Kosovo's Millennials Are the Country's Biggest Strength (and Weakness)

Kosovo, a majority Albanian region in southeastern Europe, that celebrated five years of independence yesterday, still suffers widespread poverty and unemployment. However, Kosovo remains one of the youngest states in Europe, where every other person is under 25 years old — a demographic that makes up Kosovo's most valuable resource.

Kosovo has an unemployment rate of about 45%, almost 80% among youth, poor infrastructure, an unpredictable political and legal structure and a resulting very limited foreign direct investment. What remains in Kosovo is an economy dependent on the service sector, international aid and remittances from the Kosovo Diaspora.

According the UNDP Governance Program Director Chris Decker, whom I met with in May while on a study seminar in Kosovo, international aid is not what it was in the past and remittances are what sustain much of Kosovo's economy; 25% of families receive them regularly while some families are completely dependent on them.

Additionally, 75% of food consumed in Kosovo is imported, while, interestingly enough, Kosovo has some of the richest and most fertile soils in Europe and lies on a bed of minerals that currently no one is exploiting. Looking at these facts, it may seem that Kosovo is no place for young people.

It's unfortunate that at almost every hour of the day, in any café or restaurant in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, you will find young people, sipping coffee after coffee, speaking of ambitions that are greater than Kosovo — ambitions that are choked by the harsh realities of life there. While there is an increasing loss of optimism among this crowd — who feel that there is no opportunity at home, no promising future and no way out — a lot of that optimism is based on the fact that, after some brutal times, Kosovo is finally independent and that things would change for the better in short order.

Nonetheless, historically, it is impossible to cite a case where a state has fully developed just five years after declaring independence. In Kosovo, then, a state young in terms of statehood and demographics, there is much room for not only optimism, but also for growth. But, the prospects rest heavily on the ability of the youth there to channel this optimism into positive change.

With rampant unemployment, non-existent unemployment benefits and the prediction that about 20,000 people will reach the working age in the next five years, Kosovo must concentrate its efforts on empowering the youth through education and employment. Kosovar government officials continually stress that the priority in Kosovo is to develop the economy. With many problems at their hands, the officials are having a hard time developing a sustainable economy that will utilize their booming young population.

They appear to be at a loss for ideas and solutions that can turn the youth in Kosovo into a real resource that will drive the economy. After all, it is this youth that gives Kosovo a real change at a competitive economy. Any money spent restructuring Kosovo will have been wasted if the government there does not include investing it its youth, as doing so it crucial to ensuring the sustainable development of the country.

Sadly, at this crucial stage in their statehood, Kosovo is limited in its abilities of investing in its young population. Without the opportunities of traveling to other countries to study, work, or just experience, the youth may not be adequately equipped to bring their country forward and become closer to Europe. Although a large percentage of the members in Kosovo's parliament are under the age of thirty, there seems to be a severe lack of acknowledgement for the problems the youth faces, and the potential they have to transform Kosovo's economy.

Not enough is being done, on the part of international agencies, government officials or the youth members in parliament, to effectively utilize the youth in reform and development efforts. At the American University in Kosovo, a lecture was held in May where students brought up the issue of when looking around, there are dozens of "advocate" (lawyer) offices, but what the country really needs are farmers and other sectors of the economy that produce goods, not only services. This is an area where members in the Kosovar parliament should concentrate their efforts; through for instance, ensuring incentives are secured for jobs in the agriculture sector.

A parallel can be drawn in Kosovo, to the events that occurred in the Middle East and North Africa, where a similar set of circumstances — a young population, high youth unemployment and dissatisfaction with the status quo — provoked protests across the region. Policymakers in Kosovo that continue to disregard adequate involvement of the youth are only doing one thing effectively: squandering their most valuable natural resource.

Supporting the development of the youth in Kosovo closely corresponds to the progress Kosovo makes as a whole. The youth are a modern and forward-looking population and have a more clear idea than their elders of what can be possible in an educated, informed and democratic society. While young people can present a challenge in regards to their lack of experience, for Kosovo, they also present an opportunity: working with and strengthening the network of positive-thinking young people is an opportunity that needs to be fully exploited in Kosovo.