Strengthening bonds between alienated neighbors: Greece, Bulgaria and North Macedonia
Project: Strengthening bonds between alienated neighbors: Greece, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia
Topic of activity: Education & Employment
Venue: Holiday-Inn Thessaloniki
Period: From Friday 06 May, 18:00 To Sunday 08 May, 12:00
Objectives of the Project:
The aim of this specific project funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation is to foster closer ties and relations between the youth of the three countries and create an environment of cooperation and mutual understanding. SEE in Action advocates for the active engagement of young people in the process of strengthening the bonds between neighboring countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia. The youth of the region constitutes the future of the region. Thus, the improvement and promotion of good relations and youth cooperation are considered significant step forward that also contributes toward further regional stabilization.
The focus of the first out of the three meetings was on education and employment. By identifying common problems and trends in these fields we aim to create the right conditions for further discussing the role of civil society and youth in the three countries as well as providing the framework for the establishment of diverse and inclusive trilateral networks of partners. The endeavor of compiling such a versatile network intends to build bridges between young people from the three countries and create a safe, tolerant and diverse environment for collaboration and all-inclusive exchange of ideas and experiences.
Description of the event:
A total of eight civil society organizations from the three counties participated in the first meeting in Thessaloniki. During the opening ceremony, on Friday, 06/04/2022, Anna Bampili, General Coordinator of SEE in Action, welcomed the participants. She made a detailed presentation of the program and the purposes and goals of the project. Eleni Siapikoudi, the representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, greeted the participants on behalf of the foundation and presented its history, values, and recent activities. Moving on, Ms. Siapikoudi moderated the following session, which gave the opportunity to all organizations and their members to present themselves and their work on the topics of education and employment, and explain how they can contribute to the project.
During the first session on Saturday, 07/04/22, Nikos Bakirtzis (SEE in Action) presented an overview of the state of education in the three countries along with statistics. This gave the audience a clear picture of certain aspects of education such as enrollment rates, participation in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and out-of-school children and adolescents among others. The participants shared their insights and personal experiences regarding education in their countries. They also gave an update on the latest developments and policies regarding education and their opinion regarding the impact of these developments and policies.
“Addressing and resolving issues related to the educational system”:
Moving on, the participants formed three different mixed working groups which focused on different topics. In “Addressing and resolving issues related to the educational system”, which Anna Bampili (SEE in Action) modertated, participants of the three working groups worked together to address common problems related to education. The aim was to come up with concrete policy proposals on these issues. Participants from all three countries agreed that educational reform is more than necessary to ensure its independence, continuity, and cohesion. It is very common in all three cases of governments to come to power and completely change the education legislature. For that reason, the participants suggested the creation of an independent institutional body that will be responsible for the education system and education in general. Following the discussion, the participants agreed that this body needs to cooperate with youth representatives and civil society organizations.
Moreover, the participants discussed various aspects related to education such as the modernization of the educational material which is a difficult and demanding process. This process should be left to competent experts and not be used as a political tool. Additionally, they stressed the need to develop the soft skills of the students and encourage critical thinking which sometimes is overshadowed by the constant pressure to succeed from a very young age. Students should use digital media and teachers should incorporate them in the way they teach.
In all three countries, the digitization of educational material is moving slowly. Education must align with digital developments and the progress of science and society. During the pandemic, the digitization process made significant steps forward. Still, we need to keep this pace, in order to deal with the practical problems and shortcomings that have emerged such as the lack of equipment and know-how on behalf of the teachers.
The participants agreed that the state and the private sector can cooperate to provide the necessary tools and equipment for both teachers and students to transition to the digital era. Obtaining and developing a student’s digital and soft skills is necessary for the student’s proper socialization and preparation for the next step towards tertiary education and the job market. Hence, all Greek, Macedonian and Bulgarian participants agreed. Redistribution of funds towards the digitalization of schools and further training of the educational staff is more than necessary. Furthermore, the working groups also focused on non-formal education, which the authorities and institutional bodies normally overlook. Non-formal education is a valuable tool for developing the skills and individual potential of young individuals.
Incorporating non-formal forms of education into the everyday life of students will offer them opportunities for further development. Another issue raised was the age of the teachers as well as their level of familiarization with technology and digital skills. It is necessary that teachers keep pace with the demands of the times regarding technology and digitalization. This is necessary to achieve the maximum level of engagement of the students. More young teachers should be employed in public schools and that their salaries should be higher. On this point, Bulgarian participants presented the program “Together in class” which promotes the integration and employment of young teachers as well as the increase in teachers’ salaries.
