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.
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.
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.”
Numbers 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.
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.
Over the last decade Montenegro has trebled its gross national income (from $2,400 in 2003 to $7,160 in 2012), has reduced its national poverty headcount from 11.3 percent in 2005 to 6.6 percent in 2010, and enjoys the highest per capita income among the six South East European countries.
Despite this considerable progress, however, Montenegro remains a country in need of a new economic direction. The global financial crisis has exposed Montenegro’s economic vulnerabilities and has called into question the country’s overall growth pattern. The period between 2006 and 2008 was characterized by unsustainably large inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI) and inexpensive capital, which fueled a domestic credit consumption boom and a real estate bubble. When the bubble burst in late 2008 and in 2009 real GDP shrank by almost 6 percent, triggering a painful deleveraging and a difficult recovery that is not yet complete. With the base for Montenegro’s growth narrowing and the country’s continued reliance on factor accumulation rather than productivity, it has become clear that this old pattern cannot deliver the growth performance seen just a few years ago.
So, what kind of growth model can drive Montenegro’s next stage of development in the increasingly competitive environment of today’s global economy?
As spelled out in the recent report “Montenegro – Preparing for Prosperity” this country can go a long way toward returning to the impressive economic gains it was making just a few years ago by emphasizing three critical areas of development: sustainability, connectivity, and flexibility.
Emerging Europe and Central Asia (ECA) is an interesting region because what you expect is not always what exists. Since this is written in honor of International Women's Day, discussing women’s labor market participation seems appropriate. The standard indicator used for this is the “female labor force participation” (LFP) rate, which is the proportion of all women between 15-64 years who either work or are looking for work.
Since much of the region has a common socialist legacy, you would expect to see similar labor market behavior among women. However, the proportion of women who work ranges from a low of 42 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina to 74 percent of adult women in Kazakhstan. And it wasn’t 20 years of social and economic transition that led to this divergence. Even in 1990, the range was about the same. The exception was Moldova which saw a 26 percentage point decline.
- Russian Federation
- Kyrgyz Republic
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Europe and Central Asia
- Labor and Social Protection
- Social Development
- Macroeconomics and Economic Growth
- labor market
- international women's day
Several months ago a colleague of mine wrote about our idea to legalize thousands of informal homes in Montenegro using energy efficiency measures (or see the infographic for a visual show off the idea). We have been working on urban planning issues in Montenegro for almost a decade, but it was only when we had colleagues of different background looking at the problem- energy, economy, urban planning, communication, community engagement- that the solution came out. In short:
- Problem: over 100,000 illegal homes in Montenegro (if normally distributed would imply that every other household lives in an illegal home) that household don’t have an incentive or funds to legalize.
- UNDP idea: savings on energy bills would be re-invested into legalization and energy efficiency measures that created savings in the first place. Directly, we tackle informal settlements and high energy intensity in Montenegro (8.5 times higher than in the EU).
When most people think about energy, they see big power plants and smokestacks. What people generally do not consider is that it is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly to cut energy use than it is to build new power plants.
The problem is that saving energy is not simple. It requires changing deep-rooted behavior.
With a double dip recession––after just two years of sluggish recovery––now taking hold across the Western Balkans it is time for policy makers to begin looking at ways the ongoing financial crisis can be leveraged to bring about lasting fiscal reform in these countries. After just two years of sluggish recovery, these countries as a group––Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia––are experiencing a drop in real GDP by 0.6 percent and it is now clear that the road to recovery in 2013 will be arduous.