Thank you Senita for inviting me to join this event tonight. It’s an honor to be among so many people who are committed to supporting a better future for young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my travels across BiH, I quickly came to the conclusion that the country’s greatest resource is not its rivers or forests or minerals, but its people.
I’ve met entrepreneurs, students, educators, activists and even a few mayors, who are succeeding, despite many obstacles, to build a better future for themselves, their families, their community and their country.
The prevailing narrative in media and politics however is one of pessimism and failure, after years of halting progress in the recovery from the war.
As a result, many youth in BiH are afflicted by poverty – specifically a poverty of aspiration. They don’t see a path to a better future, nor do they see their own potential to impact their future. They hear from political leaders, media, and sometimes their own families that they should keep their heads down, stay close to home and fear others, and avoid risky ideas like starting a business.
Since the war, the U.S. has provided nearly $2 billion in assistance to help Bosnia and Herzegovina secure the peace and build democratic institutions, infrastructure, and prosperity. Among our most important assistance is our investment in youth and young leaders. There are more than 4000 alumni of US government funded exchange programs.
We put an important limitation on those exchange visas – that the participant must return to BiH to contribute to their country’s progress. And the benefit of the exchange programs is not only the skills and training participants gain, but also the new perspectives they gain in the US about their own potential, and their potential to make a difference back home. No? ? Typo?
We are expanding our investment in young leaders with a new program called BOLD, BiH Omladinski Lideri. BOLD offers fellowships in the US in entrepreneurship or civic engagement, and training and community grants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to help young people aged 18 to 35 develop leadership skills. BOLD will also build a community network among these young leaders to help them connect, collaborate and get inspired by mentors and each other.
Many youth believe the grass is greener, and aspire to follow the path of friends or family who have emigrated, mostly to EU and NATO
member countries. They observe the success that BiH citizens are achieving in diaspora. That 2 million strong subset of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population is one of its strongest assets.
Your success in diaspora proves the strengths of BiH citizens, who are exceptional for their resilience, tenacity, and adaptability. You shatter myths back home – your identity is not robbed in diverse communities; you flourish where rule of law, not corruption, is strong; you rise as leaders in many fields, including in business and as entrepreneurs, without depending on favors from corrupt patronage systems.
That beacon of success is combining with the push of corruption and political divisiveness in BiH to create a brain drain that risks crippling the country. According to the World Economic Forum, Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the worst scores for retaining talent, alongside Haiti, Venezuela and others. One way we are working to fight that brain drain is through a program for brain gain called Diaspora Invest.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has helped more than 80 members of BiH diaspora launch or expand business ventures back in their homeland. They too are busting the myth of how hard it is to succeed as an entrepreneur in BiH. Returning home with strong confidence in their own potential, gained from their experience in
diaspora, these investors are inspiring their employees and others to discover their potential as well.
By macroeconomic measures alone, it is clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina would sink without the help of its diaspora. The diaspora’s remittances equal 14 percent of the economy. But BiH needs more than your remittances or your hand-me-down smartphones. BiH youth in particular need to borrow the keys you found to unlock your potential.
You can help reduce their poverty of aspiration. You can inspire and help empower them to make a difference in their future and their country’s future. Whether you do that as a diaspora investor, angel investor, or student mentor, or by sponsoring a scholarship or promoting academic or business ties, or perhaps – one day soon – as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I thank you for engaging for a better future for BiH – secure, prosperous, free and at peace. Your efforts, together with U.S. assistance, makes the U.S. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s strongest partner.
Youth and diaspora: The more these two powerful resources are positively connected, the faster the country will progress on the journey to self- reliance that U.S. assistance supports.