A better future in the Western Balkans will be possible only by working closely together, but overcoming separation is not an easy task, much like the prevention of migration of highly skilled and educated young people. Exchange and mobility activities are one way to contribute to the improvement, while the other is to create more avenues for youth engagement in decision making. These are some of the takeaways from the interview EWB has done with the new Secretary-General of Regional Youth Cooperation Office Albert Hani, on the occasion of the start of his mandate. We focused on the successes, challenges and future of RYCO.
European Western Balkans: How has the role of RYCO in the Western Balkans region evolved since its inception almost four years ago?
Albert Hani: RYCO was established upon the belief that when young people are provided with an opportunity to meet, connect and take action in society, the whole region benefits from their contribution and empowerment. This belief has been and remains the key point of the compass of our work. If we speak about how our role has evolved within these four years, we can proudly say that we have grown as an organization and with that growth we have acquired more responsibilities, have supported more youth projects and have been engaged in bringing youth of the region closer.
Supporting diverse projects that connect youth on topics varying from reconciliation, dealing with the past, intercultural learning, peacebuilding, to education, sports, entrepreneurship, and culture is a key pillar of our work. For that, numerous partnerships with donors, friends, and stakeholders have been built in the region and beyond, and we are always on the run to reaching new milestones.
Anyhow, what is the key point in RYCO’s evolvement is the fact that we help young people make friendships across borders. That is what we always underline – these friendships are our most important result and we are convinced that they will change the region for the better.
EWB: Many believe that RYCO is the most successful project as a result of the Berlin Process. Are there any significant challenges when it comes to the future of this Office? How would you describe the cooperation between RYCO and political authorities in the WB?
AH: RYCO brings together six governments and their societies, similar, yet so diverse, and this in itself comes with a variety of backdrops to regional peacebuilding and reconciliation. Significant challenges that I would highlight here are the political situation in the Western Balkans, the migration of highly skilled and educated young people which causes the so-called brain drain, as well as social and ethnic divisions. Narratives of the past and disinformation also pose a challenge and that is why we aim to create an open and safe space for youth to share their experiences and ideas.
What I am most proud of in this regard, is that working for RYCO means working with a team of colleagues, friends, partners, and stakeholders that are willing to turn challenges into opportunities and are constantly empowered to bring the desired change.
On the other hand, cooperation with the six governments of our Contracting Parties, whose representatives take part also in the highest decision-making body of RYCO, our Governing Board, has been resulting in tangible positive results but there is still more work that lies ahead of us. We need the governments’ support to meet our aims successfully both at the regional and local level.
EWB: Prejudices and stereotypes continue to shape attitudes in the Western Balkans, and young people in the region are exposed to everyday non-papers and divisions. What are some of the key objectives of RYCO for overcoming this culture of separation that is still prevalent in the region?
AH: The youth of the region are so lively and dynamic, each with their own aspirations and dreams, and we believe that the future of our region lies in their hands. However, a better future will be possible only by working closely together. Overcoming separation is not an easy task, nor is building unhesitating understanding between people who suffer from damaged relations due to conflicts. Our key objective in this regard is to foster youth cooperation through shared experience and exchange so that new pathways for true and sustainable reconciliation can be built.
When we assess and analyze the fruits of our work with youth, we find that they come back from our exchange and mobility activities with great lifetime experiences, often also with new reflections and lessons learned, and always meeting others with joy. Their worldviews expand and are more open to other people and cultures, fostering the essential need for a prosperous and peaceful future together.
Just as an illustration, 85% of young people who participated in the RYCO-supported activities find these activities relevant for their future goals.
EWB: What are the most important RYCO projects in the field of youth policy integration in the Western Balkans?
AH: Youth policy is a broad term in itself and thus youth policy integration would cover several different areas. Through our supported projects and initiatives, we offer youth the opportunity to realize their full potential, unleash their ideas and be active participants of their communities.
Our Local Branch Offices in the region closely follow the developments of youth policy issues at the local level and participate in discussions and activities that have youth priorities and needs in focus. We are constantly collaborating with relevant stakeholders on the field to address issues that are important to youth by also entering into new partnerships that will enable us to do so. This is all done with one aim, synchronizing efforts in the youth policy field across the Western Balkans.
EWB: How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect their implementation? Does pandemic change priorities and needs?
AH: RYCO wants to enable young people of the Western Balkans to connect, meet, exchange ideas and experiences, as well as explore new places and worldviews. COVID-19 had far-reaching impacts that disrupted nearly all aspects of life for all groups in society, and thus, aspects of our work, too. With borders being closed and with the restrictions imposed, the pandemic impacted the culture, practice, and methods of youth exchange and mobility. We were faced with the need to apply new methods and approaches. Almost all of our activities shifted to the online space whereas at the same time we tried to meet the demand of scaling up digital skills for our project beneficiaries too, providing them with training and constant support. At the same time, we launched the Fourth Open Call for Project Proposals which was designed to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19 and create new and innovative opportunities for youth.
The pandemic proved to us that no matter the distance, whether near or far away, youth of the region are ready to build new friendships, meet and create a better region together, and this helps us continue prioritizing youth exchanges and mobility programs.
EWB: RYCO is also very engaged in improving the education systems of the Western Balkan countries. Which concrete steps forward have been made?
AH: Education plays a pivotal role in creating societies that are open, inclusive and just. When youth are exposed to quality education systems they develop critical thinking and intercultural skills which will ultimately strengthen their competencies. That is why we support schools, teachers, and those working in the field of education so that young people can take leading roles and be the change.
Through a join UN-RYCO project that we implemented with the three UN agencies across the region – UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF, we were actively working on building the skills and knowledge of teachers from across the region with the aim of empowering them to apply the methods and techniques related to reconciliation, peacebuilding and reconciliation. Moreover, we created a toolkit which can be used by any teacher in the region to address these topics.
On the other hand, this year, RYCO is entering a multi-donor partnership jointly co-financed by the European Union and the German Government, for a new project titled “Western Balkans School Exchange Scheme Project” that will be implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and RYCO. The project will contribute to increasing the skills and knowledge of young people in the region by enhancing education systems through a regional school exchange scheme. It will also facilitate youth exchange in the field of intercultural dialogue and reconciliation in the Western Balkans.
EWB: How do you think that young people in the region see the EU? There have been some polls, for example in Serbia, suggesting that they are becoming increasingly Eurosceptic. How could youth be more engaged in the European integration process of the Western Balkans countries and informed about the forms of cooperation between the EU and the region?
AH: This is a very important question to address and I think that many active and committed young people in the Western Balkans already contribute and are willing to continue contributing further to the EU integration process. It goes without a doubt that their involvement in these processes is a key precondition for an efficient EU integration process.
Nevertheless, opportunities for concrete engagement are not always accessible to all groups of young people in society and youth often perceive that their voice is not taken into account. It is important for governments, civil society, and other relevant stakeholders to tackle these issues and create more avenues for youth engagement on EU integration topics. More focus should be given to youth’s readiness and preparedness for helping the region integrate and move closer to the EU.
RYCO is also working to facilitate these processes and we are collaborating with our friends from the EU in many levels and different initiatives. By encouraging, recognizing and supporting new forms of youth participation we will be able to keep youth engaged on issues that impact their lives and the future of the region.