submitted by Jonathan Hale

Earlier this week, I flew four hours from Moscow to Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina is mountainous and very green in the spring. While it is a post-conflict country, people here are still in many ways searching for the path towards sustainable peace and prosperity. Divisions still run deep. Life remains segregated by ethnic community. There are separate schools within the same buildings. Multiple layers of segregated government and politics. There are even segregated telephone systems! Speaking with our very talented local foreign national staff, it is clear that there are still deep and painful memories of war here, even though it ended more than a decade ago. It’s striking to note that, according to the UNDP, a considerable proportion of Bosnians (up to 19% per UNDP figures), which enjoyed a relatively high living standard before the war now live at or below the poverty line.

I spent Wednesday and Thursday on the road. We drove around the country from Sarajevo to Mostar, Grude, Jajce, and Banja Luka in the Republika Srpska, and back. Along the way, I saw some hope along with the challenges. In Grude, I met with a mayor that is pressing for reforms to make government more responsive to the needs of the people. I understand there are a handful of other mayors and local officials like him throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had the privilege of participating in a community event
as part of USAID’s successful local governance program called “GAP” (the Governance Accountability Program). Along with the Mayor and USAID Mission Director Allan Reed, we cut a ribbon to open a Citizens Service Center. It was the last of 71 such centers opened around the country with support from USAID and the Swedish and Dutch governments. It is intended to be a one stop shop for citizens to get birth certificates, deeds, and other documents providing more efficient and transparent municipal services. Today, bureaucracy sucks up around 50% of the country‚Äôs gross domestic product. This situation has got to change so resources are freed up to invest more in the people.

PLANTAGO produces high-quality herbal teas and sells to stores throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Near Banja Luka, I visited a family owned small business called PLANTAGO. With USAID support, it produces high-quality herbal teas for the domestic market. PLANTAGO buys wild, forest grown herbs that are collected by suppliers from across the country. Likewise, it sells its teas at stores throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. Like other Bosnian SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), PLANTAGO must be cutting edge to compete with all the European products sold in stores in Bosnia-Herzegovina. PLANTAGO even markets its products on Facebook. There are no ethnic divisions here, no segregation. Business is business. In Gracanica, I met with owners of a Machine Tool Technology Center that is supported by USAID and the Norwegian government. It uses cutting edge 3D scanners and software to design work that local small and medium sized companies use to win contracts overseas. Again, no ethnic divisions, only innovation and success. These companies are the examples of what needs to happen — and what USAID is supporting — across Bosnia-Herzegovina develop the competitiveness of local SMEs: high quality, niche products, often through the use of technology and innovation; investment in marketing; efficient production; and access to capital. Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the lowest rates of small business creation in Europe. With help from USAID, people can come together in common purpose of a more prosperous future.

A common theme that I saw in USAID’s vision and strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina is donor collaboration. We are doing this extensively here! To date, USAID/Bosnia and Herzegovina has leveraged over $60 million of other donors’ funds. These donors put their funds into USAID-managed projects. I saw this in all sectors — agriculture, private sector development, local governance — with the Swedes, the Dutch, the Norwegians, and the Germans.

On Saturday, I will be traveling to Srebrenica to visit the memorial cemetery honoring the victims of the 1995 genocide. I will pay respects to those who lost their lives. It will be a reminder that the stakes are very high here and that the United States and the world community must remain fully engaged to continue to help the people of this country continue to find the way towards a better future for all.