Millions of children left behind as Eastern Europe develops

Despite recent economic growth, two-thirds of Albania's children still live in poverty.

It's 10 o'clock in the morning and Shkelten Daljani, a rambunctious boy of 14 in a tattered "Route 66" T-shirt, should be in school. But if he wants to eat, he has to help his father collect scrap metal to sell. The previous day, he says, there was no metal and no food.

"If we have food, we eat," Shkelten says with a shrug. "If we don't, we don't."

Shkelten and his family live on the outskirts of Albania's capital, Tirana, in the neighborhood of Breju Lumi, which means riverside, though the only nearby water is a dry streambed cluttered with trash. The houses are a collection of concrete blocks and tin shacks without electricity, running water, or sanitation. The streets are little more than dirt lanes.

Shkelten's situation – inadequate housing and sanitation, poor medical care, and occasional hunger – is little different from that of millions of children throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But his home is in the heart of Europe.

Millions of children in the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe have been left behind as their countries made the transition from centralized economies to free-market capitalism. While in absolute numbers the number of poor children has fallen in recent years, advocates and researchers say that a new class of excluded children is emerging who suffer many of the same problems as children in the poorest countries of Africa – but receive far less attention.

"We used to say that everybody was equally poor," says Arlinda Ymeraj, a social-policy officer with the UN Children's Fund in Albania. "Now, if you compare, there are big disparities. A few people have gotten very rich, but more have stayed poor or gotten poorer."

The situation of Albania's children is among Europe's worst. Once one of the most isolated nations, the country remains one of the continent's poorest countries.

Despite recent economic growth, a third of Albania's children live on less than $2 a day. And according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), a staggering 35 percent of children in rural areas are malnourished; in urban areas, 17 percent are. In terms of child malnutrition – measured by the percentage of children under age 5 who are underweight – the World Bank puts Albania just above Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

Leonardo Menchini, a researcher for UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy, says no one is certain why so many children in Albania are malnourished and that more research needs to be done since the statistics are based only on a handful of studies. Still, he says, "The data for Albania are quite shocking."

Ms. Ymeraj says that it is difficult to compare the situation of children today with that during communist times, but that life has deteriorated for the poorest in a number of concrete ways.

The state no longer guarantees jobs, houses, or healthcare, as it did before. In rural areas, industry and state-farm collectives have collapsed, leaving people to fend for themselves, and many government services are no longer available. In rural areas, for example, 85 percent of secondary schools have shut their doors.

Researchers say that poverty is becoming increasingly entrenched, particularly in rural areas, among Albania's minority Roma population and in families with children. Indeed, across the region, countries with the lowest birthrates also have the lowest poverty levels.

"What has emerged is the concentration of disadvantage. Families with children seem more disadvantaged than before, relatively speaking," says Menchini, emphasizing that the state must do more to protect children. "It's important for these counties to invest in social services. They have to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty."

Jalldyz Ymeri, a young grandmother who lives near the Daljani family, says in communist days she would not have nearly lost her 3-year-old grandson Orgito – a spiky-haired boy with angelic eyes – whom races around the family's dirt yard as she watches. A few months earlier, the boy fell seriously ill, and Ymeri had to bribe a doctor to see him.

"The medicines to cure him are very expensive," she says. "Sometimes we have to choose between food or medicine. Nobody will treat us if we don't pay."

"For us it was much better in communist times," insists Ymeri's husband, Safet. "We were obliged to go to school. The government gave us housing. We like democracy, but this is not real democracy."

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