans including Kosovo (Although I do think Albanians from Kosova are less negative in their outlook than those from Albania). I grew up in America – to me all the negativity is a bunch of old-fashioned BS and waste of time and energy that holds Albanians back everywhere. Americans might think too much about the future without understanding the past, but Albanians think too much about the past and not the future.
Do you think that the access the Albanian government has undertaken towards the diaspora is right? Can you express concretely what you would like from the government
They have done a very poor job of working with the Diaspora. They need to establish more formal structures for collaborating with the diaspora, and they need to develop these structures together with the diaspora and not dictate them through laws, summits, and government-appointed councils as they have up until now. I have been a very outspoken critic of the Prime Minister and State Minister for Diaspora in recent months since they disappointed me and many others in the large Albania Diaspora for many reasons too long to explain here. You cannot effectively work with the huge Albanian Diaspora which is now very accustomed to western standards with top-down government-driven initiatives. Hundreds of people who attended the first Diaspora Summit in November 2016 did not attend the second one in February 2019 since the feeling was the government was insincere in its efforts to engage the Global Albanian community. It has to be more collaborative, but there is little culture of collaboration from our government counterparts. If they cannot even answer simple emails and only broadcast on social media and not engage in discussion it is very difficult to have much confidence in their ability to move things forward in a positive and sincere manner. The concept of a Ministry of Diaspora to me makes no sense for Albania or Kosova since Diaspora is not one sector like agriculture, energy, or transport, but rather something that covers many disciplines and should be interministerial. More importantly there should be only one combined Agency for Diaspora for both countries since otherwise the institutional framework will never reflect the fact that we are one Albanian diaspora and not many – institutions can never be effective if they do not reflect reality.
While you are busy making plans, change remains the constant and unstoppable of time. What are your plans for the future?
I don’t plan more than a few months ahead. I prefer to go with the flow., and I love change. My main plan is to continue as Chair of Germin and the Global Albanians Foundation for the foreseeable future to better promote the engagement of the large Global Albanian Community. Not sure how it will happen or if I will be effective, but I enjoy the ride and don’t worry too much about the exact final destination. After all, that is what being open-minded and adventurous is all about. Sure we have plans to promote Albanian Diaspora Philanthropy and a Global Albanian Professionals and Entrepreneurs Database and Network, but ironing out the details will be a flexible and adjustable process over time.
“The Albanian” now has over 1 million online followers. What would be your motivational message to them?
Don’t be cynical, don’t be pessimistic. Enjoy what you do every day, and the details will take care of themselves. When i was 30 i asked my 50 year old boss if he ever got cynical and he had a great answer “No, Mark, being cynical is for younger people… as you get older you just accept that change is slow and you keep slugging away every day.”