The Serbia of 2021 is a far different place than it was twenty years ago, when the economy was in shambles and democracy was in its infancy. We aren’t talking about basic building blocks and infrastructure today, but about innovative industries driving economic growth, complex policy development to modernize democratic and market institutions, and building digital skills. This is what “20 Years of Partnership” stands for.
Over two decades of partnership, we’ve provided the resources and technical assistance, but it is really our Serbian partners who make the change happen – says USAID Acting Mission Director for Serbia Ms. Shanley Pinchotti, summarizing the essence of collaboration between USAID and its numerous partners from the ranks of government institutions, businesses and civil society, which is today being celebrated under the slogan “20 Years of Partnership”.
“We chose #20GodinaPartnerstva as our theme because partnerships have been crucial to everything we’ve achieved”, says our interlocutor.
What were the most important building blocks on which this relationship was built?
Since 2001, USAID has worked with a wide range of partners here to implement $857 million in development programs. While we’ve always concentrated on working with our Serbian partners to drive economic development and strengthen democracy, we’ve also worked together to address humanitarian crises, like flooding and mitigating the impact of COVID-19. I’m always happy when I hear from people about how many of our projects helped bring about long-term, positive change.
I can’t stress enough how much more we are able to achieve when we have strong partnerships like the ones we’ve forged here over two decades. We work directly with government, private sector, and civil society actors who are committed to identifying solutions to the challenges facing Serbia and to working with us to implement those solutions. We provide the resources and technical assistance, but it is really our Serbian partners who make the change happen.
Since 2001, USAID has worked with a wide range of partners here to implement $857 million in development programs focused on economic development and the strengthening of democracy
How has your support to Serbia evolved, in terms of major areas of support and financial assistance?
I am very happy to say that the Serbia of 2021 is a far different place than it was twenty years ago. Back then, the economy was in shambles and democratic institutions were struggling to provide citizens with the services they needed. We realized that we needed to help Serbia implement reforms, both from the top down and from the bottom up. We also needed to establish mutual trust.
Through one early program, we partnered with communities to implement approximately 5,000 different projects. Citizens voted on priority projects, and we worked together to repair roads, renovate health centers etc., doing whatever it was that communities felt they needed. Those activities helped restore peoples’ faith that their voices mattered, while making improvements at a local level.
We also wanted to encourage investors to look beyond Belgrade, so we started working with forward-leaning cities to improve their business enabling environments to attract investments and create jobs. Many local governments, which were initially skeptical, saw the success of other cities and asked to join our activity, or replicated what we’d done.
As Serbia’s capacity has evolved, so has our partnership. Technological advances have created many possibilities, while also challenging government institutions, businesses and civil society to keep up or risk becoming obsolete. Our programs are no longer about basic building blocks and infrastructure. We are now talking about innovative industries driving economic growth, complex policy development to modernize democratic and market institutions, and building digital skills.
This April, the U.S. committed $22 million in additional aid to Serbia’s reforms and introduced a new development strategy. What will you be doing differently?
We remain focused on helping Serbia strengthen its economy and democratic institutions, but the operating environment has changed. For example, COVID-19 has affected all aspects of our lives, so our new strategy will look to also build Serbia’s resilience to such stressors. We’re also looking at challenges in areas such as health, energy and the environment to see where our expertise and resources can make a difference. We are concerned about some of the developments in terms of democratic fundamentals, so we will be working with the government and citizens to ensure that those democratic freedoms remain. One big area going forward for us will be improving Serbia’s public procurement system and building greater transparency and accountability.
Media freedoms have been one of your major focuses over time. How would you summarize the way you’ve approached this issue and what were the major achievements?
American newscaster Walter Cronkite once said, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy. It is democracy.” We agree, and that’s why USAID supports independent media in most of the places we work.
While we are supporting the OSCE and other relevant stakeholders to complete and implement the media strategy and subsequent legal reforms to improve the environment for free media, we know that financial independence is key to media freedom. To have a successful media outlet, you don’t just need good journalists, you also need good businesspeople to bring in the revenue that enables outlets to maintain their independence. We’ve recently helped a number of outlets to diversify their income streams by making it easier for their audiences to support them. We’ve seen that media consumers are willing to financially support their favorite outlets. We’re also helping outlets to start thinking and working outside their “traditional media” boxes. Radio stations can no longer simply broadcast over FM radio waves if they want to reach younger audiences that want content when and where they want it. This requires changes in thinking, from both the content producers and the people who need to raise the money to keep the lights on and staff paid. We are also working with the wider community of digital entrepreneurs, like podcasters, to adopt new information channels and business models to navigate this new world.
