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The Balkans: Not Enough Skills or Not Enough Work?

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

City bus arrives at a station World BankIn many economies of the Balkans high formal unemployment is often blamed on insufficient skills in the labor force. But this intuitive diagnosis glosses over two fundamental questions, namely: why are workers not training themselves to find jobs, and why aren’t firms investing in upgrading the skills of their employees? In other words, the market seems to be failing by not allocating resources where high returns can be found. In this blog post, we cast doubt on the diagnosis and look beyond the skills gap explanation to high unemployment in the Western Balkans. But this is not unique to the Balkans. Take the US construction industry, which is among the most productive in the world even though it employs many relatively low skilled workers, often immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, who improved their individual productivity several fold by migrating – not upgrading skills.

There is no doubt about the problem as throughout the region unemployment – particularly formal – remains unacceptably high. Serbia is a case in point: Out of a population of 7.2 million people and a workforce of 4.5 million, only 710,000 Serbians have a formal, private sector job. If you add some 380,000 ‘sole proprietors’ – basically people who run mini-shops – you get to around 1.1 million people in the formal private sector. That means that the livelihood of the whole country is built around this 15 percent of the population. Can it really be that firms are still not able to find sufficiently skilled employees in the large remaining pool, especially given that Serbia has decent education results? If finding skilled workers in Serbia is like looking for needles in a haystack, there are surely a lot of needles to be found.
 

Albania - On the Path Toward Economic Growth and Development

Laura Tuck's picture

Laura Tuck, Vice President for the Europe and Central Asia region of the World Bank, discusses her recent trip to Albania, during which she had broad ranging discussions with the government and other partners on the country's growth and development.

Overcoming the Middle Income Trap

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

The Western Balkans Case

ZM-SE003 World Bank The Western Balkans have a lot going for them: ideal location next to the world’s largest economic bloc, a well-educated workforce, relatively low wages and decent infrastructure. FDI and investors should be rushing in … but are they?

Southeast Europe is the next frontier of EU expansion and includes six countries: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These countries have a lot in common and an equal amount of differences. They are all relatively small open economies, with a growth strategy premised on deeper international integration. Some, especially Macedonia, are more advanced in attracting international investors but as a whole, the region seems to be stuck in a classical Middle Income Trap: they are too rich to compete on low-cost manufacturing but are too poor to be global innovators. After a strong recovery following war and conflicts in the 1990s, the growth momentum has stalled over the last five years and the region has been particularly vulnerable to external shocks.

Albania’s Story: Reaching the poor in social protection systems

Erion Veliaj's picture
Albania's Story: Reaching the poor through social protection systems
At this year’s south-south forum on labor and social protection systems, organized by the World Bank and the government of Brazil this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I had the opportunity to present Albania’s story on modernizing the country’s “Ndihma Ekonomike” cash transfer program.  The term “Ndihma Ekonomike” refers to providing support to vulnerable groups or families in need. But how do we determine who are eligible?

Why Women Don't Work in the Western Balkans

Ellen Goldstein's picture
Finding and keeping a job, and even participating in the labor market, is harder if you are a woman than if you are a man living in the Western Balkans. This is a conclusion I can draw from my first year as Country Director for the Western Balkans, reminding us that gender inequality persists in many forms while another International Women’s Day passes. 

Only half of the working age population participates in the labor force in the Western Balkans. This is low by both European and global standards - but participation among women is even worse. This rate was only about 42% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a mere 18% in Kosovo in 2012 - the lowest in all of Europe and Central Asia. This participation gap persists throughout a woman’s life, contributing to low employment rates, and widens during child bearing years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the gap between male and female employment rates has reached a whopping 44 percentage points for those aged 25 to 49 years with a young child living at home.

Failure to address these labor market inequalities is a missed opportunity for faster economic growth, poverty reduction and increased shared prosperity in a region struggling to recover from the neighborhood effects of the Eurozone crisis.

Notes From the Field: Working in the Western Balkans

Kaori Niina's picture

Belgrade, Serbia at dusk. Source - Adrien_DubuissonEditor's Note: "Notes From the Field" is an occasional feature where we let World Bank professionals conducting interesting trade-related projects around the globe explain some of the challenges and triumphs of their day-to-day work. The views expressed here are personal and should not be attributed to the World Bank. All interviews have been edited for clarity.

The interview below was conducted with Violane Konar-Leacy, an Operations Officer in the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation. She works for the Investment Climate group, and is based in Belgrade, Serbia. Ms. Konar-Leacy is currently managing a trade logistics project in the Western Balkans. She spoke with us about her personal connection with the region, and how she embraces the challenges of working in a politically complex environment.

