The Smith Fellowship, one of the many programs of Atlas Network’s Leadership Academy, brings up-and-coming leaders from around the world to Washington D.C., where they receive varied training in marketing, fundraising, management, and other relevant skills.
A recent alumnus of the Smith Fellowship, Petar Čekerevac, is executive manager of Libertarian Club Libek, a partner organization based in Belgrade, Serbia. He won the 2017 Think Tank Shark Tank – Europe competition, and he completed Atlas Network’s Smith Fellowship in May 2018.
Atlas Network conducted an interview with Petar at Europe Liberty Forum 2018 in Copenhagen to learn about the fellowship’s most impactful moments and how it has helped him in his work. Petar also appeared on the Center for International Private Enterprise’s Democracy that Delivers podcast.
Atlas Network: What are the biggest challenges facing Serbia?
Petar Čekerevac: On the surface, the largest threats are the increasing trend of media control, state capture, and corruption among the political elite. The country also lacks any coherent oppositional movement that would balance the power of the government.
However, on a deeper level, Serbia faces a lack of leadership and alternatives. The political elites do not have a nuanced understanding of the reforms needed to make this country prosperous. Political leaders seem to repeat the same things, political plans and programs look more like wish lists, and most stick to a rather watered-down, center-left view of the economy. People are apathetic, disappointed, and seem bored by this.
Another important point is that, as our own public opinion polling has shown, young people are prone to economic misconceptions promoted by populists. A large-scale educational effort is needed to debunk these misconceptions. This is something Libek has been addressing through its video production program.
What is Libek's Public Policy Academy, and how does it help to overcome these challenges?
The Academy is the flagship educational program of Libek, and is widely seen as a leading political education program in the country outside of university.
The idea behind the program is that Serbia needs new leadership and a new approach in politics, business, and civil society. To ensure a future of stability, economic prosperity, and human flourishing, it is essential that future leaders have a deep understanding of the ideas of liberty and gain the skills to promote and apply them in their work.
We started the Public Policy Academy to compensate for the lack of these ideas and training in the formal education system and to create a community of young leaders who will be able to change their society by taking leading roles in politics, business, and civil society. The Academy is a two-semester-long program, where up to 25 participants attend around 100 seminar sessions every year. They graduate from the Academy with a deeper understanding of policy processes, the ability to analyze and understand politics and society from a libertarian perspective, and valuable connections that allow them to advance their careers. Our Public Policy Academy alumni community will soon have over 150 members and they are the thought leaders of their generation.
In addition to our alumni base, the Academy community brings together around 50 lecturers, who are experts in politics, government, marketing, technology, psychology, law, philosophy, business, and activism, as well as over 30 mentors who help participants achieve their goals through the mentorship program.
Academy alumni have had considerable effects on policy outcomes, public debate, and their peers, and the mainstream media has documented this impact.
What work does Libek do to promote a freer Serbia?
At the foundational level, our educational programs train new leaders and introduce them to the ideas of liberty, and the values of freedom, responsibility, and optimism. This allows our alumni to change the political debate, acting as thought leaders, activists, and influencers. Some of them have already graduated from college and are putting ideas into practice, working in government, business, civil society, and other fields. They also organize events, write articles, make videos, and take part in political campaigns.
When it comes to policy, we do research and create policy proposals in the areas that are key to Serbian economic prosperity. These are government spending, taxation, privatization (the Serbian government manages about 50 percent of the GDP of Serbia), school choice, development of special economic zones, business regulation, and improvement of the level of economic freedom, as measured by the Fraser Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and similar indices. We have already influenced policy and expect more in the future, but it is crucial to have the solutions ready for implementation when reform comes and new, courageous leaders decide they want to do something about the economy of the country.
On a larger scale, we also publish content that debunks the most common economic misconceptions used by populists and present different solutions that come from a free market perspective. This year, our videos have received about 150,000 views so far, and we aim for half a million in 2018.
Can you tell us more about your new online platform, “Talas?”
Talas (“The Wave”) is our new project that brings a libertarian perspective to the public debate in Serbia on a larger scale. The media in Serbia is increasingly controlled, and has been reduced to government-controlled tabloids, a self-censored media, and a few investigative journalism outlets. Most independent outlets come from center-left, far-left, and far-right perspectives. For these reasons, we decided to build a media outlet that would present our views and ideas in a popular way to a wider number of people and fill the void with quality political content.
In the first few months since the launch, we have seen steady growth in our number of website hits. In addition, several larger outlets, including professional media, have quoted or linked to our content. Also, a libertarian group from another country has reposted our content. We are still in the early stages of the process, but the project is getting traction. Soon we will be bigger than any far-left outlet, and positioned to compete with independent center-left outlets. The idea is to build a media outlet and content factory that can compete with the mainstream media in the coming years.
What other projects are you working on?
In the public policy field, we are currently advocating for a constitutional change that would introduce public debt and deficit limits to the Serbian Constitution and require referendums in order to increase taxes. We expect support from several prominent MPs and a lot of media coverage.
Besides our work in policy, we are developing new educational projects and constantly improving existing ones.
We will also publish a new study soon, which explores the possibility of establishing special economic zones in Serbia that would boost the country’s economic growth.
How has the Smith Fellowship given you new insights to your work?
The Smith Fellowship experience is very important for our plans. My three main goals for the fellowship were to expand our donor network and raise funding for our new media outlet, learn the best practices in media production from U.S.-based organizations, and expand our network of contacts related to our research on special economic zones. I am happy to say that after one month in D.C. I have had success in all three areas, but this is just the beginning.
Our team of six people is relatively small and overstretched, so management often has to micromanage. During the fellowship, I worked with Atlas Network staff to audit our organizational structure and see what areas could be improved so that our team could become more efficient and grow. We drafted a new organizational structure that I will discuss with the team and some ideas for new processes and division of labor.
Besides structure, our goal is always to keep expanding our pool of donors and ensure that we have sustainable funding that promotes further growth. During the Smith Fellowship, I met with many potential partners and even managed to raise funding from a new donor.
What was the highlight of your time in the U.S. during the fellowship?
I had ambitious goals and big expectations when I arrived in Washington, and my experience with the fellowship exceeded them. It would be hard to name one thing as a highlight; there were so many interesting things. From organizational development planning with Atlas Network, to one-on-one meetings with potential donors and partners, to the Atlas Network Global Policy Perspectives event in New York City, I enjoyed my experience throughout the program.
I am really excited about building on and executing the fundraising plan that I developed here with Atlas Network staff and Ann Fitzgerald. Also, I think there are many lessons we can apply to our media production. I am also quite excited about working on a better organizational structure and exploring the idea of creating an advisory council for Libek.
I am confident that with a little extra work we will have an even more efficient organization and a bigger impact on education and public policy.