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Denny Robertson, USAID Serbia Mission Director

Striving To Support Serbia In Advancing Its Growth

We will continue working together with all willing Serbian partners – from government, to media, to civil society and small business – to help Serbia fully integrate into European structures, and to help the country achieve its full political, social, and economic potential ~ Denny Robertson

We have two long-term goals that we share with our Serbian partners. The first is to help citizens access reliable information, engage with their government, and work collaboratively to meet today’s challenges and chart a better future. Our second goal is to help all of Serbia’s people prosper by helping businesses grow and access new economic opportunities – says USAID Mission Director Denny Robertson, with whom we discussed the USAID legacy in Serbia and future plans.

In addition to the aforementioned goals, USAID also focused on helping Serbia mitigate the impact of Covid-19 during the past few years. “Serbia’s response was strong. So, USAID helped fill the gaps by delivering diagnostic equipment, ambulances, and public health education. We are now supporting health professionals in their outreach to increase acceptance of vaccines”, explains our interlocutor.

“Our USAID projects touch so many people throughout Serbia, but we’re particularly pleased that, during the last year, we reached millions of citizens with information about digitalization and cybersecurity; our civil society partners managed to collect 70 tons of food for the country’s most vulnerable families, and to increase Serbia’s philanthropic giving rank from 129th to 48th worldwide; we helped 164 small businesses and 3,231 fruit and vegetable growers to grow their exports and export to new markets; we facilitated $58 million in loans to small businesses and established a revolving fund with municipalities to provide micro-loans for farmers who lack access to banking services; and, we helped attract investments in women-led businesses worth $3 million”, says Roberts.

How flexible is your assistance in terms of radical changes in the economic environment at the global and European level?

We strive to adapt to changing conditions, needs, and opportunities, and to learn continuously, all in order to improve USAID’s development approach. For example, our programs on innovation were designed to help Serbia seize the emerging opportunities offered by the knowledge-based economy. In addition, we are now designing programs to increase the economic inclusion of marginalized groups, based on new assessments and the application of sustainable development tools. Overall, all our programs have built-in flexibility, so we can modify the focus during implementation when needed. This became especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we modified almost all of our activities here in Serbia to work in the context of the pandemic and to meet Serbia’s most pressing needs.

USAID is helping strategically and financially in all reforms important for Serbia’s EU accession path. Which areas do you see as critical for the acceleration of this process?

It is no secret that improving the rule of law is critical. Serbia needs to reduce political influence in the judiciary, and opportunities for corruption, in order to meet EU accession requirements and, just as importantly, to meet the demands of its citizens.

While working for many years with the judicial sector, we have seen notable improvements on efficiency, yet the independence of the judiciary and related anti-corruption concerns remain. We are now focused on helping to address corruption issues, especially in public procurement. Public procurement represents nearly nine percent of Serbia’s GDP, and surveys show that citizens believe corruption is rife. Corruption hurts citizens directly when resources are siphoned off, rather than used to resolve priority issues. Rightfully, citizens get angry when a public square is falling apart before it is finished because of shoddy materials and workmanship. If citizens have more information about where money is being spent and how it is being awarded, and if government bodies have increased capacity to manage the process transparently and improve the quality of the tendering process, Serbia can make real progress in meeting the demands of its citizens.

How much are the digital evolution and innovation present in your support programs for Serbia?

For Serbia to realize its economic aspirations, its talented young people need to see their futures here. We’re committed to helping Serbia develop its knowledge-based economy and fight brain drain. Serbia has the talent to succeed. The challenges are nurturing, unleashing, but also holding on to that talent.

We are working through the Venture an Idea program to instill innovative and agile mindsets among the youth, improve mechanisms to support startup companies, and improve connections between business and academia. Our Serbia Innovates project complements this by identifying promising areas for innovation (web3 and blockchain; agri-tech, gaming and virtual reality; and biotech/health tech), and is helping network firms in these areas to establish Serbia as a global leader in at least one of those domains.

Through our Media.Innovation project, we are supporting the digital and business transformation of digital media, information and communications sector stakeholders – in particular small media outlets and digital startups – so they can be competitive in the new digital economy, support access to accurate information, and increase public digital literacy skills. We also partner with government institutions to increase the digital literacy skills of people working in the public sector and in education, as well as the general population.

If we look back at USAID’s work since 2000, what do you see as major game changers when it comes to helping the Serbian economy to develop into a market-oriented economy?

When USAID started working here in 2000, only one-third of Serbia’s output came from the private sector, and most state-owned enterprises were in serious decline. Helping kickstart the private sector, make it easier to do business, and attract investment were major priorities.

While working for many years with the judicial sector, we have seen notable improvements on efficiency, yet the independence of the judiciary and related anti-corruption concerns remain. We are now focused on helping to address corruption issues, especially in public procurement

Our support for drafting the Law on Planning and Construction and the establishment of one-stop shops and e-permitting helped Serbia jump over 140 places on the World Bank’s Doing Business index. We also provided local governments with the tools to attract investors and to support existing businesses. Our work with local governments helped them to realize that they could, and should, be driving local economic development.

What do you see as new areas for future interventions?

USAID will soon launch an activity to help Serbia protect its environment and biodiversity by working on capacity building, sustainable financing mechanisms, and increasing citizen engagement.

We will soon have a new activity to increase equity for economically disadvantaged groups, including people with disabilities and LGBTQI+ people, to address barriers to inclusion, provide technical assistance, and engage the private sector to identify and implement market-driven solutions.

We are expanding our assistance in the energy sector to support increased efficiency and the use of renewable energy. We will help to address obstacles that impede expanded use of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures and encourage private sector engagement.

USAID will work on strengthening regional ties among youth to build mutual understanding, trust, and empathy. We believe that the positive engagement of youth across borders will contribute to shared goals of peace and prosperity.

So, in short, we will keep on working, together with all willing Serbian partners – from government, to media, to civil society and small business – to help Serbia fully integrate into European structures, and to help Serbia achieve its full political, social, and economic potential.

ENVIRONMENT

We will soon focus on helping Serbia to protect its environment and biodiversity by working on capacity building, sustainable financing mechanisms, and increasing citizen engagement

IMPACT

Our USAID projects touch many people throughout Serbia, from fruit and vegetable growers, to millions of citizens who’ve received valuable information about digitalization and cyber security

RESPONSIVENESS

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we modified almost all of our activities here in Serbia to work in the context of the pandemic and to meet Serbia’s most pressing needs