Interview with Elton Stafa (NALAS)

Underlining the relevance of the newly launched working group on decentralisation, local governance and inclusive local finance within the DeLoG network.

Elton Stafa is a senior expert and program manager in the field of public policy, local governance and fiscal decentralisation. At NALAS, the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (SEE), his work is focused on supporting the policy advocacy efforts of member Local Government Associations, supporting municipal development potential and facilitating regional peer-learning and knowledge sharing and capacity building. Elton coordinates the NALAS Fiscal Task Force, leads the development of the NALAS series on fiscal decentralisation, and coordinates the NALAS Observatory, a unique knowledge hub providing access to timely, accurate, reliable and comparable data and information on decentralisation, local governance and local finance in SEE. He has an extensive experience in designing and implementing decentralization legislation, policies, and reforms working for NALAS, Ministry of Finance of Albania, USAID, GIZ, ADA and World Bank. He manages NALAS’s development projects EU4Municipalities, BACID-III, PLATFORMA and LoGov. Elton is from Albania, holds a Master of Science in European Economy and Business Law and is author and co-author of many publications on public finance, decentralization and local governance. 

DeLoG: As DeLoG’s current Focal Point at NALAS, we would appreciate if you could tell us a little bit more about your current work at NALAS and how you got involved with NALAS in the first place?

Elton Stafa: Let me take you back to when I first encountered NALAS. It was in 2015 while I was working on a USAID local government project in Albania. NALAS had previous collaborations with the project, and we jointly supported the government of Albania in improving fiscal decentralization reform. Our aim was to develop new policies and legislation based on successful practices in neighboring countries. At the time, Albania did not have a comprehensive local government finance law like other countries in the region. NALAS played a crucial role, as they brought together experts from various countries in the region to share good practices and lessons learned and prepared a regional comparative survey on ‘Best Practices in Municipal Finance Legislation in South-East Europe’. With their extensive membership of 14 members, national Local Government Associations, we received valuable responses and insights. This was particularly beneficial for stakeholders in Albania, as they could assess different regulatory approaches and choose the best options considering their priorities and the local context. Facilitating peer learning and knowledge sharing exchanges to support reform efforts of the Local Government Associations is at the core of the NALAS mandate and it played an essential role in shaping the development of the new local government finance law in Albania. Reflecting on this experience, it was a prime example of different actors working in harmony; the association, the ministry, the donors, and the technical experts from the region collaborated seamlessly.

It was through this joint work that I initially connected with NALAS, and shortly after, I transitioned from the project to joining their team. The transition felt natural, given our strong collaboration and shared focus on local government finance. Working at NALAS has been a fulfilling experience. The team feels like a close family, with everyone dedicated and engaged in the work we do. Despite having a large membership base, we manage to maintain a flat structure where everyone's contributions are valued, and open discussions and knowledge exchange are encouraged. I can't imagine working anywhere else, and I genuinely appreciate the positive environment and the fantastic people I get to work with. The work we do here is incredibly relevant in many ways, and there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes with it. In our sector, it often takes time to see the results of our efforts, but in some cases, like the one I mentioned, we were able to witness the outcomes firsthand. At NALAS, we collaborate closely, develop studies, organize conferences, and facilitate exchanges. It's gratifying to see the tangible results of our work. It reinforces the importance of our efforts and the positive impact we can make. Through the collaborative work we do at NALAS, we are able to bring meaningful changes for local governments and communities. This further strengthens my conviction and happiness in being part of such a remarkable organization.

DeLoG: Why is the nexus of inclusive local finance and DLG relevant to NALAS and why do local fiscal-related topics matter to you (personally)?

