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[EWB Interview] Hackaj: We need to promote best examples of youngsters that make a change in the region

Since 2017, the youth organizations of the region have been working together to connect and improve the position of young people within the Connecting Youth Platform. As part of the work of this platform, the umbrella youth organizations from the region have begun the process of advocating for the deepening of the youth perspective within the Economic and Investment Plan, a large package of assistance to the countries of the region announced last year.

What are the benefits for young people that the EIP can offer, how important it is for the youth perspective to be included in aid packages like the EIP, we talked with Krisela Hackaj, Executive Director of Cooperation and Development Institute (CDI) from Albania, who coordinated the activities within the Connecting Youth Platform.

European Western Balkans: How can youth from the Western Balkans reap the benefits of the Economic and Investment Plan?

Krisela Hackaj: EIP projects are planned by the national authorities in cooperation with the EU, and youth need first to be informed about the plan and which mechanisms are put in place in each country. They can benefit in several ways, but I would point out some: By setting clear individual or organizational priorities, by specializing and persistently engaging in the different sectoral policies and mechanisms in place in each of the countries, by partnering with other stakeholders that are already specialized and can support them in the areas where they feel less confident, and ultimately by advocating for accountability in the implementation of the IPA planning and funding available for the EIP.

EWB: How important is it for youth policies to be included in financial assistance plans for the region, such as the EIP?

KS: It is extremely important, and this should be done with youth and civil society involved in the mechanisms used for prioritizing projects, including when IPA programming at national level is done. If such mechanisms ensure inclusiveness, the needs, but also the challenges can be embedded in the planning phases.

Youth should also monitor how much other policies are being funded, so as to always advocate and seek for appropriate balance between investments in human capital and investments for example in infrastructure. I mention this, because development policies in our region have very often neglected investments in social and human capital, by prioritizing public investments in infrastructure as an important driver of economic growth.

As we also mention in our Connecting Youth Strategy 2022-2024, evidence shows in fact that developing economies spend less on schools than on roads, and that it takes about a generation (almost 24 years) for the output obtained by investing in schools to overtake that delivered by investing in roads. With the challenges that our region experiences, shifting to these long-term investments in human capital requires persistent societal support.

EWB: In which areas can the Economic and Investment Plan contribute the most to improving the position of the youth from the Western Balkans?

KS: I believe in all six thematic areas of the EIP there is space for youth to be involved. However, some areas like economic competitiveness, youth guarantee, green transition and digitalization might be of particular interest for the youngsters, as those are more directly affecting their educational or professional development.

EWB: In November last year, within the Connecting Youth platform Blueprint on youth dialogue in the SEE6 was published. How can the EU help foster dialogue and strengthen the role of youth organizations in the countries of the region?

KS: Not only the EU, but also other bilateral donors active in the region, need to recognize that nourishing dialogue values and practice in the region needs long-term investment in youth programmes and not a project-based support approach. It also needs a inter-institutional approach that embeds youth in all sectoral or cross-sectoral strategies.

This of course needs all parties working together with clear objectives to make that happen. Youth organizations from the other side should be supported to consolidate their work with the communities, with dedicated capacity building programmes, and be supported to strengthening the local voice of youth.

EWB: What would you highlight as the biggest problems when it comes to the position of young people in your country, Albania? Are these problems similar to the rest of the region?

KS: Our region fluctuates from different challenges such as environmental/climate change, brain drain and weak institutions, high levels of migration, and other socio-political consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would say the youth in my country, but also in the rest of the region, do face similar concerns and challenges. They relate to the education system subject to never-ending reforms and employability, but also to the dysfunctionality and legitimacy of the institutions, supposed to implement inclusive and impactful public policies.

Whenever inclusiveness and impact are lacking, youth feel they are missing solid points of reference in the society they belong to, they have low trust in institutions and this translates into dis-engagement. This is why we need to promote best examples of youngsters that make a change in the society to inspire others to embrace constructive ways toward meaningful participation in policy making.

EWB: How does CDI help to improve the position of young people in Albania, but also to improve regional cooperation of youth organizations?

KS: By investing in youth competences, networking and advocacy, so as to assure the sustainability, and systemic presence in the policy-making areas relevant to youth, starting from the traditional ones i.e. education, employability, etc, to the less traditional, i.e. maritime economy, transport, etc. Considering the fragile institutional context of the region, promoting youth institutional connectedness throughout the region and with the EU remains our core priority as we move forward with different reforms in all areas in the region.

For example, we promote youth involvement in all high level foras with think tanks community and policy makers from different disciplines, starting from Tirana Connectivity Forum, which every year reserves a special place for youngsters and their dialogue with policy makers. Building up on our experience and learning from best EU cases is also important. This is why we partner with renowned think tanks and youth councils from Member States.

EWB: How would you assess the results and importance of cooperation of youth organizations from the region within the Connecting Youth platform?

KS: Connecting Youth was established in 2017 to promote youth connectivity in the region. It is the only bottom-up initiative of its kind that works as a methodical initiative to promote the cooperation and dialogue between youth as means for a resilient and diverse region.

The initiative is built upon an impact-oriented approach, sustainability, and systemic presence in the policy-making areas relevant to youth.  With the new Strategy prepared with the expertise of the German Federal Youth Council, Connecting Youth will continue to strive for bringing Youth to the tables that count, investing in competences and strengthening youth participation in sectoral policy making, and consolidate an enabling platform for youth organizations that promotes youth institutional connectedness throughout the region and with the EU.

Notwithstanding that regional cooperation has been a driver for enhancing youth position on the regional dimension, a lot needs to be done at national and local level. For this reason, CY will work with local organizations towards embedding the relevant regional dynamics into the national strategic frameworks.

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