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Francine Pickup, UNDP Resident Representative In Serbia

Tough Problems Require Fresh Approaches

These are exciting times, when we have new opportunities to change for the better and find innovative ways for responding to key development challenges like health crises, environmental issues or depopulation. Digital tools can make a big difference and help all of us to do more. Here we are provided with some examples of this from UNDP.

Calamities often bring out the best in people, and produce unlikely heroes and fresh ideas. We asked Francine Pickup, UNDP Resident Representative in Serbia, to reflect on the issues Serbia is facing and the work of UNDP over the past two years, which has provided innovative answers to some of the old and new problems confronting Serbian society, such as depopulation, ecological issues and the digital divide.

Ms Pickup, in times of disruption, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, what do countries need to do to find the best solutions?

The COVID crisis has shown that it’s not the labels ‘developed’ or ‘developing’, ‘high’ or ‘low income’ that matter so much, rather it’s the way countries react, adapt and evolve in the face of adversity, regardless of their GDP or geographic location.

Serbia is a good example. It did well to respond to the pandemic by quickly procuring equipment and vaccines from different producers, becoming a regional vaccination hub.

We’ve also seen brave individuals in Serbia like those who responded to the health crisis by volunteering. How can these examples of social cohesion be sustained in our society, which is often burdened by a lack of trust?

Building trust is important, as it helps countries unlock development potential. Digital investments can accelerate this trust and social engagement when they are responsive to citizens’ interests.

During COVID in Serbia, digital platforms like ‘Be a Volunteer’ or ‘Digital solidarity’ scaled up the outreach of volunteers and businesses to those in need, strengthening social cohesion, which is greatly needed for the development and resilience of every society.

We also saw how people across the entire region, despite past conflicts, can unite in standing up to shared challenges, like gender-based violence. A couple of young women from Serbia who went public about their experiences started a wave of similar reactions across the Western Balkans.

The Serbian Government has shown courage in expressing its readiness to address depopulation and to work with UNDP on addressing this challenge. New initiatives, such as the Returning point and BelgradeGets.digital website, are taking the lead in showing how this can be done

During Covid we witnessed a surge in the use of e-services in Serbia, assisting almost all aspects of our life. How can we continue to benefit from these achievements beyond the crisis and in a more inclusive way?

The pandemic has accelerated digitalisation, making a reliable internet connection and digital tools our lifeline. We worked, educated our children, bought and sold products and kept in touch with our loved ones online.

While many benefited from digital tools, the COVID crisis exposed the differences in access to digital technology and levels of digital literacy. It became clear where the gaps are, and what should be done to tackle this inequality.

We must ensure that everyone is included and assisted to equally benefit from the digital transformation. For example, e-services should be designed with vulnerable groups in mind, such as the elderly or Roma, from the onset.

Statistics in Serbia also show that women use e-services more than men, so government should take their perspective into account when it designs these services.

The EU Green Agenda is on the table of the Serbian government. In parallel, we also see citizens protesting due to air pollution and the environment. How can this awareness be used for good?

We need joint efforts at all levels, and that includes citizens as well, to reduce the effects of climate change and safeguard the environment. In the past few months, an environmental uprising in Serbia is articulating people’s concerns about the environment and air pollution. These movements bring the possibility of a deeper, more inclusive transformation. In order for this to happen, the Government needs to recognise their potential, build bridges to them, and follow this energy to steer change in the right direction.

For example, the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) encourages citizen engagement to map illegal dumpsites. The mobile app ‘Remove the illegal dumpsite’, developed by SEPA and UNDP, enables citizens to report illegal dumps easily and anonymously. There are now over 2,300 locations marked for clean-up on the SEPA map.

We also see that the private sector in Serbia is willing to go green, but that it faces numerous barriers. The UNDP and EU’s Green Recovery Study found that the scaling up of green transformation requires that businesses have access to finance and regulations that incentivise green investments and additional education and training.

UNDP showed that an organisation needs to adapt the way it works constantly in order to remain relevant, most prominently by launching a network of Accelerator Labs. What’s cooking in the Serbian Lab?

The AccLab network is a massive commitment to innovation by UNDP, as a way of adapting to a fast-changing world. The greatest challenges that we face today are multi-layered and complex. In order to tackle them, we need to experiment and bring together diverse groups of people.

The AccLab in Serbia is doing exactly that to solve the depopulation puzzle, for example. Most recently, our Depopulation Data Challenge winners presented their results. The winning teams combined traditional and alternative data sets with tools based on modern technologies to understand this process better and closer to real time. Their insights will help us better understand incountry migrations, economic migrations, out-migration and scientific diaspora, as well as the spatial aspects of depopulation. In this way, more effective demographic, social and economic policies can be formulated.

Additionally, we launched the website ‘BelgradeGets.digital’ to attract more digital nomads to live and work here, by giving them, in one place, the most important information necessary to make such a decision. We believe that remote work can be important for both Serbia and the region, because it can influence the direction and intensity of economic migration after the pandemic.

Based on data gathered by UNDP, how can we turn around the depopulation trend?

There are no easy answers to this question – the solution doesn’t lie in reversing fertility trends or repopulating rural areas. Yet there are signs of positive deviations that offer a different way to think about the future: digital nomads choosing to move to the region and emigrants returning home during COVID, while working remotely for foreign companies.

The Serbian Government has shown courage in expressing its readiness to address depopulation and to work with UNDP to address this challenge.

New initiatives, such as the Returning point, challenge dominant narratives that see leaving as betrayal or returning as failure, with an alternative one – recognising the value of circular migration. The Balkan region could benefit from a new focus on living abroad while remaining connected with the home community and appreciating the rich quality of life, social and economic opportunities that Serbia and other countries of origin have to offer.

Countries can change the narrative of being powerless in the face of their shrinking populations by making a deliberate effort to untap existing human potential and adapt their policies to changing demographics.