USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Europe and Eurasia

Building Stronger Democratic Societies from the Ground Up in Eastern Europe & Eurasia

Support for civil society has been at the forefront of USAID assistance in Eastern Europe and Eurasia for more than 25 years – a region that is home to young democracies with long histories of communist rule.

Our assistance has empowered local groups to serve as an effective check on government authority and to push for the advancement of economic, social and political reforms. Nearly all the recent democratic breakthroughs in the region have been the result of citizens uniting, self-organizing and speaking out. Again and again, civil society has proven itself to be the driving force for democratic change.

Since I began my career with USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia 10 years ago, I have met with hundreds of civic activists working in the region. Their commitment and sacrifice never cease to inspire me. The future democratic development of each of their countries lies squarely on their shoulders. Their tenacity and dedication to their work tells me that they understand this as well.

Here, examples from three countries with vibrant civil societies that have shown the capacity for transformative impact.

Ukraine

A large group of people cheering in front of a sign in Ukrainian

“Our organization shows the stories of other active citizens and why small actions, people-oriented behavior important for sustainable change. In 2013 we were just three girls who mobilized neighbors for clean-up and urban events. Now we are a national NGO that promotes social responsibility, citizen engagement through events, media and civic education”. -Maria Nasiedkina, founder and head of the Ukrainian NGO Dyvovyzhni. Photo credit: NGO Dyvovyzhni staff

Since 2013, when just three founding members started recruiting neighbors for community clean-up projects, NGO Dyvovyzhni, or ‘Wonderful,’ has reached over 2 million citizens through an online campaign to promote personal responsibility and encourage citizens to promote positive changes within their communities. Dyvovyzhni created one of the first social ads demonstrating how small but meaningful changes, be it picking up litter, wearing a seatbelt or waiting at a crosswalk light, can have a big impact on the community.

Its vision: helping Ukrainians promote social responsibility and democratic development from the ground up. The organization has helped connect 100 regional NGOs to exchange knowledge and experiences in promoting citizen activism.

Georgia

A woman stands in a green field

Tsisana Bulashvili, 75, one of the many faces and experiences of Georgian women, captured by the Women of Georgia project. Photo credit: Women of Georgia

Traditional gender norms discourage many women in Georgia from engaging in civic activities, including those related to gender equity itself. The Women of Georgia initiative is addressing this very sensitive and polarizing issue head on. Launched in 2016 and modeled after the Humans of New York initiative, Women of Georgia features individual stories of Georgian women to demonstrate shared experiences, highlight women’s issues and showcase experiences that challenge traditional gender roles.

A woman wearing a police uniform stands in front of a dock on a lake

Anna Karseladze, chief detective inspector of Rustavi city police first department, one of the many faces and experiences of Georgian women captured by the Women of Georgia project. Photo credit: Women of Georgia

The stories create buzz on gender issues and help pave the way for civic advocacy on gender related issues.

Since its inception, Women of Georgia has featured more than 250 women of all backgrounds, including ethnic and religious minorities, women of different sexual and gender identities, women from rural and urban areas, women politicians, young women, elderly women and mothers of children with disabilities.

A woman works with a DJ's turntable

Kristina Dudey Avsarkisova, 25, one of the many women of Georgia. Photo credit: Women of Georgia

The organization’s Facebook page-enabled platform has already generated more than 62,000 ‘likes’ and over 62,500 followers, and has reached more than 300,000 users weekly. This impressive social media reception demonstrates the relevance of this issue to Georgia and the need to address it head on.

Serbia
During the 1990s, Serbia’s civil society was internationally recognized for the crucial role it played in bringing about democratic changes in the post-Milosevic period. Since then, the efforts of Serbian civil society have often been overlooked. Yet civil society groups here provide extensive government oversight, despite decreasing space to engage in the legislative process and increasing attempts to discredit some organizations.

One organization that epitomizes this resiliency is the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability, or CRTA. For more than 15 years, CRTA has been devising creative ways to increase the government’s responsibility to its citizens.

It developed the first fact-checking portal in the entire region. Istinomer.rs, or the truth-o-meter, assesses the truth of public officials’ statements on important social and economic issues. Istinomer.rs has served as a model for dozens of similar initiatives throughout the region. Despite the risk to individuals advancing this highly politicized work, CRTA has expanded its work, earning the 2018 OSCE Democracy Defender Award for these efforts.

These are just three examples of the transformative impact of civil society in advancing democratic reform in the Europe and Eurasia region. Countless more exist. Without their tireless efforts, sustainable democratic reforms would not be possible. That’s why USAID will continue to support local heroes throughout Eastern Europe and Eurasia who dedicate their lives to building stronger democratic societies from the ground up.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin McCarthy is a Civil Society Advisor with USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia promoting civil society organizational sustainability and civic engagement. Follow her work @USAIDEurope



Youth Continue to Drive Change in Belgrade

Four young people show a tabletop display

Team Georgia created a board game designed to enhance children’s motor skills. Different closures – buttons, zips, etc – conceal new scenes behind the big picture. Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

As we celebrate International Youth Day this month, we can look to the entrepreneurial spirit of young people in Serbia for inspiration. I first noticed this streak of industriousness in 1988 during a trip to Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia. At that time, the city was abuzz about a brand new coffee shop, one of the first of its kind to be owned and operated by a young entrepreneur.

Today in the United States, most people might not remember what a splash Starbucks made when it first came on the scene. The same was true back then in Belgrade, and the stakes were a lot higher than in Seattle. Belgrade was still part of a communist country and independent businesses were unique and difficult to start, let alone a coffee shop where young people could meet and talk openly about the events of the day.

Today, Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and is a bustling city, which boasts a pedestrian shopping area with small, fashionable boutiques, busy restaurants and the now ubiquitous independent coffee shops. There are signs of entrepreneurship everywhere. And, yes, Starbucks is planning to open a store in coffee-loving Belgrade this year.

