This document presents the initiatives that emerged during a one-year dialogue conducted by CEVES with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), other stakeholders, and key actors regarding the extent to which SMEs contribute to the sustainable development of Serbia and how to strengthen their potential for further contribution by 2030. The dialogue was held within the framework of the “Sustainable Development for All” platform, a project implemented by the German development organization GIZ and financed by the Swiss and German governments, with the aim of promoting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These initiatives were launched at the MSP Serbia 2030: MSP100 Expo Conference and Exhibition held on June 1, 2022, at Mind Park in Kragujevac.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda has set 17 universally accepted goals to create better living conditions for present and future generations. The global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be grouped into the “5 Ps” dimensions crucial for humanity: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. These goals are integrated and indivisible, balancing the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Achieving them requires collective action and responsibility from governments, parliaments, the United Nations (UN) system and other international institutions, local authorities, civil society, businesses and the private sector, the scientific and academic community, and all individuals. Conditions for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, shared prosperity, and decent work for all are created while respecting different levels of national development and capacity, with a commitment that “no one will be left behind.”

The contribution of the private sector to sustainable development is often viewed solely through its corporate social responsibility activities, but the contribution of SMEs to achieving the SDGs is direct. SMEs form the backbone of economic activities everywhere and, through their own development, contribute to prosperity and other dimensions of the 2030 Agenda. In Serbia, as they employ the majority of the total employment in the business sector, their productivity growth opens up opportunities for creating higher quality, more creative, and better-paid jobs. In previous decades, as large industrial complexes declined, SMEs have preserved some industrial skills and today significantly contribute to the rapid development of the ICT sector, with a strong potential for digitalization and the development of Industry 4.0. Additionally, SMEs contribute to sustainable development through export activities and investments in human capital and knowledge, with “hidden champions” particularly standing out.

Within the “Sustainable Development for All” platform, CEVES initiated a dialogue to create initiatives that will enable “SMEs to take the lead by 2030.” In this dialogue, we initially conducted several roundtable discussions and conferences that led us to conclude that the business conditions and needs of enterprises vary significantly depending on their level of development, competitiveness, sector, and size. In the next phase of the dialogue, we chose to focus on individual discussions with representatives of leading SMEs because, on the one hand, their role as “drivers” for the development of other smaller enterprises can be highly significant, especially if they are exporters, innovators, or green pioneers. On the other hand, drawing attention to their potential is particularly effective in redirecting public attention and decision-makers’ focus to the potential of the entire SME sector. As the culmination of this phase of the dialogue, we organized the “MSP Serbia 2030: MSP100 Expo” Conference-Exhibition, aiming to bring together carefully selected MSP100, according to international standards, playing a leading role in Serbia and highlighting the developmental potential of the domestic economy. The MSP100 Expo provided an opportunity for empowerment, mutual inspiration, dialogue, networking, and the initiation of initiatives that will support the development of SMEs and direct their strength towards achieving goals for the entire society.

The term “initiative” is used in a broader sense – as the initiation of action, rather than a detailed legally processed proposal ready for consideration by the government. The aim of the dialogue was to generate more concrete initiatives that directly address clearly identified problems faced by enterprises and where the “next step” is clear. These initiatives are often directed towards government institutions, but we also strive to identify activities that SMEs themselves and other stakeholders can undertake without relying on public institutions.

In the following text, we first present the “development philosophy” for SMEs, based on CEVES’ multi-year analyses of the position of SMEs in the Serbian economy, as well as observations made during the dialogue conducted before and during the Conference. We then present the systemic problems we have identified as some of the most important challenges that decision-makers in Serbia must confront in order to improve the business environment and the development of the SME sector. After that, we propose more specific initiatives in three areas that are crucial for the sustainable development of SMEs: capacity building and technological and green transformation; education and skills enhancement; and access to financing.