Voices from the Western Balkans: Learning Through Reflections in Development Cooperation

FROM: Selma Begović , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 02. March 2020

My colleague Selma Begović calls herself a ‘very optimistic but also very critical development practitioner’. Selma is the Sector Team Leader for the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) of the MarketMakers project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, implemented by Helvetas and Kolektiv, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

I was eager to know how she sees her work. So, I caught up with her to reflect and learn on some relevant issues of our work in development cooperation.

In the sections that follow, we discussed about important aspects of learning through reflections and concluded that frequent learning comes about not from doing, but from thinking about what we do. In doing so, it allows us to be critical about our work and enables us to be innovative for addressing more pressing and complex issues.    

Why reflection isn’t optional

Often, we hear that it’s hard to make up time for reflection. Certainly, most people are running on the fast lane of life – so many things to do and complete. Yet, we feel that such a thinking makes reflection optional even though we believe that reflection should be part of our daily work. Jennifer Porter, an executive coach, was once asked who her toughest clients are. Her answer was candid: people ‘who won’t reflect’.

For us also, what really drives learning is finding the time and space to reflect, for example, on the critical question of: are we, development practitioners, making a difference in the lives of people?  We feel that sometimes we gloss over and try to avoid tackling such vital questions. The obvious reason we give is, we have more urgent things to do than pondering on such a seemingly bigger and more complex issue. This, unfortunately, affects building the culture of honest inquiry and as a result becomes harmful to improving the quality of our work.

To be fair, we reflect in our day-to-day work without calling this a reflection. Isn’t this what we do anyway – by asking questions, thinking about different options, debating with others, etc.?

We’re convinced that reflection needs to be a more conscious and more structured effort to make sense of learning. This means that it requires allocation of time and space, by going out of our day-to-day work and thinking about the wider perspective of learning – heading towards seeing the bigger picture. This is perhaps one of the reasons why we struggle to tell the stories of our work in a more understandable way by focusing on the bigger picture, which is substantiated with evidence-informed narratives.  

Reflections for critically assessing our work  

In development cooperation, there’re several examples that lack the ‘culture of honest inquiry’. We often read about successes, proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated and presented. Of course, this isn’t the whole story; there are also good cases of success. Others that failed are developing the culture of learning to improve their work.

In contrast to a decade ago, fewer people are now living in extreme poverty around the world. For the past few years, world’s unemployment rate also significantly dropped to the lowest level since the global economic crisis in 2008.

What we do in Bosnia and Herzegovina also takes sustainable and scalable development as regional/global, as well as multi-sectoral effort that involves a variety of actors and different approaches. The MarketMakers project supports inclusive and sustainable economic opportunities in the labor markets. We support women and men, including socially excluded citizens, aged 15-30 years, to have access to employment or self-employment in more socially inclusive markets. We are making good progress. A recent external, independent assessment confirms such progress based on:

  • The partnership agreements that the project has concluded and is working on, which include the number of women and men expected to be employed as a result of the agreements
  • Projections beyond the partnership agreements – lasting results through improvements in the practices of other partners who are influenced by the work of the project
  • Case-by-case attribution of the project’s own impact based on its relative contribution to the partnership and other factors (e.g. who developed the idea for the intervention)
  • Employment that proves not to be sustainable is subtracted

There were (are still) several challenges in the process: change in the implementation modality of the project that depended on Regional Development Agencies and the need to identify new co-facilitators and do more direct implementation; staff turnover; managing partnership relationships, etc. These are common problems in most projects that sometimes take away precious time for reflection and making progress in our work.

For us, what helped a lot was the regional exchanges and joint reflections with other projects – in Kosovo, Albania and Moldova – through visits, cross-project working groups and participation in meetings. The reflections have been useful in optimizing the use of resources provided for development purposes and clearly defining goals and being mindful of the context of the environment that we’re trying to support and improve.

In addition, exchanging with others in a structured way contributes to see the difference between what the MarketMakers project does in Bosnia and Herzegovina compared to other similar projects. The inclusive systems approach – also known as Market Systems Development – provides us some flexibility of navigating complex systems in the country and work with different partners.

Another area where we learnt through our reflections is that result delivery sometimes is distorted because of the way in which such delivery or progress is assessed. A recent regional Outcome Harvesting initiative in Eastern Europe shows that results happen in different directions and at different times lines, and not in a linear way as formulated in logical frameworks. This is the one of the downsides of existing ‘impact logic’ thinking in most projects, including the MarketMakers project.

More innovative ideas needed to address bigger and more complex problems

Successful innovators think critically and act strategically. While the MarketMakers project is tackling root causes of labor market systems, one of the biggest challenges that remains is cross generational behavior patterns and beliefs that largely affect the labor force, resulting in mismatch between skills obtained and market needs.

Young women and men don’t exist in isolation from surrounding informal rules and social norms. For this reason, parents and grandparents hold strong influence on their children. They grew up and spent most of their youth in former Yugoslavia – a socialist country with a completely different ‘rules of the game’ from what we see today in the country. Formal education system hasn’t been significantly updated, and graduates lack up-to-date skills, for example, in using the latest tools and technologies.