Not far from this lively downtown scene is the home of a new type of business endeavor catering to young innovators, Impact Hub Belgrade.

With a grant from USAID, Impact Hub helps young entrepreneurs and startups attract potential investors. This focus on youth is significant as Serbia has a 40 percent youth unemployment rate. And like many countries of the region, a lack of job opportunities compels large numbers of young people to leave Serbia in search of work elsewhere.

How does it work? The Impact Hub’s Launch Pad program gives young innovators the tools and skills they need to develop new products, validate their business models and link them to regional and international investors. Access to finance is the number one obstacle for start-ups, so bridging this gap is critical for creating opportunity for young entrepreneurs.

Five young people pose for the camera

Team Macedonia, UnicaSpera, created Ringobit, a disc with numbers set on rotating rings that generate answers to math questions to assist children with learning difficulties. Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

While the project ended in March, participants raised $230,000 in new investments from a mix of Serbian public sector and domestic and international private investors, and these new investments have continued over the past few months, including an additional $100,000 from Dubai’s Innovation Impact Grant Program.

Almost 30 years after my first visit to Belgrade, I had the opportunity to again witness the entrepreneurial spirit of Serbians when I met with young innovators working at the Impact Hub.

One ecologically – and business – minded innovator, Nikica Marinkovic, showed me his Box System, a new prototype for transporting organic produce that replaces Styrofoam. He already has funding from an Austrian investor, and is actively assessing access to the U.S. market. Another entrepreneur used the Launchpad support framework to create a competitive niche product targeting the growing men’s skin care market in Serbia and internationally.

Serbia’s entrepreneurial spirit is also demonstrated by the success of the Junior Achievement (JA) program in the country. With USAID’s support, JA advances entrepreneurship through programs to help high school students enter the job market with business-friendly technical skills.

With the JA training curriculum, students learn all facets of setting up a business, from writing a business plan to identifying product placement and forecasting earnings. While JA has an active presence throughout Europe, the Serbia JA program is among the strongest, as demonstrated by recently hosting the European Student Company Competition. Thirty-nine student companies from throughout Europe convened in Belgrade to showcase their businesses and present to a jury of prominent business leaders from the region. The students excelled at modeling business skills, teamwork, problem solving, organizational management, and communication and presentation skills.

The team representing Serbia, called Groove Street, is a group of students in Belgrade who started a business to make special wristbands that contain computer code with the medical information of the person wearing it – inspired by the medical needs of fellow students in their own classroom. These young innovators observed a problem and got to work solving it. Their goal was to make first aid in medical emergencies faster and more efficient. The best part? Not only did they create a useful product, their wristbands may help save the lives of their fellow students.

Five young people pose for the camera

Winning team from Serbia, Groove Street, invented a special wristbands imprinted with the wearer’s medical information. Team members adopted as their motto a quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Health is not everything, but without health everything is nothing.” Photo Credit: Junior Achievement/USAID

The JA initiative is also supported by local businesses and the Government of Serbia. Serbian companies and the Ministry of Economy provided financial support for the competition and the Ministry of Education approved JA’s entrepreneurship curriculum – both important investments in Serbia’s youth!

While it’s true that aspiring entrepreneurs in Belgrade still face challenges, once again, young Serbian entrepreneurs are making a statement. The innovation and dedication of these young businesswomen and men is something to celebrate. Perhaps by going to the local coffee shop, the one owned and operated by a young entrepreneur who has chosen to stay local and launch a new business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gretchen Birkle is Deputy Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow her at @GBirkleUSAID



On the Road to Self Reliance

A graphic display commemorating USAID's 10 years in Kosovo, with a hashtag #kosovo10 printed on the base.

Kosovo marked 10 years of independence on February 17, 2018. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

During my first official trip to Pristina in the fall of 2002, I remember how long it took to maneuver streets marked with potholes and blocked off with barricades and armored cars. A very visible NATO-led international peacekeeping force patrolled the streets, a holdover from the Kosovo war. Because power was unreliable, small generators dotted the sidewalks along the busy main streets; their noisy engines pierced the air with fumes that made it hard to breathe. It was a stark picture of a dark time.

Fast forward to 2018. Kosovo welcomed me for yet another first official trip, this time as the recently confirmed Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, the same bureau at USAID where I had previously served as Chief of Staff in 2002.

Today, Pristina is a bustling metropolitan city with a modern airport and paved roads. The ride from the airport to my hotel was smoother than traveling the 26-mile journey from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C. As my car made its way through the main streets of Pristina, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible changes.

A view of Pristina, Kosovo from atop a building

Signs of progress in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina: the view from the famous Bell Tower; new roads in downtown Pristina; the impressive National Library. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

While 2002 was a depressed time for Pristina, Kosovo is now an independent nation moving toward European integration, and a shining example of successful development.

Our work in Kosovo is not done, but positive and concrete changes have taken hold in this new nation, and the country now has a clear path ahead.

My visit marked Kosovo’s 10th anniversary of independence. I met with government leaders, young business entrepreneurs, members of Parliament, and civil society advocates to talk about the progress achieved in that short time. They all shared a similar message: We’ve come a long way, but we still need your help.

Kosovo exemplifies the journey to self-reliance. USAID’s work evolved from a post-conflict humanitarian assistance program in 1999 to a robust program that strengthens governance, catalyzes reform, leverages resources, and enhances economic potential. We are working to end the need for foreign assistance by focusing on European integration, building local ownership, and creating conditions for American and other foreign investment.

USAID supports programs in Kosovo that strengthen democracy and governance, increase investment and private sector employment, and expand access to quality education. One program in particular helps farmers identify new crops that increase their produce yields by more than 10-fold while also opening new markets. Another program ensures more women claim the property rights they are entitled to, greatly expanding their access to credit and opportunities as small-business owners. These are just two examples of inclusive development taking root in Kosovo.

From overhead, a large group of people stand in a circle around a circular compass design in the floor.

Brock Bierman meets with recent graduates of USAID’s Transformational Leadership Program to discuss the role of young leaders in Kosovo’s development journey. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

Signs of progress are also visible in the public sector. I met with five impressive members of Parliament who are part of the 38-member Women Caucus. The caucus, a key partner of our Political Process and Parliamentary Support program, works on common issues across political parties, a potentially bright opportunity to address fractious issues that deter Kosovo’s further development.

I also met with the mayor of Pristina, who is a strong ally in our effort to promote government transparency and to combat corruption. Our meeting included young NGO leaders who provide a watchdog function to the municipality. It was impressive to see these NGO leaders sitting next to the mayor as we held our meeting and talked about the need for open government.

But despite the real progress I witnessed, Kosovo faces serious challenges and while I was on the ground I could see that ethnic tensions remain at the heart of its move ahead.

This was especially evident in the northern town of Mitrovica, where a bridge connects ethnic minority communities otherwise living separate lives, flying their own flags, and speaking different languages. Mitrovica illustrates how differences can be exploited, leaving its people in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability. But even here we are making inroads with minority business leaders, young political leaders and judges from both ethnicities who are finding ways to work together and break the gridlock between cultures.

Regardless of ethnicity, perhaps my greatest source of optimism is Kosovo’s young people. This huge segment of the population yearns to move past today’s challenges and create a better future for Kosovo. USAID’s programs have laid the foundation for these future entrepreneurs, opinion leaders and potential reformers in government to lead the way forward.

A group of people wearing lab coats and hair nets, examines a product produced in the factory the group is visiting

Brock Bierman visits USAID-supported factory to see how USAID generates economic expansion in Kosovo. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

My biggest takeaway from this trip was that Kosovars understand that their country cannot accomplish meaningful progress unless they are willing to take on their own challenges. The government leaders, civil society representatives, business owners and citizens I met highlighted U.S. expertise, investment and engagement as critical factors for helping overcome these challenges. We can help build their infrastructure, build their capacity and build consensus, but without self-reliance, nothing is sustainable.

Sixteen years ago I thought it would be some time in coming before Kosovo would pick itself up from a terrible time in its history. Fortunately, Kosovars have done a remarkable job in a short period of time, and I am certain that it won’t take another 16 years before Kosovo is joining our efforts to help others in need.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brock Bierman is Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow him @BBiermanUSAID

Helping Ukrainians Attain the Prosperity They Deserve

Doctors and nurses training in Odesa to use HIV rapid tests. (Photo: USAID HIV Reform in Action Project.)

Doctors and nurses training in Odesa to use HIV rapid tests. / USAID

In late 2013 and early 2014, the EuroMaidan demonstrations in Kyiv and the subsequent Revolution of Dignity engulfed Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians demonstrated across the country and at least a hundred gave their lives to rid the country of a thoroughly corrupt regime.

Ukrainians demanded extensive reforms, more accountability and increased transparency in all sectors of the government. A new government, including a newly-elected president, responded to citizens’ demands by promising widespread reforms that would bring Ukraine closer to European standards and norms.

Today, change is underway.

The justice sector and the health care system are being restructured. Decentralization is bringing government resources closer to citizens, and newly consolidated communities are working to make government services more efficient and accountable. E-governance is helping automate government systems to provide transparency and accountability to government processes. Energy sector reform and the restructuring of the energy supply system, once completed, will provide the country with more energy independence and security. A revamped electoral system, if done properly, will provide safeguards for free and fair elections.

Empowered civil society activists and watchdog organizations oversee these efforts and prod the government forward when uncertainty arises or political will lags. When things go awry, media outlets undertake investigations and report on the scandals.

The effort is not seamless, and progress is often a tough slog. Many citizens complain that they don’t see or feel the changes underway. Sometimes, the government finds it easier to hem and haw rather than push forward.

Yet the dream of many Ukrainians — for Ukraine to become a self-reliant, economically stable country where rule of law and low levels of corruption attract foreign investment and provide them with a degree of prosperity — is certainly attainable.

USAID is working closely with the government and civil society to push through difficult reforms. We’ve adjusted our programming to support reform efforts and boost the ability of civil society to monitor the government and hold it accountable.

This past year, we focused on reform initiatives that Ukraine’s leading civil activists identified as crucial for fighting corruption and strengthening democratic governance.

While Ukraine has quite a ways to go before it can declare success in its reforms process and victory over corruption, we believe we’ve helped make considerable inroads.

In October, Ukraine’s Parliament passed landmark health care reform legislation that President Poroshenko signed into law just before the new year. USAID provided substantial support to the Ministry of Health in this effort. The new legislation places primary health care at its center and introduces a “money follows the patient” principle that will increase the quality of care while reducing opportunities for corruption in the system.

Volunteers beautify public spaces in Eastern Ukraine as part of the Build Ukraine Together camp. (Photo: USAID Ukraine’s Confidence Building Initiative)

Volunteers beautify public spaces in eastern Ukraine as part of the Build Ukraine Together camp. / USAID

As part of a reform effort to decentralize government and have more decisions and policies set at the local level, communities are being encouraged to consolidate to more effectively manage resources. USAID continued to guide 50 newly consolidated communities in 2017 to efficiently allocate increased budget revenues and promote local economic development. Notably, USAID supported the successful first-ever elections in nearly 600 newly consolidated communities in Ukraine through assistance with grassroots activism, polling and analytics.

USAID also supported Ukraine’s Public Integrity Council, which worked with the High Qualifications Commission on the appointment of a new Supreme Court. While the results of the appointment process were mixed, the new Supreme Court is considered to be better than the previous one, and the selection process was more transparent, including with civil society engagement.

Other achievements included the legislative adoption of a package of USAID-supported laws, which established the legal basis for sustainable energy development in Ukraine and significantly improved the energy sector’s regulatory framework. USAID also provided support to develop and open 16 local Administrative Services Centers in eastern Ukraine, improving service delivery and reducing opportunities for corruption.

