Our new USAID Mission Director, Nancy Eslick, and I just finished a trip to Banja Luka focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. We met with a diverse group all working toward the same thing, a modern and prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina. From women entrepreneurs to leaders in the technology sector to the Republika Srpska Minister for Scientific and Technological Development, Higher Education and Information Society, everyone we spoke to was passionate about what this country could be and had ideas for how to get there. Though they worked in different fields, they shared the same goals, centered on combating corruption, building support networks, and strengthening education.
The women entrepreneurs we met described a difficult path to success, and we discussed how they need mentor networks, easier access to credit, dedicated employees and tax holidays as start ups to help them succeed. Their passion, resilience and courage keep them going.
A big takeaway from the visit is that education is key to turning around the economy and improving quality of life for Bosnian citizens. The ability to succeed in the global economy requires strong math, science, and critical thinking skills, as well as an understanding of modern technologies and tools. That’s why USAID is supporting STEM education through our ENABLE program.
Major companies such as NCR, Kolektor, and Lanaco are employing hundreds of employees, but struggle to fill their workforce needs. They are increasing their engagement with high schools and universities and creating opportunities for students, but this may not be enough to meet their future workforce needs. Reforms are needed at all levels of the education system, from first grade through university, to meet labor market needs. Other impressive initiatives we learned about in Banja Luka include the ROBOKIDS program, m:tel’s Playground program fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, and the Banja Luka Stock Exchange’s Interkont and Virtual Stock Market programs that promote financial literacy.
Srdan Rajcevic, RS Minister for Science and Technology, Higher Education, and Information Society described his ministry’s interest in expanding eGovernment and reforming higher education. USAID promotes eGovernment to limit corruption and improve the ease of doing business. New efforts at quality assurance for higher education should clamp down on fake diplomas. Efforts to expand capacity in technology subjects and tailor programs to meet IT sector needs are critical for economic growth. I encouraged the Minister to consider Bosnia and Herzegovina’s large and successful diaspora as a good place to start promoting connections between RS and US universities.
Everyone we met on this trip recognized the challenges of doing business in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but they also emphasized the incredible potential of the country and its people. We too believe in the people of this country and applaud those who are paving the way to a better future.