Citizens of Serbia continue to perceive corruption as one of the top three problems in the country, alongside low wages and unemployment. How much has USAID and its partners changed the picture?
Corruption is a problem that can only be addressed by approaching it from both sides. You need to shine a light on the problem, so that citizens can see it, identify it and call for a stop to it. Meanwhile, systems need to be put in place that make corrupt practices more difficult to carry out, easier to catch and carry harsher punishments for perpetrators.
Over the years, we’ve worked on a number of activities to help tackle corruption challenges. Early on, we helped municipalities to open Citizen Assistance Centers (CAC) to make citizen interaction with their local governments more transparent and efficient. The CACs have windows instead of mazes of hallways and closed doors. Everything happens in the open, and I think that makes a difference.
To help government institutions and civil society, and to guide our work, USAID supports an annual corruption perception survey. Citizens repeatedly express the need for government institutions to protect whistleblowers and do more to investigate and adjudicate corruption. USAID has helped increase transparency and citizen participation in local governments. Our partners, with Sombor being a great example, have demonstrated dedication to improving transparency and have made admirable progress. We’re also helping youth to directly engage with their local governments, take part in budget planning, and receive funding from local governments for their projects. Meanwhile, USAID’s support to enhance independent oversight of government has resulted in the State Audit Institution (SAI) adopting an annual planning policy and implementation of risk-based oversight of government performance focused on corruption-prone areas.
Where do you see the role of USAID in supporting the EU accession process, which is currently stalled?
The pandemic and other factors have undoubtedly slowed recent progress, but we remain focused on helping Serbia enact the kinds of reforms that move the country not just towards EU accession, but also towards being a better functioning democracy with a stronger and more equitable economy. The United States Government strongly supports Serbia’s EU accession process, and our job at USAID is to keep supporting the reforms that contribute to that process and create better living conditions.
The United States Government strongly supports Serbia’s EU accession process, and our job at USAID is to keep supporting the reforms that contribute to that process and create better living conditions
One of the most interesting projects you have supported for a long time is food production. What can you tell us about Serbia’s potential in some of the most innovative areas, including the production of smart food?
Anyone who has had the opportunity to try Serbian food knows how absolutely delicious it is. You would think it would sell itself, but for Serbian farmers and agribusinesses to get maximum returns on their hard work, small adjustments have to be made all along the value chain to make products export ready. Meanwhile, consumers need to learn about the great quality of Serbian products.
We’ve had tremendous success working with agribusinesses. We know that high-value export markets represent their best opportunity for growth. To seize on this, modernization of production, improvements in the labor force, and the uptake of new technologies are necessary. We helped the sector to identify markets and buyers for improved products, and enter new markets for apples and blueberries through the formation of Serbia’s first Apple and Fruit Association. This led to substantial increases in exports and, hence, the value of their produce. Our work with retail chains has helped small, specialty food producers reach customers all over Serbia. We have helped producers develop fully traceable and healthy food products to meet increasing demand for smart foods. We worked to connect U.S. universities and Serbian faculties to support the process, and partnered with the government and local banks to increase financing opportunities.
We firmly believe that maximizing returns on agriculture, considering its role in the economy and the number of people engaged in it, is key to equitable economic growth.
One of the most exciting areas of your work is related to women’s entrepreneurship, startups and innovation for growth. What does the future of our partnership hold when we look at these areas?
We have been looking at ways to support broader-based economic growth and have undertaken some new programming in a number of new areas, to see how we can help selected target segments of the population. In the past two years, we’ve been working with Impact Hub to support the WE Founders program to help women IT entrepreneurs start businesses and find investments to grow. We have seen a lot of interest in that program, with many unique business ideas coming from talented women, including one particularly profitable software that provides 3D virtual teleconferencing, which soared on the market this past year, during COVID.
In terms of innovations and startups, we are launching two new programs in that area. One that is looking at eight new, emerging segments of Serbia’s economy to help startups in these industries grow. We will be initiating another brand-new program very soon, in order to build an entrepreneurial mindset within the younger generation in Serbia. Together, these programs will amplify Serbia’s innovative ecosystem and build its role into a regional and global hub for economic development.