How Returning Point is building bridges between Serbia and its diaspora

November 28, 2023

Tacka Povratka podcast with Ivan Brkljac and Miroslav Kocic

YouTube screenshot

After completing his studies at the University of Belgrade, where he focused on the local Vinča pre-historic culture, Miroslav Kočić decided to pursue his interest in Archaeology and Anthropology in the USA and enrolled in a PhD program at one of the world's top schools for the subject, the University of Pittsburgh. His path was not uncommon for Serbian archaeologists, many of whom made ground-breaking findings at prestigious institutions abroad, often dealing with topics related to Serbia and the Balkans. 

This trend is broader than the field of archaeology. Miroslav is one of the tens of thousands of highly skilled Serbians who have been emigrating from the country since the 1990s. Many of them, like Miroslav, made significant contributions to their new countries' economies and societies. However, they often felt unable or unwilling to use their talents to help Serbia develop. 

The reasons for this disconnect are numerous and often highly personal. One significant issue for many in the diaspora was the belief that institutions could not help them re-establish professional and practical ties with Serbia, let alone ease their return to their home country. This skepticism was coupled with a persistent belief that returning to Serbia would be seen as a sign of failure. Coupled with low birth rates, this high level of emigration led to depopulation, a major challenge for the country. 

After completing his PhD on the topic of Vinča culture in 2019, Miroslav, decided to buck the trend and return to Serbia. 

To help him make this decision a reality, he contacted the Returning Point (in Serbian Tačka povratka), an organization set up in March 2020. 

The organization was founded as the government recognized the need to tap into the skills and resources of the country's highly skilled diaspora. The first spark of this idea came from a Meetup that the Serbian government organized with representatives of the diaspora and young talented individuals, who suggested creating an organization in Serbia that would focus on dealing with these two issues. 

The Returning Point was later established with the joint support of UNDP Serbia and the Government of Serbia and in close cooperation with Serbian EntrepreneursScience and Technology Park BelgradeWestminster Fund for Democracy and a number of individuals from the diaspora. From the start, the Returning Point has collaborated with UNDP Serbia's Accelerator Lab to become an organization with a dual focus. One was directly helping individuals like Miroslav either reintegrate into their home country or connect with local people and opportunities while staying abroad. The other was to collaborate with Serbian institutions, civil society organizations and the private sector to best harness the Serbian diaspora’s enormous potential, map obstacles for repatriation or collaboration from abroad, and structure public policies that can tackle these challenges on a national scale. 

Provide something valuable in return

Miroslav approached the Returning Point at a time when the organization had already developed several streams of direct assistance for potential returnees and was working on changing the general narrative around Serbia-diaspora relations. From the very beginning, the organization undertook concrete steps to change the widespread impression in the diaspora that Serbian institutions and initiatives only turned to them when they needed something, without providing anything in return.

One of the first projects, developed in collaboration with the UNDP Serbia Accelerator Lab team, was putting together Guides for Returnees - honest interactive maps that capture all phases of return, addressing critical issues and barriers and a wide variety of scenarios. Like all Returning Point initiatives, they were designed through a user-centric approach, by analyzing the needs of the diaspora and returnees. They were focused on providing a realistic picture of Serbia, based on the lived experiences of returnees, without embellishing many “pain-points”. 

Towards the end of 2022, the Returning Point launched the "Carta Serbica" program, which provided foreigners of Serbian origin an easier path to living and working in Serbia. The regulatory reform, coordinated with the Ministry of Interior, resulted in a fast-track procedure which had immediate effects as around 50 applicants in 2023 received temporary residence based on their Serbian origin. To help the diaspora invest in Serbia, the Returning Point also worked with local banks to launch a new financial product, loans for non-residents

Another key program helps the diaspora find suitable jobs in the country. It is run by the Returning Point, public institutions and most relevant job posting websites such as Infostud and  focuses on the identification of job openings in Serbia where applicants from the diaspora can offer unique skills developed abroad, such as specific language skills and foreign market expertise. 

