VIENNA – Western Balkan countries must be convinced that digitalization must remain a priority and receive due attention, says the recently published policy brief “The role of digitalization in transforming Balkan societies Western countries”, published within the WB2EU. Network.
The author recommends that digitalization remains a top priority in the Western Balkan countries, contributing to the general well-being of society by increasing digital literacy and rapidly expanding high-speed connectivity.
According to the Policy Brief’s recommendations, the EU and relevant regional authorities must monitor digital transformation within the framework of their activities and the agreed timetable.
The Policy Brief recommends that “as many stakeholders as possible in the Western Balkans, from civil society to public institutions, recognize that they need to work together to raise the level of digitalization and increase trust in digital services. This will reduce the digital divide and facilitate access to services for all citizens.
The author explains that countries in the region have recently started collaborating on initiatives such as digital summits, with EU-funded projects that promote regional digitalization.
The policy brief highlights the important role played by the European Union (EU) in the digitalization of the Western Balkans. Through numerous projects and co-financing, the EU has been a key factor contributing to the digital transformation of the region since the launch of the EU Digital Strategy for the WB in June 2018.
Although some progress has been made in this area, there is still much unfinished work, planned but not even started yet. Nevertheless, WB countries are increasingly committing to the digital transition, by maximizing the use of digital services by citizens.
Much of the digital change in the region has taken place under the auspices of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). The guidance note recalls that the RCC contributes to Roaming Free WB from July 1, 2021, by participating in the regional dialogue on the WB Digital Economy and Society Index, developing a sustainable regional framework for supporting the improvement of digital skills and strengthening regional capacities to develop digital skills strategies.
The author highlights that while international support has been important, regional cooperation and accelerated action are crucial for the WB to seize the opportunities offered by digitalization, adding that there is an urgent need for regional initiatives to recognize the importance of digitization as soon as possible.
Challenges on the ground
Regarding digitalization at the WB, there are recurring problems and obstacles, with a major difference between rural and urban environments. Digital transformation remains a significant challenge in rural areas.
Policy Brief explains that “the concentration of production and the economy is mainly in urban centers, where the different economic technology sectors are located. To a large extent, rural areas are still dominated by the primary sector of the economy and, therefore, digital modernization of rural areas is not necessary.
Although the WB region has a high internet penetration rate, between 75% and 96%, it is geographically diverse, making broadband coverage difficult, if not impossible. In addition to infrastructure, governments must ensure the development of public policies and programs regarding digitalization.
According to the author, without public policies governing digitalization, the development of adequate infrastructure is useless and does not contribute to progress.
Policy Brief explains that Albania’s development in digitalization has been very gradual and advanced over the last year. With the “Industry 4.0 revolution”, the process of digitalization of the economy has become a priority for the Albanian government. The digital transition of Albanian public services was carried out mainly with the aim of eliminating inefficiency and minor corruption. On the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina is gradually progressing in the field of digitalization.
Digital transformation is also a goal for Kosovo. He has made great strides in strengthening e-government services, expanding broadband access, and improving digital infrastructure. They now run various projects to encourage digital literacy, help new businesses and promote innovation. Furthermore, Montenegro has focused on promoting economic growth and competitiveness through digitalization. Montenegro has improved its digital infrastructure, including improving internet access and broadband penetration.
The number of e-government services has increased and initiatives are being taken to advance digital culture and encourage entrepreneurship. Digitalization initiatives have also been aggressively pursued by North Macedonia. Finally, Serbia has been at the forefront of digitalization efforts in the Western Balkans. The country has created a sophisticated digital infrastructure with universal internet connectivity. Serbia has implemented extensive e-government efforts and services to improve digital literacy and help start-ups. Serbia has very well established and managed the Digital Serbia Initiative, which has positioned Serbia as a regional leader in digital transformation and innovation.
The Policy Brief is published as part of the WB2EU project. The project aims to establish a network of renowned think tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centers from the Western Balkans, neighboring countries and EU Member States that will be the most decisive for the process of enlargement and Europeanization of the European Union. the region in the years to come. The WB2EU project is co-financed by the European Commission as part of its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.