USAID continued to work with government ministries and civil society on e-governance initiatives that further reduce opportunities for corruption. One such USAID-supported effort – the online public procurement system, ProZorro – has saved the government $1.4 billion since 2015.

We are backing additional civil society-led reforms, including the development of a land market to attract investors and the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Court to adjudicate high-visibility corruption cases. We are confident that with time all the changes Ukrainians are demanding will occur.

At the core of the USAID mission remains a deep commitment to working as partners to aid Ukraine’s development and improve the lives of the Ukrainian people. We are proud of our strong partnership with the Government of Ukraine and civil society, and what our cooperation accomplished last year.

Our goal at USAID is unwavering: to continue partnering with the Government of Ukraine, the private sector and civil society to stem corruption, deepen democracy and stimulate inclusive economic growth. We are committed to making Ukraine self-reliant and helping Ukrainians attain the prosperity they desire and deserve.

Susan K. Fritz is the USAID Regional Mission Director for Ukraine and Belarus.

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Helping Serbia Hold On To Its Future

When Uroš Mijalković, a top-35 global karate contender in the category of up to 185 pounds, is not busy training for the next Olympic Games as a member of the national karate team, he – with his team of seven – is busy expanding his global company that got off the ground with his mobile karate gaming application developed at the ICT Hub. His inspiration was his passion for karate that he started practicing at the age of 6.
/ Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

Serbia’s population is shrinking. Over the past 25 years, the small Balkan nation has lost a steady stream of talented young people to emigration—including a record 58,000 people in 2015 alone, 9,000 of whom left with advanced degrees.

It is hard to find a Serbian whose family hasn’t been affected by the emigration wave. My own family is no different—two of my siblings left Serbia in their early thirties and have no intention of coming back.

“We are exporting our own future,” Vladimir Kostić, the president of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, said recently. “And we have no illusions that these young people will return.”

The main driver pushing people to leave is the lack of employment opportunities. The situation is especially difficult for young people between the ages 15 and 30, who have grappled with a 44 percent average unemployment rate over the last eight years.  

Earlier this year, the Serbian Chamber of Commerce launched a Committee for Youth Entrepreneurship to help curb this trend.

Among the members of the committee is Belgrade’s ICT Hub, which is working hard to increase opportunities for Serbia’s homegrown talent to shine in Serbia.

ICT Hub was launched as part of a public private partnership with USAID in 2014 as a one-of-a-kind incubator for Serbia’s technology entrepreneurs. By providing a robust entrepreneurial infrastructure and mentoring, the Hub lowers both the risks and the costs entrepreneurs incur through bringing innovative ideas to life.

“Many of my friends left Serbia, but I believe one can succeed here just as anywhere else,” said Uroš Mijalković, the director of the startup Miracle Dojo. Mijalković invented the first authentic karate mobile gaming application, Karate DO, with top karate athletes as characters.

“I joined the ICT Hub with only an idea. Now my gaming application is being played by around 12,000 people in 162 countries. We already have a loyal fan base and the growth potential is great—100 million people worldwide are practicing karate. Plus, the gaming industry is generating greater profits than the film industry and mobile gaming is in the lead,” said Mijalković.

Mijalković joined the ICT Hub in early 2016 as a result of cooperation between the Serbian Ministry of Youth and Sports and the ICT Hub. Namely, to increase youth employment and help young people from various faculties start IT entrepreneurship initiatives, the ministry provides fees for Hub services while the Hub provides students with a tailor-made program and coaching assistance.

“So far 25 businesses with market potential have gotten off the ground at the ICT Hub,” said Kosta Andrić, director of the ICT Hub. “They employ 70 young and talented individuals. More and more young people believe that working for a start-up provides them a real and tangible opportunity for a higher-quality life.”

Proof of this is Vuk Nikolić. Inspired by his mom’s trucking company and a passion for programming, he created Truck Track, a software-as-a-service platform for managing a trucking company’s daily operations.

Seedcamp and Passion Capital, two London-based investors, invested in his business early on. With an eye on the U.S. market, the real turning point came in 2015 when he joined the ICT Hub and soon after became the first Serbian start-up to receive funding from 500 Startups, a famous accelerator from Silicon Valley.

Vuk Nikolić had a passion for programming since the age of 6 and grew up watching his mom manage her trucking company. He knew of all the challenges she faced and was eager to help her. He worked tirelessly to develop software for managing a trucking company’s daily operations. It turned out that he not only helped his mom, but is now conquering the large U.S. trucking industry with ‘Truck Track’, after having received investments from several global tech investors who recognized his business’s potential.
/ Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

“The time we spent in San Francisco was mind-boggling and made us realize what we needed to change in our approach to succeed in the U.S. market. Now we focus on the U.S. market only and the prospects are promising,” said Nikolić. Truck Truck already has over 500 U.S. clients.   

Many other aspiring startups haven’t been as lucky as Nikolić’s and often struggle to access the financial resources they need to get their businesses off the ground or fully utilize their growth potential. Traditional banking dominates in Serbia, but the terms and required collateral can be insurmountable obstacles for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

To help overcome this hurdle and create even more new businesses, in January 2017 the ICT Hub launched its private investment fund and venture capital arm, ICT Hub Venture.

“During the coming two to three years the fund will invest up to $35,000 into 20 to 30 early stage startups each for a 5 to 15 percent stake in their capital,” said Andrić, managing director of the fund.

To create the right environment for even greater innovations, the ICT Hub recently moved into new premises in downtown Belgrade, dubbed the ICT Hub Playground—a true innovation center for up-and-coming young people interested in venturing into the world of tech entrepreneurship.   

From all the talented, hard-working and enthusiastic young people I’ve met at the ICT Hub, none are planning to leave Serbia. I suspect most young people would rather stay close to home than wander into an uncertain future in faraway lands.  

