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Brooke Isham, USAID Serbia Mission Director

Empowering Citizens For Progress

USAID’s support to Serbia encompasses programs that promote citizen engagement in tackling local challenges, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, while they aim to address identified obstacles to democratic and economic growth

USAID is deeply invested in the peace and prosperity of the Serbian people, says Brooke Isham, USAID Serbia Mission Director. USAID Administrator Samantha Power visited Serbia this May in order to reassure the Serbian government and people that they have a strong and committed partner in the United States.

As Isham explains, her visit underscores USAID’s enduring support to the stability, peace and prosperity of the region. So, as the Brussels Dialogue and EU accession processes continue, USAID’s focus remains on helping Serbia build the longterm foundations needed for a stable, prosperous future. And the agency is this year continuing to support a wide range of initiatives centered on economic growth, democratic development and European integration.

Drawing on your experience with USAID missions in countries facing significant challenges, what experiences and best practices can you apply to the situation in Serbia?

– Countries – and indeed people in every country – are different. The challenges of the Balkan region are quite distinct from those of Iraq, Morocco or Azerbaijan, where I previously worked. For this reason, I prioritize “locally-led development” that is built on the dual foundations of country expertise and local leadership. Our programs in Serbia support direct citizen involvement in addressing local challenges and encourage citizens to “be the change they want to see”. USAID programs also support local entrepreneurship and innovation. And going forward, we will continue to work with our counterparts at all levels to address the issues that the people of Serbia identify as obstacles to democratic and economic growth, and to help them create a better future for themselves and their families.

How does USAID aim to support sustainable energy, energy security, and energy efficiency in Serbia as part of the broader green transition, considering the economic and security implications?

– We are working closely with Serbia’s government, businesses, municipalities and citizens to help Serbia build a secure and reliable energy sector. Through our U.S.-Europe Energy Bridge initiative, USAID is working to boost energy conservation and accelerate the expansion of renewable energy production in Serbia. To save energy, we are helping municipalities modernize their district heating systems in such a way that they meet consumers’ heating needs more efficiently. We are also helping apartment owners insulate their buildings and thus reduce their heating expenses.

But Serbia’s clean energy transition and long-term energy security will require significant public and private sector investment to upgrade and build new infrastructure. The transition will also require the further regional integration of energy networks. So, USAID is also helping Serbia attract investments in energy transition technologies, including renewables. We’re doing this work in a couple of ways. First, we’re working with the government to establish regulations that maximize the amount of renewable energy generation that can be safely and affordably added to the country’s high voltage electricity network. Second, we’re working with commercial banks to develop pilot loan programs for homeowner associations that want to finance energy efficiency improvements for their buildings. More broadly, we are working with regulators, providers, and all energy stakeholders to ensure more reliable and efficient energy supply for homes and businesses.

Considering the importance of supporting the private sector to unlock economic potential during crises, what major initiatives is USAID currently supporting in Serbia, including those that benefit the Open Balkan region?

– Serbian businesses, especially small- and medium- sized enterprises, possess outstanding potential for expansive growth. To help Serbia take advantage of this situation, USAID is working closely with the private sector. Our Big Small Businesses activity, for example, is helping companies from the agriculture, food, equipment, and light machinery sectors to grow by creating new market opportunities, driving exports, and attracting investments in the industry. In tandem, we fund two other programs to develop innovative businesses in biotech, AgTech, gaming, blockchain and other sectors.

Deepening Serbia’s trade ties and building business connections is a core component of our support

Deepening Serbia’s trade ties and building business connections is a core component of our support. In this regard, we support firms in participating in international trade events across Europe and the United States. But, more importantly, we are now also bringing international buyers to Serbia, which enables a larger number of Serbian firms to make regional and international connections that will drive their future growth. Agro Belgrade, for example, is a regional trade fair that has been organized with USAID for the past four years. This fair gathers producers from Serbia and the entire region and international buyers, retailers, and distributors from European countries, who come to learn about the quality of Serbian products and to negotiate contracts with potential suppliers. For the same purpose, we have also sponsored a trade fair focused on the metal, rubber, plastic, and machinery industries, as well as a conference on the application of ICT solutions in agriculture.

Within the context of overall economic and investment relations between Serbia and the U.S., how would you evaluate USAID’s current support to Serbia’s tech sector?

– I knew before I came to Serbia that this country has registered impressive economic growth over the last decade, but I wasn’t aware of just how much potential Serbia has in IT and innovation. The well-educated workforce and growing number of startups and tech companies bodes well for Serbia’s economic prospects. These sectors are ripe for more investments that will further boost the IT industry. And I can only see more possibilities going forward, as Serbia links up more closely with its neighbors, the European Union, the United States, and elsewhere.

For our part, USAID has two major activities that are working with eager and innovative private sector partners to further cement Serbia’s position as a regional hub for IT and innovation. The USAID Serbia Innovates project supports innovative initiatives and companies, and increases their access to finance. By applying a “supercluster” methodology, the project increases collaboration among the private sector, academia, and government on four innovative sectors, including blockchain and web3, AgTech, bio/ health-tech, and gaming. As a result, new educational programs and proposed policy change initiatives are well underway and new innovative tech solutions are under development. This initiative is also providing talented young people with valuable knowledge and experience that they can apply to careers in the tech industry. A second USAID initiative will tackle the critical issue of finance by establishing a new venture capital fund focused on growing innovation and technology companies.

How would you assess current cooperation between the civic sector and the Serbian government at all levels, and what progress would you like to see in this collaboration?

– Wherever USAID works, we know that a strong civil society helps a country to have a strong democracy that understands – and is responsive to – the needs of citizens. That’s why USAID has been partnering with civil society organizations (CSOs) since we started working in Serbia more than 20 years ago. Indeed, CSOs play a critical role in advocating for their communities and the things those communities care about. Here in Serbia, we work with CSOs from the village to the national level, providing them with tools and models that they can use to effectively advocate for the needs of their constituencies.

During the past year, with USAID support, the Ministry for Human Rights and Social Dialogue has worked to establish a Civil Society Council. I commend the Ministry for including CSOs from different parts of Serbia in the consultation process and for fostering a constructive dialogue among participants in the process. And I view this as a positive sign that government and civil society leaders will continue to collaborate on creating an environment in which the voices of citizens can be heard and given the attention they deserve.

SUSTAINABILITY

USAID is working to boost energy conservation and accelerate the expansion of renewable energy production in Serbia

DEMOCRACY

We will continue to work with our counterparts at all levels to address the issues that the people of Serbia identify as obstacles to democratic and economic growth

FINANCE

USAID is launching an initiative to establish a dedicated venture capital fund that will nurture and support the growth of innovative technology companies