Moreover, current legislation doesn’t allow fulltime students to gain employment and thus some practical experience prior to graduation, which, in turn, makes fresh graduates less employable (little or no relevant practical experience). To be fair, students are able to gain experience from ‘internships’, but this is structured in a way that is very unfavorable to the student and to the employer, thus its value is far from optimal. With the recent rapid growth in certain industries (like information technology and BPO), employers are eager to engage students.

The other cultural leftover from the former Yugoslavia is a persistent belief that once a young person finds a ‘good’ job, he/she is settled for life. Thus, the young person should always strive to get the ‘good’ job and live financially secured for life. Although, in today’s context, these ideas sound irrational, it’s hard to explain to family members why young people need to study different subjects and find different jobs from those perceived as good by their parents or grandparents. With the changing nature of jobs, for example the new models of employment (such as part-time, temporary, own work), the challenge is getting even more complex.

A good example is the pharmaceutical industry. The sector grew very fast in 2000’s and employment both in the private and public sector became very popular, with the belief that it offered significantly larger salaries than other industries. As a result, many young people were advised by their families and communities to study pharmacy. Consequently, the supply of the workforce quickly passed the demand, and the industry itself reached its peak and began declining. Expectedly, the country has a big surplus of skilled pharmaceutical labor force that is unemployed. Today, the most popular profession is in the IT sector, and therefore the trend is pushing young people towards the IT sector. Although IT has a different context and is unlikely to have the same outcome as the pharmaceutical industry, similar effect might happen in a certain number of years.

Upon reflection, the lesson that we should draw from the above example is the importance of defining skills as one component of knowledge system that includes know-how, attitudes and competencies. Put simply, skills development goes beyond formal vocational education and training; it includes non-formal and informal types of training and re-training. Young people need different type of skills to meet the different challenges in life: foundation skills, technical skills and transferable skills.

Local solutions to local development challenges

Part of our refection is also to question the way development has for long been designed and implemented. To the most part, it ignored locally rooted, ‘user-driven’ development solutions and gave instead emphasis to external experts with ‘a Northern/Western background, with endless degrees and credentials, most of them English-speaking’.

By the label ‘local’, we aren’t setting rankings or priorities, comparing Bosnia and Herzegovina with other European countries. Our aim is simply to show that development cooperation has increasingly been described as ‘global partnership’ between different countries, not just between those with resources (human, financial etc.) to support and those that seek to get the support. Yet, we think that effective global partnership needs the recognition that solutions primarily (if not all) come from people within the countries that aspire to have better lives – through determining their dignity and security and using their resources in a sustainable manner.

The question is: can, what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina, be described as ‘development as partnership’?

From our experiences in the MarketMakers project, ideas generated and applied locally are more realistic to the context of the country (market, regulations etc.) while sometimes those coming from the outside might not be implementable in the context of the country that we’re operating in. However, regardless of the ‘birthplace’ of the idea, we, as development practitioners, should always attempt to provide the widest pool of ideas possible, but strive to encourage local players to take the ownership of the chosen path (innovative idea) and to regard them as their own.

Here’s a good example from Walter, the biggest architectural company in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The idea was to engage Walter and open a Walter Building Information Modelling (BIM) Academy. BIM is a relatively new methodology, very popular among western markets, and quickly becoming required by law in many EU countries. At the time, Walter was one of the few companies locally using BIM due to its customer base being exclusively in NW Europe. In part a recruitment strategy for its own expansion, and in part a service for the wider market, Walter’s new Academy would allow for a win-win that satisfied both a resolution to a skills problem in the labor market and its own firm-level growth constraint. With MarketMakers’ support, Walter were able to market their Academy to a number of different demographic groups – from unemployed architects and engineers, final-year university students, as well as other architectural companies in their peer group – which would be key to the Academy’s financial sustainability. Now, a year and a half into running the program, Walter is keen on expanding its Academy due to the aforementioned win-win, but also because it’s providing the company with additional profits as a successful side activity and is now a recognizable trademark of the company.

The economic and social returns from this initiative are significant because there is now a big increase in the number of architects who are able to export their BIM services to foreign markets. In a parallel situation, another project with another company partner might have first thought to simply bring-in BIM experts from outside Bosnia and Herzegovina and finance a one-off education. This may have required substantial human and financial resources, and even if successful, would have led to limited gains to both Walter and the labor market, as the process of change would likely have stopped when the financing for the education ended. Thus, identifying and understanding the local dynamics and incentives of Walter was critical for the success of this initiative.

Lastly, the most crucial factor is a partner’s willingness to adopt and take ownership of the idea. Walter’s BIM Academy is growing and expanding to provide even more elaborate skills, testing new ways of delivering training and becoming more prominent by the day. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that local stakeholders are the ones who will always be driving, implementing and enjoying the change we strive to see as development practitioners.

Additional sources


Cover picture: Helvetas

Selma Begović is the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Sector Leader at the MarketMakers project in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). She is working with both private and public sector on developing inclusive and innovative solutions to market challenges within the BPO industry in B&H. Her experience comes from working for several international companies in Europe and the USA, holding business development and managerial positions. With fresh experience with new business models and innovation from the private sector multinationals, she is passionately working on developing inclusive systems private sector growth and job creation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies