On Friday, October 11, 2019, UMD hosted a roundtable discussion with Dijana Despodov, Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Macedonia (AmCham Macedonia). Despodov worked as an external relations professional for over 15 years, working in a variety of different areas like advocacy, public relations, research and analysis, and international development. Despodov moved back to Macedonia after 12 years abroad, citing the opportunity to work for her country and her people as something she “couldn’t pass up.”
During the roundtable event, Despodov spoke about the current economic situation in Macedonia, as well as AmCham Macedonia’s goals and work in the country. Three key areas AmCham Macedonia is focused on are: planning new labor laws, encouraging corporate responsibility, and increasing the employability of the youth and stopping the mass migration from Macedonia. AmCham Macedonia, which mainly partners with the largest corporations in Macedonia, wants corporations to make community investments. Specifically, AmCham Macedonia has sponsored three new philanthropic projects: a job program for people with disabilities in the hospitality sector, training for vulnerable people to grow and sell organic vegetable, and a new camp in the mountains near Skopje. Despodov discussed the major labor shortage in Macedonia, the youth brain drain, and the lack of education and entrepreneurial spirit.
While AmCham Macedonia is working towards these goals, a number of obstacles remain in Macedonia today. The economy in Macedonia is sluggish with a projected GDP growth of 3.6%, no real economic development plan, and a discouraging educational and start-up culture. Despodov cited political strife as a serious road block to economic development, stating that the parties in power do not look further than the next election cycle and neglect long-term plans.
In addition, political tensions have severely hurt data collecting, with no census being conducted since 2002. Despodov emphasized the shrinking Macedonian population, estimating that there may only be 1.2-1.5 million people living in the country. Meanwhile, the official population from the 2002 Census nearly 20 years ago is 2.1 million residents. Without accurate information about the population, there can be no way to approach or even fully understand the labor shortage problems. This outdated information further hurts the Macedonian people as there cannot be adequate healthcare and education if the population is misrepresented.
Labor shortage, as well as the low GDP and the economic culture require a holistic approach. To combat migration and the discouraging economic culture, Despodov stressed early age education, specifically in the formative years of 3-6. There have been some recent initiatives, including a fund for innovation, funds from USAID, various other grant programs, and the EU’s “home is home” initiative, meant to help address some of these economic issues.
Despodov closed the roundtable by stating that there remains much work to be done in Macedonia and it will require the help of people passionate about Macedonia and its future.
UMD is currently working to stimulate Macedonia’s start-up culture through a start-up mentorship program, providing Macedonian start-ups with guidance. If interested in the state of the Macedonian economy, check out UMD’s new weekly economic brief, which covers current events and developments relating to the Macedonian economy.