Simplifying Investing in the Western Balkans?

I wanted to develop something I put up on Twitter that’s already had a nice amount of feedback from a number of informed colleagues. It’s not a fully fleshed out project, and it’s instead intended as a conversation starter in the genre of “why can’t we do this?”

In light of the global pandemic, we are all talking more about the (urgent) need and incredible potential for greater e-commerce/e-business platforms. In my case, I’ve been thinking about this especially in the context of the economies of the Western Balkans.

The past few years has seen an uptick in interest in rebooting regional economies, and broadening the role of the diaspora. Projects by USAID, for instance, have done important work to this end (e.g. “Diaspora Invest“). But the barriers to entry (i.e. investing in the region) remain high. In simpler terms, the overall UX is poor; “plug and play” remains elusive.

As such, I’ve been sketching out ideas for bringing simple, web-based investment tools to the Bosnian and Balkan diasporas, but also local citizens, and foreign nationals more broadly, who want to invest in the region. I think this could and should be combined with the kind of start-up/micro-financing approach that groups like USAID are already doing. After all, if I can use my U.S.-based online brokerage account to buy shares in a South Africa e-retailer in a matter of seconds, why can’t I do the same with a company in BiH or Montenegro?

The challenges to realizing something like this are myriad, of course: i. local corruption and lack of quality rule of law guarantees; ii. complex regulatory and legal regimes; iii. a lack of overall connectivity with existing platforms that might be required to realize such a project from a practical standpoint; iv. a lack of cultural familiarity with (legitimate) free market enterprise and investing etc.

On the other hand, regional stock markets have been in operation for the better part of two decades. And while their overall volume is low, and their workings inaccessible to the vast majority of the local public, this is another example where the primary issue is simply a lack of (digital) infrastructure. They could be opened for greater activity.

This is not the platform for hyper-detailed schemes but imagine, if you will, a single web platform via which you can create an account in a few short clicks and then be presented with the possibility of easily and quickly buying and trading shares in regional firms; providing start-up capital to emerging enterprises; even creating large-scale investment funds with like-minded individuals, who will use your shared resources to prop of promising projects.

All kinds of work would have to be done to make this possible; not least of all on the local legislative front. But it seems to me that this is really one of those “if you build it, they will come” scenarios. The risks are great but the potential promise is truly awesome, especially if we genuinely believe, as so many of us in the international community profess, that free markets make for free societies.

As I said, a conversation starter – so, let’s talk.

Jasmin Mujanović

Political Scientist & Consultant