“Addressing and resolving issues related to youth (un)employment & brain drain”:
In the afternoon session, Nikos Bakirtzis (SEE in Action) talked about youth unemployment and brain drain. He presented a series of statistics regarding youth unemployment in the three countries. Then, he compared the data between Greece, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Finally gave an overview of the results of SEE in Action’s latest research and publication titled: “A comparative analysis of brain drain in Greece and North Macedonia: Causes, trends, and possible solutions”.
After the end of the presentation, three working groups were formed for the needs of the next session: “Addressing and resolving issues related to youth (un)employment & brain drain” (moderators: Anna Bampili & Eleni Siapikoudi (FNF). The three working groups focused on various aspects concerning youth unemployment and the issue of brain drain. To begin with, the participants agreed that youth in all three countries face major difficulties regarding access to the labor market and decent working conditions. As a result, young people decide to move abroad in order to find better working and life conditions that are not offered in their home countries.
According to the participants from all three countries, brain drain remains one of the most urgent issues that the governments of Greece, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria are called to solve. Brain drain deeply affects South-European countries. The overall complexity and slow progress of the democratization process along with the interconnection between bad governance, the lack of funding for the educational and research system, and the inadequate respect for human rights create a toxic environment for young professionals. The global financial crisis inevitably hit the Balkan countries and the state of the economies deteriorated further.
Greek and Bulgarian participants also agreed that the issue of brain drain is a major problem for their countries. For both Greece and Bulgaria, the breakout of the global financial crisis created an unprecedented recession that deeply affected the labor market and especially the younger and less experienced generations. The participants pointed out that youth unemployment can potentially create serious issues regarding the economic growth, development, and stability of a country on both social and economic levels.
Thus, it is important to invest and allocate funds to education and training opportunities for the youth that will help them become productive and engaged citizens contributing to their home countries’ prosperity. Additionally, the state should offer certain incentives to businesses to hire young professionals such as paying for part of the salary or creating other safety nets that will allow them to gradually adapt to the demands of their respective jobs. The state and the private sector could cooperate in identifying the companies’ needs and the situation of the young workforce so that they can focus on developing the soft and hard skills needed to find a job. Finally, participants agreed that all three countries should encourage young entrepreneurship, which should be protected when starting their own enterprises.
On Sunday, the last day of the event (08/04/22), a round table discussion took place. Anna Bampili moderated a discussion, where working groups presented a concrete version of their ideas and policy recommendations. Those were initially presented to the other participants during Saturday’s sessions. Moving on, the participants engaged in a round table discussion on finding new ways to promote and strengthen tripartite cooperation between Greece, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Ioanna Panagiotidou and Anna Bampili (SEE in Action) moderated this discussion. The last session was a statement on the commitment of all parties involved.
The event in Thessaloniki was the first of a total of three project meetings “Strengthening bonds between alienated neighbors in the region: Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia”. The second meeting will take place in Skopje, North Macedonia, in June and the third will take place in Sofia, Bulgaria, in September. The topics will be human rights and sustainability respectively.
Organizers & Resource Persons:
Theme of Presentation/ Topic of report
SEE in Action
SEE in Action
Statistics on the state of Education and Employment in Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia
Summarized statement of Program Evaluation by Participants:
The organizations that participated in the event suggested certain follow-up actions aiming towards reaching greater visibility and impact of the initiative organized by SEE in Action with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. In general, the participants from all three countries were satisfied by the level of organization of the event. Additionally, they all pointed out that the flexibility and less formal atmosphere of the discussions had a very positive impact on the final outcome of the sessions.
Did the program meet the set Objectives? Why?
Overall, the trilateral dialogue between Greece, North Macedonia and Bulgaria on the level of youth and civil society needs further fostering and promotion. The main objective of the program was to bring together young people from three neighboring countries and create new channels of communication and strengthen the already existing ones. After discussion and exchange of ideas, expertise as well as concerns, the participants identified common trends and problems regarding education and employment and worked together in finding possible solutions and preparing potential policy recommendations.
What is the likely follow up?
Two events will follow, one in Skopje and one Sofia in June and September respectively. The focus on the former will be on human rights while the latter will center on sustainability. SEE in Action is responsible to gather the policy recommendations and all relevant information from the discussions and the working groups. We will create a concrete policy paper addressing the issues that were raised by the participants in each of the three events. The next step will be the dissemination of the report to all relevant stakeholders and decision-makers through SEE in Action’s and FNF’s networks of partners.