5 Stories about Diaspora Engagement in the Western Balkans

TEXT: Shayda Smart – 28. September 2020

When investing our time, energy and resources, we all tend to be influenced by emotional and social factors. For diaspora, these are not merely considerations, but often what shapes both the motivation and form of involvement when it comes to investing in countries of origin.

Everybody knows about remittances. Their significance is indisputable - the Balkan countries receive a substantial portion of their Gross Domestic Product in this way (reaching as high as 15% in Kosovo). But remittances are only one way to give back - and may not be as reliable as many once assumed.  As migrants around the world struggle with job losses in a post-COVID-19 landscape, their financial contributions are expected to decline.

Investments and the transfer of knowledge are more crisis-proof ways for diaspora to stimulate economic development in their countries of origin. This is a complicated endeavor, however, often requiring more time and money, and leading many people to ask not only what the benefits of involvement are, but also how to get involved. To get a first-hand opinion, we asked five diaspora representatives, who support their countries in more long-term, sustainable ways, what inspires them - and how governments, societies and development organizations can make their support more impactful.

Investing in an emotional bond

Mubina van Veen-Isović grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now based in Luxembourg, she maintains close links to her hometown of Trebinje through a number of projects. In addition to a real estate business in southeast Herzegovina, she co-founded Herzeg Med, a small-scale honey production factory, making use of the region’s natural assets. Today, Herzeg Med works with around 50 producers across Bosnia and Herzegovina, employing several people and helping to support their families.

Mubina considers herself lucky to be able to make such an impact. In addition to a desire to help, which she credits her parents with, she finds motivation from a feeling of personal satisfaction. Her projects keep her active and inspired, and provide an opportunity for personal growth.

«A long-term impact can be achieved by stimulating young people to become entrepreneurs... to take their futures into their own hands.»

Mubina van Veen-Isović

She considers herself socially, economically and most importantly emotionally linked to Bosnia and especially to Herzegovina. She has made many lifelong friends from her years in Trebinje, and the town serves as a base for her family. Through her projects, she establishes new connections and relationships, all of which strengthen her emotional attachment to the region - something she hopes to pass on to her children.

Mubina’s success has not been without struggle. But even failures, she says, provide a chance to review expectations and find new opportunities. Diaspora hoping to effect change in Bosnia and Herzegovina should take note, as they can expect to face a particular set of challenges. Mubina points out that though diaspora provide considerable financial support for the country, their involvement is unstructured and largely unrecognized. Additionally, she says “there is a general prejudice, even animosity, against diaspora - shown by the public and the state as well.” Those keen to help therefore often prefer to do so privately, or through humanitarian activities.

The other main obstacle to diaspora engagement is the state. Bosnia, she says, doesn’t provide enough incentives for foreign investors. Investors are risk averse, and the threat of political instability, along with the considerable bureaucracy involved in a startup, often leaves them uncertain of the chances of a return on their investment.

Mubina personally favors a more long-term approach to engagement. She says that Helvetas’ project, Moja Budućnost, has the right idea. “Stimulating young people to become entrepreneurs… to take their futures into their own hands. Diaspora need these people to run their businesses. People who are educated, willing and motivated, who have an entrepreneurial mindset and understand how the market functions.” She touches on what she sees as a problematic attitude in the country - the “socialist mentality,” leading to expectations of a guaranteed salary, irrespective of job performance. By placing emphasis on responsibility and initiative, as well as creating a better environment for attracting foreign investment, she believes there is significant potential.

Mubina’s advice for Helvetas? “Be patient. Be persistent. Don’t give up. Never give up on Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Overcoming differences in mentality

Edin Dacić was born in Yugoslavia. His family moved to Switzerland when he was five. In the mid-80s, he says, Switzerland was more culturally and economically closed. Fearing that he would have fewer chances to succeed than Swiss natives, Edin sought to “turn a competitive disadvantage into an advantage” and become an entrepreneur in Yugoslavia. He reasoned that he knew the language, was connected to Western markets, and could take advantage of the relatively lower cost of doing business there. He founded his company, Daccomet AG, as a student thirty years ago. Since then, the company, which supplies IKEA, has invested over 11 million Euros and created more than 300 jobs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a further 300 jobs in Serbia.

Through his work, Edin hopes to "bridge the gap" between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the West. He recalls coming to the “very painful conclusion” that, despite knowing the language, the culture of Yugoslavia was foreign to him. Echoing Mubina’s observations, Edin says that the difference in mentality towards work pervades every aspect of business - “...the approach, the work, the way of communication… all of which result in underperformance. When you look at the available data, based on indicators such as labor costs, electricity costs, and so on, countries in the Balkans are growing less than they could. They should be producing much more and be more economically successful.”

«They should physically go there, put their skills to work and implement their values where they are investing.»

Edin Dacić

While Edin has undoubtedly found personal success, he says that failure is even more common. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “Daccomet AG was involved in financing and consulting with seven different IKEA suppliers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only one is still operational today.” Diaspora, he warns, may be unprepared for the realities of investing. They may face unfamiliar problems, like excessive bureaucracy and possibly corruption. Additionally, Edin says that the Balkan countries, in their eagerness to attract foreign direct investments, tend to downplay the obstacles facing investors - even promoting “one-stop shops,” giving the impression that founding a company will be a simple, straightforward process.

What approach should potential investors take? “They should physically go there, put their skills to work and implement their values where they are investing.”

Closing the distance

Even in Switzerland, it is possible to create direct links between a country and its diaspora. For Jovanka Stojkovski, a resident of Locarno, Ticino, engagement means investing personal time and facilitating communication between those who require support and those who can provide it.

