Summer in Kosovo

Organization: Mercy Corps International

Location: Pristina, Kosovo

I spent my summer in BGIEland, but unfortunately there was no Professor Julio to answer clarifying questions. The situation in Kosovo was basically 60% unemployment, exports equaling 4% of imports, minimal investment, 70% of the population under age 30, ethnic tensions, minimal education, health, and social benefits, UN governance by committee, and lots of landmines. Suddenly the answers were not as clear as they had been last spring in Aldrich 8.

I lived in Pristina, the only urban center in Kosovo. That is to say, I lived on a dirt road in an apartment with no hot water, no shower, electricity half the time, running water sometimes, and a couch upholstered with shaggy sheep skins. My street was patrolled by UN troops in tanks, a fact that I learned the hard way when I tried to cross the street like a Bostonian and was nearly flattened by one.

My assignment was to survey the economic environment in Kosovo and report on funding sustainable small enterprises for returnees; as the mission director said, ‘Do your business school thing.’ It was a crash course in everything Kosovar – economics, politics, history, languages, ethnicities. Each day I set out in an armored Land Rover with my large translator/body guard to interview returnees about their agricultural businesses. For example, I visited a tiny Muslim Slav village in the mountains near the Albanian border where Mercy Corps runs a milk collection station.

The Slav farmers were involved in a disagreement with the Albanian station manager over payment terms, and since I took Negotiations I was well qualified to manage the situation. I spent the morning in a smoky bar with pornographic posters on the walls trying to get the manager and seven farmers to stop yelling at each other…in Albanian. I was apparently the first woman to set foot in the bar in years; the situation was probably resolved because everyone was so flustered that I was there. I then spent the next day I spent in a UN-guarded Serb enclave which was attacked in March. There were fresh graves by the sides of the road, helicopters patrolling, and you had to show your passport to enter or leave.

Leaving the HBS bubble was a shock, but my biggest challenge was not learning Albanian or converting from years of vegetarianism to an all-meat diet. It was having to hold a chicken. I HATE chickens. But one of the refugees had started an egg business and he wanted me to admire his chickens. There I was on my first day, wearing my business-school-dress-for-success outfit, standing in a room with 300 chickens, holding a beady-eyed bird, which immediately bit me.

Chickens aside, Kosovo could give HBS a run for its money in terms of ‘transformational experiences.’ I met many people whose courage in simply living their lives each day inspired me, and had the opportunity to apply skills from BGIE, The Entrepreneurial Manager, and Negotiations sooner than I expected. I also gained a deeper idea of what ‘business’ means for the farmers I met; they believe that it will be their answer, a way to finally create a healthy, interconnected society.

In Brief

Description: I spent this summer in Kosovo conducting an assessment of Mercy Corps Kosovo’s agricultural grants. This program targets refugees of Albanian, Serb, Bosniac, Roma, and Ashkalia ethnicities who fled during the conflict, many during attacks in March 2004. Mercy Corps provides one-time grants of agricultural supplies or livestock to help start small businesses. I designed a study and traveled to all 22 municipalities to conduct interviews with farmers who received grants. I also interviewed representatives of governmental, non-governmental, and microlending agencies, including the UN, EU, and US State Department and wrote a field report outlining economic conditions and proposing a model focusing on larger grants with co-investment from recipients and rationalizing targeted agricultural value chains.

October 25, 2004
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