The proof is at the ICT Hub. Here young people with ideas are given opportunity, encouragement and support. And, in turn, they show they can thrive in Serbia just as well as anywhere else.

Nemanja Janić (left) and Marko Kaličanin (right) launched their company Solargo in 2014 to help Serbia better manage its resources. Currently, Serbia recycles on 5 percent of its waste. In January 2016 Solargo joined the ICT Hub and a year and a half later they launched a ‘Smart Recycling System’ mobile application that points citizens to the nearest ‘Recycling Press’ that compacts recycling in Belgrade, educates them about the various benefits of recycling, and even provides awards to those who recycle most. / Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

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Mirjana Vukša Zavišić is a Development and Outreach and Communications Assistant at USAID’s mission in Serbia.

Putting Cranes Back to Work

USAID’s technical assistance to the National Bank of Serbia (2003-2006) laid the foundation for a strong banking sector that is now healthy, solvent and enjoys the trust of its citizens. More recently, USAID worked with Serbia’s Ministry of Construction to reform construction permitting to make it easier for businesses to invest. Not too long ago, few people believed these changes were possible.

Back in 2002, in my early 30s, I decided to invest in my future and buy an apartment in Belgrade. But times were difficult. After a decade of civil war, the banking sector was in shambles and getting a loan was nearly impossible. A stagnant economy and a depressed construction sector artificially inflated real estate prices.

Finding good quality furniture at reasonable prices also proved challenging. The lack of competition among local furniture retailers and absence of foreign retailers kept furniture prices unreasonably high. Many of us traveled over 250 miles, to either Zagreb or Budapest, to reach one of the closest IKEA stores that sold everything one needed at reasonable prices.

The Swedish furniture giant IKEA made its first attempt to enter the Serbian market 25 years ago, but was thwarted by the civil war. Their second attempt in 2008 failed because of an unmanageable construction permitting process and unresolved land ownership issues. However, in 2015 IKEA became the first foreign investor in Serbia to receive an electronic construction permit. This was made possible by a new e-permitting system – introduced with the assistance of USAID. The IKEA investment in Serbia is worth EUR 70 million and will create 300 jobs.

Vladislav Lalić, IKEA’s Southeast Europe director: “The dream that started 25 years ago finally became reality.” / Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

Vladislav Lalić, IKEA’s property and expansion manager for Southeast Europe: “The dream that started 25 years ago finally became reality.” / Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

“Since the very beginning we were looking for some kind of ‘unified’ procedure. To run from one institution to another costs time and money and is excessive. Now things look good — our first store in Belgrade will open in July 2017.” said Vladislav Lalić, the company’s property and expansion manager for Southeast Europe. “Our experience will be an incentive for other investors who are considering investing in Serbia.”

The construction permitting process used to take over 240 days and required about 52 interactions between the investor and 20 different public sector entities. It was widely seen as a hotbed of corruption and a source of various economic inefficiencies.

“The new system shifts the burden from citizens and investors to local governments and public institutions that need to coordinate their work and request the necessary documentation from one another through official channels,” said Ivana Blažić Sević, head of city planning in the town of Topola.

IKEA’s first store in Serbia will welcome customers in the summer of 2017. Works at the construction site are in full swing. / Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

IKEA’s first store in Serbia will welcome customers in the summer of 2017. Works at the construction site are in full swing. / Mirjana Vukša Zavišić, USAID

A comprehensive reform of this process started in 2011. Administrative procedures and charges related to construction permits were a key impediment to business development. At the time, Serbia ranked 176th of 183 counties in the World Bank’s Doing Business report in this category.

With assistance from USAID, a law enacted in December 2014 in Serbia shortened the time required to issue a license to 28 days. A few months later, the government launched a one-stop-shop consolidated procedure, and by January 2016, the e-permitting system came online. The new law also lowered administrative costs of construction, creating considerable savings for investors. Serbia now ranks 36th of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business report with respect to construction permitting—a jump of 103 places compared to 2016.

“The effects were immediate,” said said Joe Lowther, former Chief of Party of USAID’s Business Enabling project.  “In 2015, Serbia’s construction sector expanded by 20.5 percent, while the number of building permits issued rose by 36 percent relative to the preceding year. That also meant job creation – construction is a very employment-intensive industry with spillover effects to other industries.”

Before, there were hardly any cranes in Belgrade. By October 2016, there were 489 active construction sites, according to the city’s mayor. / USAID Serbia

Before, there were hardly any cranes in Belgrade. By October 2016, there were 489 active construction sites, according to the city’s mayor. / USAID Serbia

Moreover, new projects under construction are beneficial to Serbian citizens. The Clinical Center of Serbia, for example, received a permit under the new system and will soon start building  much-needed health care facilities.

With a more favorable business climate attracting investment, local government revenues increased by 18 percent in the first quarter of 2016 — which are key for the development of Serbia’s cities and municipalities, said Aleksandra Damjanović, State Secretary at Serbia’s Ministry of Construction. In addition, Serbia’s GDP expanded 3.5 percent in real terms in the first quarter of 2016; a significant part of this growth came from expansion in the construction sector.

“Before there were hardly any cranes in Belgrade—now we see them everywhere,” Damjanović said.

I was lucky the stars aligned in 2002 so I could make my first big step as an adult. Today, I am relieved that, largely thanks to USAID’s economic sector assistance programs in Serbia during the past 15 years, my son and future generations will have an easier start in life.

More than 4,000 permitting officials, who had not used any form of electronic communication in their work before, were trained in using the new online construction permitting application. / National Alliance for Local Economic Development Serbia

More than 4,000 permitting officials, who had not used any form of electronic communication in their work before, were trained in using the new online construction permitting application. / National Alliance for Local Economic Development Serbia

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mirjana Vukša Zavišić is a Development and Outreach and Communications Assistant at USAID Serbia who assists in the overall management of all public relations. Strahinja Mitovski is a Communication Manager at USAID Serbia’s Business Enabling project, Cardno Emerging Markets, USA.