These tangible benefits made the Returning Point a reliable partner for the public and private sector locally and talented individuals abroad and enhanced its potential to serve as a bridge between Serbia and its diaspora. 

With the help of Returning Point programs, Miroslav from the beginning of this story was able to find a job where his extensive experience could be put to best use. He became the executive manager of the Vinča project, dedicated to preserving and developing the archaeological site of Belo Brdo, where the Vinča culture was first discovered. 

Be realistic 

The Returning Point's team credits much of their achievement to the fact that they primarily focused on delivering solutions that help the diaspora and returnees while putting minimal strain on institutions in Serbia.

All their initiatives and programs are based on needs identified while working with target users, avoiding unrealistic or “pie in the sky" ideas. They leveraged institutional knowledge derived from collaboration with government institutions (Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc.) and drew on UNDP's experience in delivering more efficient governance to easy-to-follow processes and products. Moreover, UNDP’s SDG integration center was crucial in connecting the Returning Point team with various parts of the Serbian bureaucracy which UNDP has been supporting. Finally, the Returning Point benefited from its founders’ realistic expectations, as it was given several years of close cooperation with UNDP while it built its capacities and formulated its role.  

Agility and diversity are key

As the Returning Point was a pioneering project in Serbia, finding a good balance of experiences and skill sets in the team was crucial for success. 

While UNDP teams offered significant support to the project with their know-how, the Returning Point greatly benefitted from staff having both relevant experiences living abroad, as well as the local network and knowledge of the workings of the country’s legal and government systems. 

The Returning Point’s founding coincided with the first months of the pandemic in Serbia. This meant that the team had to be agile and creative from the start as they engaged with the diaspora in a variety of ways: from asking expat health workers to share their expertise to assisting the diaspora to get vaccinated in Serbia.

Be prepared to experiment

The team's approach draws inspiration from the UNDP’s experience in assisting and building the capacities of organizations. This was combined with the ethos of the UNDP Accelerator Lab, which focuses on finding innovative solutions for development.

As an organization independent of government institutions but closely working with them, the Returning Point's value-add comes from employing creative and practical solutions. The Returning Point uses design thinking, co-creation, trial and error and similar approaches in devising and delivering their programs and avoids being just a support system for existing institutions. Additionally, they harness alternative data to understand their target audience better. For instance, by organizing the Depopulation data challenge, the team of UNDP Serbia Accelerator Lab helped the Returning Point glean how the Serbian diaspora moved during the pandemic. 

Be open, creative and honest in communication

Having realized that the Serbian diaspora and returnees are heterogeneous groups, the Returning Point explored a variety of channels and methods to reach them. While the team found that advertising its activities through mainstream media, such as the Serbian state broadcaster, was effective for spreading the news about new programs, it was the use of novel channels, such as the Serbian diaspora Viber group and the Returning Point podcast, that fostered meaningful bonds with the diaspora.

The Viber group, initiated by Rakuten Viber company, enabled the Returning Point to reach members with various interests and backgrounds while also collecting valuable inputs and feedback from them. The group attracted other diaspora-focused organizations to collaborate with the Returning Point to post and share relevant news. It also allowed Serbian private companies such as job posting websites and airlines, to have a conduit to the diaspora market. 

On the other hand, the Returning Point podcast offered a new and more honest platform for returnees and other diaspora members to share their experiences in Serbia and abroad. It provides a nuanced personal view of what circular migration is like for expats, as well as how successful returnees create, live and work in Serbia. The episodes and conversations were envisaged as another method of myth-busting - dispelling prejudice and stigma related to leaving Serbia, return and everything in between. 

It is a place for people like Miroslav to share their experiences and knowledge with people who may be faced with similar questions and concerns, before deciding to continue their career in Serbia. In fact, it was during Miroslav's appearance on the podcast that he announced how he secured a grant from the US Ambassadors' fund for cultural preservation for the Belo Brdo site. His success story is one of many that contribute to the goal of Returning Point – to inspire more Serbians, whether at home or abroad, to cherish their roots, and hopefully set them on an exciting path through which they can contribute to their community, just like Miroslav did.