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Masahiro Ueki, Chief Representative, JICA Balkan Office

Many New Opportunities For Cooperation

JICA’s cooperation in Serbia will continue based on the Initiative and Country Assistance Policy, while the priority sectors for cooperation will remain private sector development and environmental protection

JICA is an incorporated administrative agency established on the basis of Japanese law and responsible for administering Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). As one of the world’s largest comprehensive bilateral development assistance agencies, JICA is implementing cooperation in 139 countries and regions around the world, including the Western Balkans. This cooperation includes the ODA loan scheme, with 12 billion USD allocated annually, as well as Technical Cooperation and Grant Aid, with an annual budget of 2.4 billion USD.

“For Western Balkan countries, which are on the path of accession to the EU, 2022 was a year of noticeable progress. In July, Albania and North Macedonia officially started accession negotiations, while in December Bosnia-Herzegovina obtained candidate country status. Furthermore, a new cabinet was inaugurated in Serbia last October and Prime Minister Brnabić stated that EU accession was one of the country’s main priorities. Based on these facts, we recognise that the opportunity to achieve EU accession is increasing,” says Masahiro Ueki, Chief Representative of the JICA Balkan Office.

As a cooperation strategy of the Government of Japan towards the Western Balkans, previous Japanese Prime Minister Abe launched the “Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative” in January 2018. This initiative aims to support socioeconomic reforms towards EU accession and promote cooperation among the Western Balkan countries. As an agency of the Japanese government, JICA also leads the cooperation that is aligned with this Initiative. “JICA’s cooperation therefore also supports the Western Balkans’ EU accession and we can say that now is the right moment for us to cooperate for the Western Balkans,” says our interlocutor.

How do you approach green transition in the region and what are your major projects in Serbia in that area?

The aforementioned Initiative raises environmental protection as one of the cooperation areas. Moreover, in the “Country Assistance Policy for Serbia”, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan lists the environmental sector as the priority area of cooperation. Cooperation in the environmental sector, including green transition, is therefore also one of the very important pillars for JICA.

I can give an example from Serbia. As one green transition measure, renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, have been introduced worldwide. However, as power generation from renewable sources depends on the climate and time, and fluctuates so much, it is difficult to generate enough power to meet the demand. In Japan, more renewable energy has been generated, and the power grid is planned and in operation to be able to maintain its overall efficiency and reliability even if the power grid accepts renewable energy.

JICA’s volunteers have been warmly welcomed by their host institutions, colleagues and citizens, who make them feel at home. If you happen to see our volunteers somewhere, try to speak to them in Serbian

If this kind of technology, knowledge and experience is shared in Serbia, which is planning to introduce more renewable energy, it would contribute to the overall improvement of power supply reliability and also the future realisation of a decarbonised society. In this regard, JICA has invited 10 engineers from Serbian public enterprises EMS and EPS to visit Japan for one month from January this year. During their stay in Japan, they will visit Japan’s electric power company and transmission company to learn about the latest power grid planning theory and the facility’s operational method, and also to devise an action plan to incorporate the knowledge gaind into their efforts to include more renewable energy in the future. This type of programme doesn’t imply mimicking Japanese example, but rather jointly creating an action plan that’s applicable in Serbia. We therefore call this type of programme a Knowledge Co-Creation Programme (KCCP).

Which other areas of intervention are in your focus?

According to Japan’s Country Assistance Policy for Serbia, private sector development has been recognised as another priority area of cooperation. Most efforts have been exerted in the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and tourism. JICA and RAS (the Development Agency of Serbia) have been collaborating for over 15 years in establishing a mentoring service based on the Japanese model, in which mentors and managers of SMEs jointly diagnose problems and work on the improvement of operations. At this moment, JICA has been supporting the introduction of mentoring services to neighbouring countries and RAS has been participating in the project by generously sharing its achievements in the mentoring field. This kind of promotion of cooperation among the Western Balkan countries is one of the goals of the Initiative. JICA considers RAS a long-term reliable partner.

Furthermore, a new project in the development of the private sector is the Project NINJA (Next INnovation with JApan). This acronym is symbolic and easy to relate to cooperation with Japan. JICA last year selected seven start-up companies from Serbia, which received a mentoring service and management capacity building from Japanese companies during the acceleration programme phase over the following three months. At the pitch event, to be held in early February this year, each start-up will present their business plan to Japanese investors. We expect Project NINJA to lead Serbian start-ups to get interested in Japan and Asia as their future business markets.

How has the engagement of JICA in Serbia changed over years and where do you see the greatest impact of the work of JICA in Serbia?

The turning point for JICA was the opening of its Balkan Office in Belgrade in October 2006. The gap between JICA and Serbian government institutions has narrowed ever since, and the efficiency of work has improved significantly. Interestingly, JICA’s cooperation in Serbia prior to that was focused on the restoration and reconstruction of socioeconomic infrastructure. One example is the donation of “yellow buses” through the Grant Aid scheme. Not long after the Balkan Office was established, market-oriented economy and environmental protection were recognised as important sectors requiring assistance, and JICA started cooperating in those sectors. This change actually leads to the fact that private sector development and environmental protection are the main pillars of cooperation in the current Country Assistance Policy for Serbia. Around this period, JICA began changing its activities by monitoring the situation and needs of Serbia.

