Simonida Kacarska, Founder and Director of the European Policy Institute

17 September 2017

Simonida is a Founder and Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje, Macedonia. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Leeds in the UK and has lived and studied in several European countries, including Bulgaria, Ireland, Croatia and Belgium. With her experience as a civil servant, researcher, consultant, lecturer and think tank manager, Simonida has insight in both conceptual approaches to societal transformation as well as the practical worlds of public policy. She has studied and is still puzzled by the role of external actors play in democratisation processes. 

Simonida is an OTT Fellow.

Enrique Mendizabal: Please tell us a bit about yourself?

Simonida Kacarska: Having spent significant periods of my education and professional life in various European countries, I returned to Macedonia four years ago. I have a daughter, now a three year old, that I have been raising with support of my exceptional husband and family.

As a migrant for a significant time of my life, most of my closest friends and support system are all around Europe. It is this segment of my international exposure that I feel most grateful for. Since back in Macedonia, I have been engaged in various capacities in the European Policy Institute in Skopje, Macedonia, a think tank supporting the informed debate on European policy issues.

EM: How did you come to work at a think tank? Why?

SK: In 2011, with several like minded individuals with whom we shared the experiences of working on the EU accession of Macedonia, we founded a civil society organisation that grew into one of the leading think tanks in the country and in the region.

At the time of its founding, I was completing my PhD and was looking of a way to professionally combine the different skills and competences that I have gained both over my education and previous working experience. For example, I have insight from engaging with political reforms in societies that undergo transformations as a civil servant, researcher, and lecturer. The think tank position  was such an opportunity. I joined EPI full time as a research coordinator in mid 2013 and recently in early 2017 I have taken over management of the institute.

EM: What does your think tank focus on? What does it do?

SK: Since its establishment in 2011, the European Policy Institute, Skopje has provided high quality policy research and advocacy to  support the national and regional debate on EU integration, mainstreaming inter-ethnic cooperation in all of its efforts.

EPI has capitalised on the practical experience and insider view of its founders and key staff in EU integration in various Macedonian state institutions in building its track record and public image as a competent and credible organisation that delivers regular and reliable research on EU affairs.

EPI used this unique value in various ways, out of which we would single out two. First, it has streamlined the work of various civil society organisations through the lense of EU accession, most notably through establishing and supporting the national monitoring and advocacy network on judiciary and fundamental rights, at the moment consisting of 15 CSOs (including think tanks and grass root organisations). Second, due to its experience in the state administration and network of EU contacts, it has positioned itself in a leading position on joint think tank advocacy and outreach visits to EU member states as our key advocacy targets.

EM: What is your role? How did you get that job?

SK: In March 2017 I was appointed by EPI’s Assembly (made up of its founders) as the Director of the organisation after four years in the co-driving seat as a research coordinator.

In this position, I combine many roles. First, I am  responsible for the internal management and operation of the institute. Second, I co-ensure research quality by supervising and mentoring researchers supporting the transfer of knowledge and know-how within the organisation and externally through cooperation with a number of universities in the region and abroad. Third, I represent the institute at national, regional and European events and in the media.  As to the latter, I communicate to the media not only in the capacity of an expert, but also in reaching out to non-academic audiences, thus  informing the broader public about key issues of democratic governance.

I am the key EPI contact for stakeholder dialogue with national institutions and international organisations, including the European Commission as well as relevant EU member states and their think tank communities. This includes fundraising and communication with the diverse set of national and international donors as well as a constant engagement in the promotion of democratic values in the region. At the same time, I pursue an individual research agenda closely related to the Institute’s work focusing on the role of the EU in the democratic transformation of the Western Balkans. I publish regularly both in academic journals and media individually and in collaboration with regional and international scholars.

EM: As a Director, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?

SK: In addition to the perennial issue of fundraising, for me personally, bridging and combining the roles of a researcher and manager has been the key challenge I have encountered in the leadership position at my think tank. Coming to the think tank community from the position of an individual researcher and lecturer, managing and organising the work of others was at first sight quite a novelty for me.

In order to adapt to this role, I have worked towards understanding people’s individual style of work while focusing still on delivering results within reasonable timetables. These tasks were not easy with researchers and different personalities, so I have learned on my side to adapt and and lead by example, rather than by imposition. Hence, in joint research projects, I position myself as a team member in order to stimulate discussion and debate and foster the development of researchers, but adopt a leadership position when research agenda needs streamlining.  

EM: Can you describe the think tank community in Macedonia? What are its key characteristics?

SK: Hmm quite a difficult one. In order to describe the think tank community in Macedonia I  would start from the environment in which we’re operating in. I wrote a blog on this last year underlining that traditionally the policy cycle in our context is exceptionally short and policy (as well as academic) research is not highly valued by policy makers or donors. On the other hand, as a country candidate for EU membership, its public policies are undergoing transformation, i.e. there is exceptional need for assessment of various policy options.

The combination of these two aspects creates a rather unusual environment for the operation of the think tank community. Even though there is genuine need for research, most of the time, real demand and support for research are missing. Yet, mostly in the last decade or so, several civil society organisations (most common legal form) have responded to this genuine need and with support of international financial assistance have managed to profile themselves as reliable policy knowledge producers. What all of us need to work on is increasing our impact and extending and opening up the policy cycle, especially through advancing consultation as well as policy impact assessments.

EM: What are the main challenges that think think tanks in you country face today?

SK: In the national and regional context where I am operating overstretching of the agenda of think tanks has been a key shortcoming as their respective agendas have been dominated with ensuring financial sustainability at the expense of keeping to their visions and missions. In these conditions, capitalising on the organisations’ advantages is compromised due to overstretching of foremost human and intellectual capital. Though attempting to tackle this problem in my own organisation, it has not been a smooth ride given the short-term financial arrangements that have dominated our everyday operation.   

EM: You have joined the OT Fellowship Programme. How do you think it will help you?

SK: The OTT Fellowship has so far been a great experience and I am really glad to have been selected in such a diverse team. Half way through the Fellowship, I can see it helping me in balancing the many roles I have undertaken in the last year. This means, on the one hand, advancing my skills and capacities to steer a developing think tank in a rather non-enabling environment.  We’re doing this primarily by learning new approaches in people and organisation management, but also through our interaction with the other fellows, as an invaluable segment.

On the other hand, the Fellowship has been helping me in reflecting and locating my own research in the new circumstances in order to be able to make it an attractive working place for myself in addition to my team.