Meet the Innovators: Tech Entrepreneurs Forge a New Future for the Western Balkans

The countries of the Western Balkans – which include the states of the former Yugoslavia, along with Albania – are not exactly world-famous for their entrepreneurial spirit. Yet if you look at their societies more carefully, you’ll soon find a surprising number of new companies dotted throughout the Western Balkans. They’re already setting their sights beyond smaller domestic markets: They’re looking to Europe, and the world.

Western Balkans: Through Science, Innovation and Collaboration, a Program for Shared Prosperity

Paulo Correa's picture


 

You’d probably be skeptical if I told you that the Western Balkans – a region that has long suffered from social and ethnic fragmentation – now has a strong opportunity to boost shared prosperity by promoting research, innovation and entrepreneurship. Your views might not even change if I showed you that such idea is validated by preliminary studies linking research and innovation to the performance of firms and countries in the region.

You might be surprised – yet your initial assumption might be unchanged – if I told you about the kind of companies that are starting to build a different economic landscape in the region: firms like UXPassion, Pet Minuta, Strawberry Energy or Teleskin, which are all technology-based startups created by young researchers who became entrepreneurs. Click on this link (http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/video/2013/10/22/western-balkans-research-and-development-for-innovation), or on the video embedded below, to meet them and other innovators from the Western Balkans.

Indeed, the transition to a market economy and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia starting in 1991 had a severe impact on the research and innovation sector in the Western Balkans. Research capacity narrowed significantly, and R&D’s links to the productive sector of the economy disappeared. The new industrial structure has naturally a lower propensity to invest in research while the current business environment promises low returns to the enterprise investments in innovation. Efforts to revamp the region's research and innovation sector were most of the time short-lived.

As a result, the performance of the research and innovation sector in the Western Balkans is gloomy. The region’s current investment in R&D are roughly the same amount as the investment by just the second-largest university in the United States. (In 2012, for example, only 38 patents from the region were registered with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office – compared to the average of 27 patents registered by each American university.) At the same time, very little of those investments are efficiently transformed into wealth. For example, for each invention that received a patent, the region spent, on average, three times more in R&D resources than does the United States.

Building on a continuing series of efforts to reform their national innovation systems, in the hope of changing their gloomy prospects, the Western Balkan countries in 2009 committed to develop a joint regional research and innovation strategy. That strategy, developed between 2011 and 2013, was formally endorsed last month by the ministers responsible for science and education from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. The preparation of the strategy, which benefited from technical assistance by the World Bank and from the financial support of the European Commission, involved representatives from the region’s leading universities, research institutes, private sector firms and government agencies. Discussions of the draft proposal were pursued in all seven countries as part of a large outreach exercise.

The Beauty of Numbers

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

One of my first assignments in the World Bank, some 13 years ago, was in a small and complicated country, better known for coups and mercenaries than for statistical capacity. Before I set off to the Comoro Islands, my then manager (now an established World Bank Vice-president) gave me the following priceless advice: “When you get there, make sure to get a lot of data. It may be difficult to get and sometimes even flawed, but data has one great advantage: It cuts through a lot of crap.”  

Accounting chartsNumbers are indeed beautiful. They can help bring clarity to our lives and save us time as well as resources. But raw data can be messy and you also need a good system for deciding which numbers to use and how to interpret them. Last week’s launch of the 2014 Doing Business rankings reminded me of the advice my then boss had given me. Doing Business started from the premise that companies are the backbone of any economy but that investors often lacked knowledge of the conditions in “frontier economies”. With the benefit of an annual assessment of the business environment in each country, investors could make more informed decisions. As for policy makers, they could more easily attract investors, provided they made a genuine effort in cutting red tape and supporting businesses.

South East Europe Six: Growth, please!

Željko Bogetic's picture

Just six months ago, in the previous South East Europe Regular Economic Report (SEE RER) covering the six Western Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (SEE6), we looked at the double-dip recession in this region, and structural policies needed for recovery.
 
Now, we are happy to report that recovery is, indeed, under way in each of these countries. In 2013, the SEE6 region is projected to grow 1.7 percent, thus ending the double-dip recession of 2012. Electricity, agriculture, and even some exports are helping with this rebound of output. Kosovo is leading the pack with a growth rate of 3.1 percent, with Serbia (which accounts for nearly half of the region’s GDP) expected to grow by 2 percent on the heels of increased FDI, exports, and a return to normal agricultural crops. (In 2012, by contrast, agricultural output in Serbia dropped 20 percent on account of a severe drought). Albania, FYR Macedonia, and Montenegro are all expected to grow by between 1.2-1.6 percent. Rounding out this group is Bosnia and Herzegovina – with expected growth of 0.5 percent.
 
So, are things finally looking up in the Balkans? Not exactly.

Figure 1: SEE6 Unemployment Rates, 2012



Source: LFS data and ILO. Kosovo’s tentative data suggest unemployment as high as 35 percent.


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