Giving Birth in Ukraine: So Different From My Parents’ Experience

Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

In my 13 years working in outreach and communications for the USAID mission in Ukraine, I’ve had a chance to visit many USAID projects and to hear and write many success stories on how what we do has impacted people’s lives. But one project made my heart beat especially fast.

Every time I visited the maternity wards of hospitals cooperating with the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project, no matter whether in Simferopol or Luhansk, Lviv or Lutsk, I always experienced a warm feeling of happiness for families that had taken advantage of a unique opportunity to experience the birth of their child in an individual family-friendly room, forming a lifelong connection by sharing an important moment.

My parents were not so lucky. Back in Soviet times, my mother delivered me in a very different environment. She shared the birth of her child in a common room with another woman in labor, in a cold, bare, spouse-free environment, on a proletarian Rakhmanov delivery chair while in labor for 24 hours.

When I was finally born, I was immediately whisked away to a separate nursery for newborns. A nurse brought me to my mother on schedule to be fed and then immediately taken away, ostensibly to prevent infections. Visitors were forbidden, including my father.

Standing outside the hospital on a cold winter day, my father tried to get a glimpse of his newborn daughter by looking at a bundle of humanity my mom was holding at the window on a fifth-floor delivery room, some 50 meters away. Hearing my parents recount this story, I felt so sorry for my lonely and scared mother, for my distanced and confused father, and for myself—for being separated from my family at such a critical, early hour of my life.

Thinking about having my own children, I often thought: “I better hurry up and find a maternity hospital before the USAID project ends.”

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

My son decided to come into this world three years after the project ended. Nevertheless, when it came to choosing a delivery hospital, I turned to maternity staff and wards that had worked with USAID.

The Zhytomyr Oblast Perinatal Center was among the first to join the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project and was dubbed a project “champion.” It was among the leaders in breaking from Soviet practices and embracing World Health Organization-endorsed, evidence-based prenatal practices.

Headed by the dedicated Dr. Yuriy Vaisberg, the Zhytomyr maternity hospital quickly earned numerous quality awards. More importantly, it became a hospital where women and their families from neighboring cities and oblasts chose to deliver their babies, despite the distance they had to travel.

While I saw the benefit of giving birth at this facility, it took Christian, my partner and father of our child, longer to come around. He couldn’t understand why I decided to travel 100 kilometers outside of Kyiv to check out a maternity hospital.

When we arrived for a visit in April 2015, I found the hospital as I remembered it. The walls still displayed the project posters explaining all the stages of labor, the multiple delivery positions to choose from, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the danger and causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It also continued to provide courses on breastfeeding and antenatal and postpartum counseling to women and their families.

Our little Levko came into this world on a beautiful sunny day on June 18 at a sturdy 9 pounds, 5 ounces, and 22.4 inches in length. As I had undergone a C-section, Levko was put on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia. Whoever came up with this procedure should receive a great prize because it creates an incredible bond between the parent and child. As Christian explained, he felt a strong bond with Levko from the first touch.

After two hours of this, Levko was medically examined and then brought back to me for his first breastfeeding. The three of us spent the next five days together in a hospital room which looked more like a room in any home rather than a hospital ward. I could see and hold my son whenever I wanted and feed him whenever he was hungry or needed comfort. Christian helped change Levko’s diapers, held and calmed him whenever he was cranky, and cared for me as I recovered from the C-section.

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

As we left the hospital, I couldn’t help but compare how different our delivery experience was from that of my parents. I am grateful to the Center for valuing the importance of these necessary new practices recommended by the USAID project and continuing to offer them. The training and equipment that USAID provided made it possible for these dedicated nurses and doctors to continue to help women give birth safely and comfortably. I hope that, in the not too distant future, all of Ukraine’s maternity hospitals will adopt similar practices.

USAID’s Maternal and Infant Health Project, which ran from 2003 to 2012, provided technical assistance for maternal and child care to 20 regions in Ukraine. More than 50 percent of births in the country today directly benefit from those perinatal technologies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olya Myrtsalo is a senior development and communication officer in USAID’s regional mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

Young Entrepreneurs Develop Startups in Serbia

The room was full of energy and promise. Huddled around computers, young adults worked in teams in a bright, open-concept, collaborative environment resembling a startup, creating innovative apps and IT platforms.

This is Serbia’s ICT Hub, a business incubator in Belgrade for information and communications technology (ICT) entrepreneurs.

Last fall, I visited the ICT Hub — a partner project of USAID, DNA Communications and Orion Telekom – to learn more about economic opportunities for young adults in Serbia, a country where the unemployment rate for this population is about 50 percent.  However, jobs in ICT are growing for people entering the workforce.

So far, over 60 young Serbians have participated in the ICT Hub’s intensive training for developing entrepreneurship skills and business strategies, and many more have engaged in monthly lectures open to the general public on strategy, leadership and tech entrepreneurship.

The ICT Hub provides a space available 24/7 where teams can collaborate, receive mentorship support from local business executives, have access to business and legal resources, and develop programs and applications specific to the IT sector.

As a young communications professional and an ICT aficionado, I was delighted to discover a general sentiment of optimism and hope when I spoke to my fellow ICT-enthusiast peers at the Hub about their various apps and innovations.

First, I met ICT Hub Project Director Kosta Andrić, who emphasized that the goal of the Hub is to build the potential for tech entrepreneurship while changing the mindset of young adults and the work culture within the country.

Young adults who first come to the Hub often fear failure, but through the program, they learn to take chances and innovate. Not all ideas and products may succeed, but the skills developed through the hub are transferrable to future ventures.

Kosta introduced me Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, a gaming studio that produces mobile games. Milan enrolled in the ICT Hub’s program after an initial investment from a Bulgarian accelerator, a business incubator that provided mentorship and support for his startup. His team now has a space to work on the game as well as support from the hub’s extensive network of contacts, and a pathway for fulfilling his dream of publishing his game.

“Life in Serbia is hard for a young person … but, despite that, every person must follow his dream,” Milan said.  “The ICT Hub is very useful to me and helps me the most with networking…every tenant helps each other, so we are like family.”

Integrating communication and technology, Milan’s passion for gaming has a regional twist; his role-playing mobile game apps are based on Slavic mythology.

“We are inspired by all the other great role-play games in the world,” he said. “Each team member is in love with this genre of games. But one important fact — everyone knows what Greek mythology is, but we are inspired by Slavic mythology, and we want to educate our players about Slavic mythology and about Slavs.”

Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, collaborates with team members at the ICT Hub. / Laura Jagla, USAID

Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, collaborates with team members at the ICT Hub. / Laura Jagla, USAID

A creative path for many

Since the ICT Hub opened in fall 2014, several products developed have been quite successful. Some participants have created mobile games, such as extreme sports game Longboard Mapp, which has more than 15,000 users. ICT Hub participant Vuk Nikolić, creator of TruckTrack, a management software for the trucking industry, was connected to U.S. venture capital seed fund 500 Startups, which invested money and expertise in Nikolić’s software and team. Now, TruckTrack’s team has expanded, and the platform has over 2,000 companies registered.

Other teams are just getting their start, though they are enthusiastic about their potential. Nemanja Stefanovic, 25, creator of HireApp – an application connecting youth and others with part-time jobs – remarked that the creative space and mentorship offered by the hub contributed to his success

HireApp creator Nemanja Stefanovic and team member (left). New ICT Hub participants Vanja Belić, Stevan Janković, and Vuk Spplajković (right). / Laura Jagla, USAID

HireApp creator Nemanja Stefanovic and team member (left). New ICT Hub participants Vanja Belić, Stevan Janković, and Vuk Spplajković (right). / Laura Jagla, USAID

Investing in the future

The next ICT Hub session of pitching to potential investors will take place this spring. Hope lingered in the air as participants worked in a flurry to innovate.

After meeting with the young entrepreneurs at the Hub, I can summarize the experience in one word: possibilities.

In the words of Milan Brindić, “In the next five to 10 years, I see myself running a gaming company in San Francisco, focused on game design and experience. I am making awesome games… So, my dream is… I don’t have any dream, I am living it already!”

ICT Hub is a model that could be replicated in other countries to promote entrepreneurship, leadership development, and increased economic opportunity.

Possibilities, indeed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Jagla is a Communications Specialist in USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment.

Keeping Up with the Times: Local Media Outlets Help Georgia Move Into the Digital Information Age

To help media in Georgia stay ahead of changing trends and technology, the USAID supported New Media Initiative is working with media organizations like the Information Center of Kakheti to  build TV studios for streaming news programming online. / Photo by Gela Mtivlishvili

To help media in Georgia stay ahead of changing trends and technology, the USAID supported New Media Initiative is working with media organizations like the Information Center of Kakheti to build TV studios for streaming news programming online. / Photo by Gela Mtivlishvili

If there is any universal truth, it is that information is power. With the right information, people can make informed decisions to positively affect their lives. A thriving independent media is critical for educating the public and building democratic societies.

In Georgia, many media organizations are struggling to keep pace with the rapid rise of technology.With the expansion of internet to virtually every part of the country, USAID saw an opportunity to help media outlets and journalists reshape how they produce news. So, several years ago, the New Media Initiative took root.

USAID’s New Media Initiative (NMI) works with regional media outlets through trainings, mentoring and individual consulting around four focus areas: multimedia content production, management practices, website design and operation, and new media sales.

Demand for the resources offered through the program is high. During a first round of outreach, 27 media organizations applied to work with NMI. After assessments and interviews of candidate organizations, 12 media outlets were selected to participate in the program based on their capacity to implement new ideas and their level of commitment.

To maximize the benefit to each organization, NMI tailored training plans to the needs of each individual media outlet.

Before participating in the NMI training, Speqtri—an online local news source—posted their stories to a blog platform that limited visual content, interactive features and advertising. With the technical support and trainings provided through USAID, Speqtri created a new webpage that improved the way the newspaper reported and interacted with its readers. The new site incorporates slide modules to generate income through web-based commercials (banners, hyperlinks, portals, etc.), as well as tools for gathering feedback from readers. Multimedia training also enabled the news outlet to complement its written stories with videos, photos, audio clips and infographics.

Journalists for SK News gather around a laptop to learn about online TV broadcasting during a New Media Initiative training Akhaltsikhe, Georgia. / Photo by Nino Narimanashvili

Journalists for SK News gather around a laptop to learn about online TV broadcasting during a New Media Initiative training Akhaltsikhe, Georgia. / Photo by Nino Narimanashvili

Taking multimedia to the field

To support their multimedia training work, NMI invested in laptop computers, cameras, voice recorders, microphones and other audio-visual production accessories. This equipment served as the backbone for workshops conducted in Tbilisi, and at newsrooms across the country. By taking the program on the road, participants could leverage their skills in native environments using the computers and software.

To make multimedia work even more accessible to newsrooms, NMI staff designed a Georgian language software kit for reporters. The kit includes trial and free software programs for recording audio, editing photos and videos, converting files and creating graphics. The kit distributed by DVD also includes tools that allow reporters to conduct Skype interviews, organize archives of materials and even create a schedule that can be shared with colleagues. By selecting free or low cost software, USAID is offering an affordable alternative to expensive software or the illegal download of pirated software.

The New Media Initiative hosted trainings at newsrooms across Georgia to help media learn about ways to produce multimedia and leverage the web to grow audiences. / Infographic by Dachi Grdzelishvili

The New Media Initiative hosted trainings at newsrooms across Georgia to help media learn about ways to produce multimedia and leverage the web to grow audiences. / Infographic by Dachi Grdzelishvili

News worth reading

News spread quickly about NMI. Almost a hundred journalists in Georgia participated in 75 training events during the first year.

In questionnaires conducted after the trainings, journalists reported new mastery of web skills and a 22 percent increase in online ad sales for their news outlets. A survey of Google analytics also showed on average a 79 percent increase in web page traffic for the media outlets who participated in the trainings.

The program also delivered some unexpected benefits. When a group of regional newspaper publishers expressed an interest in live internet video streaming to augment their multimedia content, they turned to NMI staff for support in developing a cooperative group that is now known as the Georgian Publishers ITV Network. NMI helps network partners set up small recording studios, learn how to operate their equipment and provide live, interactive coverage of major events such as elections.

With a new bevy of tools for telling stories, reporters in Georgia are now better equipped than ever to deliver important news to the public. The changes witnessed by the team of trainers at the NMI are inspiring— content quality is on the rise and newsrooms across Georgia are telling stories in interactive new ways. We can’t wait to help even more media organizations in the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Davit (Dachi) Grdzelishvili is the Senior New Media Manager for the USAID-funded New Media Initiative. Follow Dachi @dachi444 or on Facebook.

Teaching Tolerance: A Lesson for Kosovo’s Educators in LGBT Awareness

Over 140 principals in Kosovo recently took part in annual training hosted in municipalities throughout the country under USAID’s Basic Education Program. But this year, for the first time, training included Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights.

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš, nestled in the mountainous border with Albania, is one of the most remote, diverse and traditional parts of Kosovo. The large Bosniak and Gorani minority communities live harmoniously with the Albanian majority population in this quiet mountain town where, unlike elsewhere in the Muslim-majority country, head scarves are a common sight.

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš in southern Kosovo is home to a diverse community of 33,590 people, including 12,000 members of the Bosniak and Gorani minority communities. Strong Muslim faith unites this community, which is an example of ethnic tolerance for the country. / USAID

The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš in southern Kosovo is home to a diverse community of 33,590 people, including 12,000 members of the Bosniak and Gorani minority communities. Strong Muslim faith unites this community, which is an example of ethnic tolerance for the country. / USAID

Spelling it Out

It was here that a recent LGBT session took place on November 15.

When trainer and Kosovo Pedagogical Institute Director Ismet Potera opened the discussion by asking participants to write what they believed “LGBT” stood for, only one of the nine Dragash/Dragaš principals knew the meaning, adding that “it is a reality and a shame.”

“I must admit, I shared that prejudice before I understood the facts,” Potera explained to the group of male educators. “But now I understand that members of the LGBT community don’t choose that lifestyle, and most importantly, they are deserving of our protection.”

Ismet Potera (and Arbërie Nagavci) lead a session on inclusiveness, the seventh and final module of the USAID Basic Education Program’s annual training for school principals. For the first time ever, the module included a session on LGBT sensitivity, Nov. 15, 2014 / USAID

Ismet Potera (and Arbërie Nagavci) lead a session on inclusiveness, the seventh and final module of the USAID Basic Education Program’s annual training for school principals. For the first time ever, the module included a session on LGBT sensitivity, Nov. 15, 2014 / USAID

An Unlikely Advocate

As Potera and fellow trainer Arbërie Nagavci continued to present the information prepared by local LGBT organization Center for Social Emancipation (Qendra Për Emancipim Shoqëror) about the differences between sexual orientation and gender, they got some unexpected support from one of the participants.

“Human sexuality is rooted in science,” said Bahtijar Bojaxhiu, a biology teacher of 25 years who currently serves as principal for over 600 students at several village schools near Dragash/Dragaš. “Studies have proven that it is determined by a combination of genetics and hormones, so homosexuality is natural.”

While Kosovo’s open LGBT community is small—estimated at around 300 people in a country of 1.9 million—the fledgling democracy’s laws offer them explicit protection from discrimination and even the right to same-sex marriage. But societal acceptance has yet to catch up to legal mandate. In December 2012, a magazine launch party in the capital of Pristina was targeted for violent homophobic attacks because the issue tackled the topic of homosexuality.

Spreading the word

In the village of Pjetërshticëin central Kosovo, only 8 percent of the local community has a university education. Elementary school principal Lutfi Gashi believes that, following the USAID training in nearby Shtime/Štimlje, it is his personal and professional responsibility to ensure that teachers and parents alike are aware of the country’s anti-discrimination laws.

“It is my duty to create a safe environment for all of my students,” explained Gashi, who is establishing an inclusiveness working group of teachers, parents, and students to address factors that could be contributing to the school’s dropout rate.

The halls of Idriz Ajeti Elementary School outside Shtime/Štimlje in central Kosovo, where signs encourage students to "Speak little, but listen much" and that "It's a person's mind that makes him/her beautiful." The school’s principal is adding a new lesson for students, parents, and teachers alike in inclusiveness by forming a working group to address causes for the school’s recent dropouts, Nov. 14, 2014 / USAID

The halls of Idriz Ajeti Elementary School outside Shtime/Štimlje in central Kosovo, where signs encourage students to “Speak little, but listen much” and that “It’s a person’s mind that makes him/her beautiful.” The school’s principal is adding a new lesson for students, parents, and teachers alike in inclusiveness by forming a working group to address causes for the school’s recent dropouts, Nov. 14, 2014 / USAID

The dialogue continues

As the discussion came to a close in Dragash/Dragaš, Potera and Nagavci talked about how schools in this region are uniquely positioned to promote LGBT inclusiveness, given the example set here of ethnic inclusiveness. One participant, who had appeared skeptical through much of the discussion, finally spoke up:

“In all of our cultures, families take care of each other. If a person from this community is rejected by their family, then it’s the responsibility of the school to teach acceptance and support them.”

Nagavci was pleased. “I’m not sure we changed any minds today, but we certainly tickled a few, and opened a dialogue that I hope will continue.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bridget Nurre is a communications specialist for USAID/Kosovo. Follow her @BridgetNurre and keep up with the Kosovo mission @USAIDKosovo

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