Norway will significantly increase its support to BiH in 2018

Ambassador Guri Rusten
Photo: The Norwegian Embassy.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a unique and beautiful posting for us diplomats. It is a great honour for me to build and guard the friendship between our countries and help strengthen our partnership. I enjoy every day at work, weekend hikes, and jam jazz sessions in the hidden corners of Sarajevo.

On my arrival to BiH in September 2016, the Embassy of Norway to BiH was marking two decades of its establishment. Our bilateral relations date from 1993. The Free Trade Agreement between EFTA states and BiH entered into force in 2015, facilitating our countries’ cooperation. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Sarajevo in early 2017, demonstrating commitment to our relations. Our bond also stems from the large BiH diaspora in Norway, consisting of around 15000 well-integrated persons, who provide a valuable contribution to our society.

Longstanding bilateral support

Norway has been a substantial bilateral donor since the war, with humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. Since the new millennium, we have shifted our focus to building a functioning democracy based on the rule of law.

I am proud of our emphasis on a wide geographic distribution. We have supported projects all over BiH, in a wide array of areas. The largest focus has been on justice, security and defence reforms. Economic growth is also high on our priority list.

Recently, we signed project agreements with the International Organisation for Migration and the Ministry of Security, as well as on the prevention of violent extremism with the Agency for Gender Equality in combatting gender-based discrimination and violence.

Significant increase in support for 2018

Norway is annually channelling around 1% of the Gross National Income to development assistance. The assistance to BiH and other Western Balkan countries will continue and increase in 2018, totalling around 78 million BAM. These funds will provide important support in several priority areas, most importantly socio-economic reform programmes. Emphasis will be put on measures in the rule of law and security sector as well.

Norway is very committed to environmental sustainability and places large emphasis to secure an efficient and climate-friendly energy supply. We would like to contribute to BiH’s efforts in establishing clean energy policies and renewable energy sources.

Need for employment incentives

My two sons both live in their home country and are happy with their jobs and prospects for career advancement. In BiH, the brain drain is increasing on an annual basis. Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is amongst the highest in Europe. BiH youth deserve the same opportunities as their friends in Norway and other European countries. To achieve this, higher employment incentives are necessary.  

I meet and talk to many bright youngsters who have amazing ideas on how to advance the economy, but no means to achieve this. We have supported business plan development in small communities, and helped establish three business incubators in Tuzla, Banja Luka and Mostar. Such initiatives can contribute to job creation. I recently read about the tremendous growth of the ICT sector in BiH. Young software developers are establishing their own start-ups, upgrading the digitalization process. I believe that the diaspora could also strongly contribute to economic development. As such, there are many opportunities for boosting employment and making BiH more attractive to investors. It is important that decision-makers recognize this.

BiH has the highest number of employees in the public sector per capita in the world, and ranks bottom on the number of registered companies per capita. The public sector should cease to be the most attractive employer. During the last 20-30 years, Norway has worked to create an entrepreneurial spirit among young people. That pays off.

BiH needs to keep its “agents of change”, and give them reasons not to look for their future abroad. Progress will be difficult if the brightest and most capable leave.

BiH would also benefit from an influx of foreign investments. I recently visited SMED – a Norwegian company that operates in BiH. It provides engineering services and supplies manufactured steel and metal products, which are transported from the Balkans to Scandinavia. They employ highly educated and well-experienced BiH engineers. There is potential for more such projects, but investors require a stronger institutional support.  

Important reforms ahead

I worked in the Norwegian Embassy to Poland several years after it became an EU Member State. The benefits of its EU membership became visible shortly after accession. I believe the transformation necessary for BiH’s EU membership, and NATO MAP activation, will bring improvements to the citizens of this country. There is no better alternative for politicians than to fulfil the requirements that were agreed upon.

The opening verse of a song by one of my favourite BiH bands, Dubioza Kolektiv, reads: “Blam, blam, every day I dream of an autobahn, wherever I go I see a macadam.” The EU and international financial institutions are pledging to give substantial financial assistance for infrastructural projects. In return, they ask for commitment to reforms. International partners of BiH agree that it is time to move beyond populist, nationalist and divisive rhetoric.

Agreement on sensitive reforms, like the election law, will be challenging. Nonetheless, it is necessary in order to enable full implementation of the 2018 election results. Decision-makers should ensure that principles of equality and non-discrimination are respected. Citizens deserve protection under established international and domestic human rights mechanisms.

Our Embassy recently organised a screening of the Norwegian film “Bravehearts”, which addresses political youth activism. After the screening, we had a debate with youth politicians and high school students. I was left with the impression that they really want to improve their society.

Improvement of regional relations could bring benefits to BiH. I believe that the efficient cooperation of Nordic countries today could serve as an example for the Western Balkans. Focus should be placed on the future. As Nelson Mandela said, “courageous people do not fear forgiving”.