The past summer I spent a week in the blazing heat of Tirana, Albania on a youth exchange organized by the EIDP and by Albanian host-organization Beyond Barriers.

The exchange took place from the 26th of July until the 1st of August, the goal of which was to discuss the concept of social inclusion and exchange knowledge and experiences on the topic, mostly through non-formal learning. The group consisted of participants from Armenia, Albania, FYROM, the Netherlands (of which I was one), Bosnia-Herzegovina and Spain.

At first glance Albania might seem like an odd country to organize an exchange focusing on social inclusion as it is comprised almost entirely out of ethnic Albanians, with the only minorities present being Greek or Roma. However, as the week progressed and I learned more about the country as well as the region, I realized that the opposite is true. Tirana was the perfect spot to debate about social inclusion as it clearly showed all the different factors that are needed to have a stable, socially inclusive society, and how these are all interconnected. Albania was a very isolated country during its years of communism, until only after 1990 it became a democracy with a capitalist economy. As a result it is still a relatively poor country, which is in the midst of economic and political development. These poor economic circumstances have a large influence on the level of social inclusion. For example, the underdeveloped transportation infrastructure in Tirana is very hard for elderly or disabled people to use, isolating them as a result. This is just one of many factors influencing the way society includes or excludes people and how the concept is thought of. Also the country’s history, people’s identification with it and the poorly functioning political system have a large influence.

As shortly mentioned above, the learning about social inclusion and the various topics surrounding it was done mainly non-formally. This means that instead of there being a lecturer explaining and a class listening and taking notes, non-formal learning is done through a mix of workshops, role-plays, debates and games. In this way, the process of learning became more of an activity instead of a passive absorption of knowledge.

This method worked quite well in this particular group as there was a huge amount of knowledge between the participants themselves; about the history of their countries, about their culture, about minorities in their countries and the policies regarding them, as well as their own personal experiences. Even more, the group was very diverse, not only in nationality but also in age, occupation and lifestyle, which made the discussions much livelier than if they were being held by a group of same-aged students. This allowed for many beliefs and ideas to be challenged, as what is a common-held belief in the Netherlands or Spain might not be so in Armenia or Albania. For example regarding LGBT rights the opinions were markedly divided between participants from Western-Europe and those from Eastern-Europe; with the former being very much in favor and the latter often disagreeing. What was also interesting were the different concerns regarding inclusion: Dutch and Spanish participants were worried mainly about the inclusion of religious minorities whereas for the Albanian participants this seemed to be no problem, Albania being religiously diverse though deeply secular.

All taken together, the week in Tirana made me realize that social inclusion is a multi-facetted beast but starts at the individual and should be pursued collectively in the public sphere through volunteer-associations, NGO’s, universities, media-outlets, civil society organizations, etc., and cannot be simply imposed or demanded through policy. In short, it takes active citizenship to create a socially stable and inclusive society.