The biggest impact of JICA’s activities in Serbia is reflected in the establishment of a relationship of mutual trust between Japan and Serbia. If we take KCCP as an example, more than 800 officials from Serbian public institutions have participated in KCCPs in Japan. For those people who visited Japan from Serbia, KCCP brought not only a learning experience regarding Japan’s superb technology, but also an opportunity to experience the Japanese culture and lifestyle. Former KCCP participants, after returning to Serbia, have continued to support JICA’s activities all around the country. Moreover, these former KCCP participants have established an alumni association in Serbia, through which they disseminate the knowledge gained during their KCCP, but also promote Japanese culture. These activities are highly valuable for JICA. Not to forget that Serbia generously supported Japan after an earthquake that hit the country in 2011. Relations of mutual trust between our two countries have been strengthened at individual, institutional and cross-national levels, and JICA is proud to have contributed to this.

Where do you see potential to develop your activities in Serbia over the long run?

JICA’s cooperation in Serbia will continue based on the Initiative and Country Assistance Policy, while the priority sectors for cooperation will remain private sector development and environmental protection. Regarding public sector development, JICA has been conducting a survey of current conditions in the tourism sector in the Western Balkans. The tourism sector was hit hard by the pandemic and was followed by the changing behaviour of tourists compared to the time prior to the outbreak. It is therefore obvious that government policies in the tourism sector and business models also need to change accordingly. In Japan, during the peak of the pandemic, overseas travel was restricted and our government introduced subsidised costs for domestic travel.

The turning point for JICA was the opening of the Balkan Office in Belgrade in October 2006. The gap between JICA and Serbian government institutions has narrowed ever since, and the efficiency of work has improved significantly

There were even times when the number of infected people was low and domestic tourism was thriving. Many people realised that they could still enjoy travelling in the country, without travelling abroad. Maybe something similar happens here as well, and people from the Western Balkans might realise that they can enjoy travelling around the region. Having these points in mind, JICA will consider the needs of the tourism sector and the cooperation JICA can implement. Our government received a request from the Serbian Government last summer to dispatch a Japanese expert on the promotion of tourism and now our government is processing this request. If this request is adopted, our government will instruct us to dispatch an expert. In this case, we will reflect the results of the mentioned survey in this expert’s terms of reference and launch the procedure to secure the expert.

The JICA Balkan Office and the University of Belgrade recently established the “JICA Chair” Programme at the University. What are your expectations of that programme?

Japan is the very first country and still one of the very few countries to have modernised from a non-Western background. Based on this recognition, JICA started the “JICA Chair (JICA Programme for Japanese studies)” in 2020, in order to offer an opportunity for future leaders at leading universities to learn about Japan’s modernisation and development experiences, which differ from those of Western countries. A JICA Chair has so far been introduced to leading universities in 62 countries, including the University of Belgrade.

The JICA Chair in Serbia was established in March 2022, as one of the events marking the 140th anniversary of friendship between Japan and Serbia, and also as a joint programme with the University of Belgrade. Four lectures have to date been held on topics related to diplomacy, education, the position of Japan in Asia and philosophers of the Meiji era. Moreover, in June 2022, JICA donated 64 books on Japan to the Faculty of Philology and, recently, DVD material with lectures on Japanese modernisation with subtitles in Serbian. JICA hopes that future leaders will contribute to the development of Serbia and the further strengthening of bilateral relations between our two countries.

The JICA Volunteer programme is again active in Serbia. How many of your volunteers are in Serbia today and where are they placed?

Since 2009, when the volunteer programme started in Serbia, 34 Japanese volunteers have been dispatched to Serbia. When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, JICA asked all volunteers dispatched worldwide to return to Japan and, unfortunately, all volunteers also had to leave Serbia. However, in December 2020, when the situation with COVID-19 stabilised for a while, some volunteers started returning to Serbia, so Serbia again welcomed JICA volunteers. As of January 2023, seven volunteers have been engaged in activities in Serbia. Based on the request from the Serbian government, we plan to increase the number of incoming volunteers in the coming period.

There is currently one volunteer in the capital city of Belgrade, while all others are dispatched across the country – from Novi Sad in the north to Niš in the south. The activities that they are mainly focused on include support to persons with disabilities, martial arts, rural development (food production, tourism, disaster risk reduction etc.). All of them have experience from Japan in their respective fields and came to contribute to Serbia with their knowledge and experience. Since the volunteers work at public institutions, educational institutions and NGOs, they are also making efforts to learn Serbian, as they are working alongside their Serbian colleagues. JICA’s volunteers have been warmly welcomed by their host institutions, colleagues and citizens, who make them feel at home. If you happen to see our volunteers somewhere, try to speak to them in Serbian.

IMPACT

The greatest impact of JICA’s activities in Serbia is reflected in the establishment of relations of mutual trust between Japan and Serbia

START-UPS

We expect Project NINJA to lead Serbian start-ups to get interested in Japan and Asia as their future business markets

KNOWLEDGE

The JICA Programme for Japanese studies offers the opportunity for future leaders at leading universities to learn about Japan’s modernisation and development experiences