Boosting digital development in the Western Balkans


  • The digital conference held in Sarajevo brought together regional ministers, experts, donors and financiers.
  • The event led to recommendations to address infrastructural and financial gaps in the sector, the creation of a new Regional Digital Area and digital ecosystems, and more financing opportunities for the digitalisation of small businesses.

The Investing in Digitalisation in the Western Balkans conference was held today in Sarajevo, and included a donor coordination meeting on the Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans and the Regional Digital Area. Jointly organised by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB), the event was attended by the region’s ministers in charge of the digital sector and other high ranking government officials, local and international experts in digital projects, key donors and international financial institutions, and business representatives from the Western Balkans. While sharing key success stories of digitalisation in the Western Balkans, they agreed on the importance of boosting successful digitalisation models in the area of soft and hard infrastructure in the private and public sector. Addressing infrastructural and financial gaps in the digital infrastructure sector, creating a Regional Digital Area and digital ecosystems, and increasing financing opportunities for the digitalisation of small businesses were identified as the key priorities going forward. 

During the first part of the conference, the EBRD and the EIB presented selected investment projects and initiatives in the area of digital transformation. To date, the EBRD has invested over €562 million in the information technologies and communications sectors of the six Western Balkans economies. Separately, the EBRD is now developing specialised financing programmes for digitalisation, the first of which — the €40 million GoDigital credit line in partnership with the European Union — was launched last year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Technical cooperation included single access points for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Albania and Montenegro. Hundreds of small businesses received advisory services on digitalisation.

Christoph Denk, EBRD managing director for policy strategy and delivery, said: “We at the EBRD are committed to doing more and better on digital. We launched our approach to accelerating the digital transition to outline what and how the EBRD can deliver on digital for its partners, countries and clients. Restoring telecommunications was our priority from day one — in fact it was our first project in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war. Today, we see digitalisation as an important tool to improve the investment climate, foster international trade and strengthen transparency and trust in institutions. We are here to support our partners in the Western Balkans in their journey of digital transformation.”

Since 2020 alone, the EIB has provided €200 million for digital projects in the Western Balkans to help companies digitalise, improve the capacity, coverage and quality of the 4G network and roll out 5G mobile services, and increase digital capacities and skills in over 1 500 schools. In 2022, our investments helped boost new digital business models, connect 4 million households to fibre broadband and enable 6.6 million subscriptions for 5G services globally.

Alessandro Bragonzi, head of the EIB regional representation for the Western Balkans, said: “Europe is facing a digital dilemma. While the COVID-19 crisis accelerated digitalisation, especially among SMEs, some companies are becoming increasingly digital while others are being left behind, unable to catch the digital wave. An insufficient level of digital skills hampers economic growth, deepens the digital divide and increases the risk of digital exclusion. Investing in broadband networks and software development, cybersecurity and innovation is essential for ensuring competitiveness and higher productivity throughout Europe, including here in the Western Balkans. As the EU bank, the EIB is committed to playing a key role in the implementation of the digital agenda for the region.”

In the afternoon session, the Regional Cooperation Council gathered Western Balkans ministers and other high ranking government officials from the digital sector, key donors and international financial institutions, and business representatives from the entire region to coordinate approaches and discuss the challenges of digital infrastructure investment and the soft digital needs of the region.

“Governments across the region are ambitiously moving fast towards e-services, easing administrative procedures and reducing processing times through digital means. This will require affordable internet access for all, in particular in public areas. Embarking on initiatives similar to our peers in the European Union (like WiFi4EU) could improve e-service accessibility for all and help reduce the digital divide. There is new momentum and new normal in the digitalisation efforts of the Western Balkans. With the Digital Europe Programme and similar financing opportunities, the new momentum of today will become the reality of tomorrow. The private sector could make a valuable contribution to this change and we are thrilled to hear what you will share today,” said Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council Majlinda Bregu.

The Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, coordinated by the Regional Cooperation Council, is a prime example of successful regional cooperation in recent years. It has led to the effective implementation of the Roam Like at Home system within the region, as well as the signing of the EU-Western Balkans Roaming Declaration, which will reduce roaming charges between the European Union and the Western Balkans as of October 2023. Digital transformation has a far greater potential to accelerate progress and transform threats into opportunities if managed well and wisely.

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