Assisted by her husband, Jovanka is involved in collecting clothing and other necessities, which are sent to friends and relatives in North Macedonia. But she has found other ways to help, too. When a local hotel underwent renovation, Jovanka noticed that high quality materials were being discarded. With the support of the hotel (and driver, who offered a reduced transport fee), she arranged for a cargo van full of bedding and other materials to be dispatched to the hospital in Negotino, her hometown.

«I can help with restoring, fixing or building something out of collected resources.»

Jovanka Stojkovski

Such efforts are not new to her. In her teenage years, Jovanka participated in activities organized by the Red Cross and local NGOs. She explains, “Although I cannot help others financially, I can help with restoring, fixing or building something out of collected resources.” How resources are utilized is part of the problem, she says, noting that they could often be allocated more efficiently. This, and the inequalities she observes - not only in Macedonia, but also in the rest of the world - motivate her to take action.

“The Macedonian Diaspora is made up of hardworking and dedicated people. Many in Switzerland are successful entrepreneurs, with private sector experience that can be transferred to North Macedonia. Additionally, they have acquired a unique set of skills, knowledge, values and perspectives that can be a valuable asset to the country.” If provided with an appropriate platform for cooperation, Jovanka is confident that the diaspora can make a strong, long-lasting impact. “The potential is there, definitely.”

Creating interpersonal bonds that endure for generations

Drilon S. Gashi's parents immigrated to the United States from Kosovo in the early 1990s, to escape the Yugoslav regime’s political persecution of Kosovar Albanians. However, the family took care to maintain strong links to their heritage. When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Drilon, fresh out of college, saw this as an opportune time to get involved. He returned to Kosovo and worked for three years in both the public and civil sectors.

Now back in the U.S., Drilon writes about relevant international development and foreign policy issues for publications in Kosovo and the Balkans. He also maintains an active social media presence and encourages others in the diaspora to do the same.

It is more so in recent years, he says, that governments and the general public are appreciating the reach and potential contributions of the Albanian Diaspora. Kosovo’s population totals only 2 million, but there are an additional 1 million members of the diaspora abroad, with a wide range of skills. Because of this, Drilon believes that the diaspora are in a position to offer a unique kind of investment - economic, intellectual, social, and even political - that can lead to a much greater return.

«Once you get involved for the first time, you want to stay involved.»

Drilon S. Gashi

He asserts that diaspora of all ages have something to offer by returning to the country of origin; those who are younger can teach, take part in internships, or begin their careers with a focus on community involvement. Those who are mid-career can make use of technical expertise developed abroad by participating in academic or business exchanges. Later on in their career, they can disseminate field-specific expertise by getting involved either in an academic capacity or at the senior level, perhaps within business or the government.

Unfortunately, Drilon says, a lack of structured programs discourages people from getting involved. Those keen to contribute may find that their potential impact goes unrecognized. Identifying opportunities for members of the diaspora to make the greatest possible impact is a joint effort, but also “makes it a much more worthwhile exchange for both sides.”

Drilon suggests that existing organizations could consider programs that would help to create interpersonal bonds that endure for generations. Birthright Israel, an organization which sponsors free trips for young adults to learn about and connect with their Jewish heritage, could perhaps serve as an inspiration. Rather than focusing solely on familial ties, Drilon says, diaspora could connect to their ancestral home on a professional level or an even more personal level - linking its values and culture to something within themselves.

Building networks

Zhikica (Zach) Pagovski arrived in the United States nine years ago as a master’s student at American University's School of International Service. He says that the traits and values instilled in him through his upbringing in Macedonia have made him a better person. Feeling a sense of duty to give back, he has spent much of his career raising awareness about North Macedonia in the policy and diplomatic communities in Washington, D.C. He hopes his efforts will help to secure a promising future for his friends and family who live there.

Through his time with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a policy think tank, Zach has worked to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by building partner relations with the government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. He has also written extensively about policy issues in North Macedonia, including the importance of Euro-Atlantic integration, its accession to the European Union, and its role in NATO, ensuring the security and stability of the Western Balkans. He has also published an in-depth study on the resolution of the name dispute between then-Macedonia and Greece that was used by the relevant parties in the negotiations process.

«I would like to see politics left aside, and all groups working together toward a shared goal of “prosperous" Macedonia.»

Zhikica (Zach) Pagovski

Zach believes that physical distance is a major barrier to diaspora engagement. Communication must be improved, he thinks, perhaps through news channels, for example. This can help the diaspora to understand North Macedonia’s evolution into the more multiethnic, multicultural society it is today. This can also help people who live in North Macedonia to realize that the diaspora is not a monolithic entity. He says that politics also hinders engagement. For the last two decades, he explains, Macedonia has been politically polarized; this is reflected in the diaspora. He would like to see politics left aside, and all groups working together toward a shared goal of “prosperous Macedonia.”

Zach says that building networks is essential. Mentorships are one way to achieve this. “There are people outside of Macedonia who have amazing careers, who are experts in their fields. I believe that most of them would be willing to lend their expertise.” He is aware of diaspora organizations currently taking this approach. Some offer exchange programs, where diaspora are invited to learn about and connect with the motherland, while others provide scholarships or arrange cultural visits. Zach himself organized a fact-finding mission for German Marshall Fund colleagues, opening up a dialogue with stakeholders from Macedonia’s civil society and policy community on how best to move forward. In his view, the key is to maintain strategic and sustained involvement. “One-time, sporadic engagements,” he says, fail to make a lasting impact.

Looking forward

From building networks, to starting a business or transferring skills, there are countless ways for members of the diaspora to give back. We hope the sharing of these experiences will motivate more diaspora to join in, and will inspire development organizations to make diaspora engagement part of their projects. This is the crucial first step. As Drilon Gashi says, “Once you get involved for the first time, you want to stay involved.”

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This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

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