Elton Stafa: These factors are fundamental elements for us as they are key elements to making decentralisation work and be able to deploy its benefits.  Through our studies and the preparation of our annual fiscal decentralisation report, we have observed significant progress in administrative and policy aspects, as well as in political decentralization. However, there hasn't been enough progress in fiscal decentralization. Consequently, inclusive local finance and decentralization are key pillars of our work as they are fundamental to the advocacy efforts of our members. Therefore, it is a top priority for NALAS. We produce an annual report on fiscal decentralisation and have also developed the observatory on local governance and finance in Southeast Europe. This observatory serves as a knowledge-sharing and information hub, and it has now evolved into an online platform where people can access data and visualize indicators on various aspects of local governance and finance. The observatory also monitors decentralization progress and includes an index that measures autonomy, quality of services, citizen participation, governance, government responsiveness, and intergovernmental dialogue. Ultimately, the observatory aims to bridge the gap between the need and availability for data for informed policy making. It offers high quality, accurate, reliable and comparable data and  information that is often not readily available or requires significant effort to collect and standardize for meaningful comparisons. Our goal is to continuously update and expand the observatory's content, and we are planning to include the legal framework regulating local governance in each country of the region. This information will support major reforms and ensure that our members can access it quickly when needed.

In our commitment to providing prompt and relevant information, we have also established a learning and knowledge sharing tool called the quick response mechanism. This mechanism allows our members to submit specific and technical questions related to policy development but not only, and our Knowledge Management Assistants from all the member LGAs compile the answers from various experts within a few days or weeks. This peer-to-peer exchange of information helps our members stay informed about how certain aspects of governance, such as waste management or revenue sharing, are regulated in different countries and be able to articulate with facts and concrete examples and good practices from the neighboring countries sharing similar challenges. Domestically, the regional comparisons create a sense of healthy competition and encourages policymakers to learn from successful practices or even failiours in other regions.

DeLoG: According to your personal experience, what can institutions and authorities do to integrate inclusive local finance perspectives into local governance systems?

Elton Stafa: The concept of inclusive local finance is relatively new and can be interpreted differently based on the local context. But fundamentally, I believe it emphasizes the importance of involving relevant stakeholders and institutions, hopefully, early on in the policy development process to address the diverse needs of different constituencies within and across local governments, including urban and rural continuum. Inclusivity is crucial for sustainable outcomes, as excluding key factors and impacted parties leads to failure in the long run. It is important not to forget that regular instruments of local government finance have their own limitations and that innovative development tools are needed to tackle challenges that cannot be addressed through traditional means. For instance, poverty alleviation and territorial development disparities require different approaches beyond relying solely on property taxes. Additionally, although local governments receive general-purpose grants from national governments, these grants are not necessarily designed as development instruments, but rather to bridge the gap between proxies of spending needs and own local revenues. To achieve inclusive finance, there is a need for greater flexibility, innovation, and continuous adaptation, which can be challenging for national governments that have limited capacities and perhaps sometimes are reluctant to relinquish power and resources.

DeLoG: In general, what type of DeLoG network would you like to see and shape in the future, also regarding to the newly launched working group focusing on DLG and inclusive local finance?

Elton Stafa: This collaboration holds great personal and institutional importance. For NALAS DeLog is the getaway to exchange knowledge across geographic regions and among most relevant development actors worldwide. The collaboration between NALAS, DeLoG, and other group members from different institutions working on DLG and finance creates a platform for sharing knowledge and fostering innovative ideas. Our institutional objective is to help our members improve policies and make them more inclusive and sustainable. The working group on inclusive local finance exemplifies this effort, bringing together dedicated individuals representing a wide range of institutions that help shape and support DLG and who support and learn from each other. The impact extends beyond regional boundaries, requiring commitment and energy from participants. The development is seen as crucial for continuing the dialogue and making a positive impact worldwide.

DeLoG: Before we close, is there anything else you would like to add?

Elton Stafa: Our members are incredibly diverse, encompassing a wide range of institutions. Given our focus on promoting inclusive local finance, I encourage you to persist in advocating for inclusivity. Moreover, I invite you to actively participate in the DeLoG Working Group on Inclusive Local Finance. It's crucial to recognize that without an adequate bundle of instruments and sufficient financial resources, our cities and communities will struggle to develop the necessary infrastructure and deliver essential services in the long run. Hence, it holds immense importance. Furthermore, it profoundly impacts our daily lives and shapes our perspectives.


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