Memories of Development: At the G.A’s Conference in Sri Lanka and as a Consultant in Bangladesh
Posted on October 27th, 2019

By Garvin Karunaratne,

In the Seventies, the Government Agent’s Conference  was accorded great prominence.  The Government Agent  was the Head of the District and presided over as the Head of the District Coordinating Commiittee that coordinated all development programmes in the District. He was also the Head of the District Agricultural Committee. All allocations of funds were made to the Government Agent and its disbursement was  as decided at the District Committee. He was in charge of a number of important Departments.

In 1972, I attended the GA’s Conference. I was ready with all the Papers re the development programmes of the District, especially the Agricultural Development and the Divisional Development Councils Programme which happened to be focused on at that time.

The Conference got on its way, presided over by the Prime Minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, with the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture playing a major role. The  achievement in paddy production came into focus and everything was a success story. The Prime Minister as well as the Minister for Agriculture were very pleased  with the progress.  Finally in the last lap the Prime Minister called for any suggestions from the Government Agents in charge of the Districts, to make the agricultural development programmes better. The Prime Minister was looking at the Government Agents and continued to gaze at us because  no one spoke. It was a formidable team including Bradman, Wijedasa and many other well known personalities. It was fairly embarrassing.

 I thought of making a contribution.

I would suggest that in the case of paddy production we get down to draft a plan for every cultivator, documenting the extent he cultivates, the type of high yielding seed he uses, the inputs of fertilizer, when to use each variety of fertilizer, find out in detail any difficulties the farmer has to face, whether loans are required  and plan meticulously to ensure that everything goes to plan. I am suggesting this because in actual practice such a per plot and per farmer plan are never done today and instead the Kryushikarma Vyapti Sevaka, the agricultural overseer at the village level makes a total of the area cultivated and does calculations on a general basis based on the average yield of paddy in the area…”

 There ensued a stunning  silence with the Prime Minister looking at the Minister of Agriculture and then discussing something with the Secretary to the Ministry. In around five minutes of silence, the Prime Minister looked at me.

Do you mean that in your District the current plan for paddy production does not function properly.”

It was clear that the Prime Minister as well as the others had not understood what I said.

I got up to detail what I had stated when someone from behind me held my shoulder and pushed me down.

Let me speak. I am the Director for Agriculture and I have gone through all the progress reports from every District and can state that Matara District has done exceptionally well.”

His authoritative words saved me..

I got up to clarify matters but the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture signaled me to stop and when I tried to continue speaking told me to stop which I did.

The Conference ended as usual.

What I was trying to state was that instead of making a general calculation based on average yields, we would look into each farmer in great detail, something that has never been done anywhere. We then had the trained personnel, the Field Assistants and the Cultivation Committees of the Department of Agrarian Services, as well as the Vyapti Sevaka- the agricultural overseer of the Department of Agriculture.  After the Conference I met the Secretary to the Ministry and he never inquired anything from me.  The Ministry big shots thought no end of their knowledge and we were ignored. Naturally the country faced difficulties in paddy production in the years immediately afterwards.

I felt very uneasy and lost. I had carved a poor figure.

Now, to what happened in Bangladesh at a later date, where I served as the Commonwealth Fund Advisor on Youth Development to the Ministry of Labour and Manpower.

In  Bangladesh when the new Military Government of General Ershard took over the country in 1982, the Department of Youth Development was providing skills training to 40,000 youths annually but the vast majority of them failed to find employment and continued to be unemployed for life. Immediately after the new Government took over the reins of power,  a Conference was held, presided over by Air Vice Marshall Aminul Islam, the Minister for Labour and Manpower to which the former Ministry of Youth Development was attached, to evaluate the youth development programmes  He expressed dissatisfaction.  He identified me to be an outsider and when told that I was the General Advisor to the Ministry,  he ordered me in a sarcastic manner: 

What can you contribute for Bangladesh”?

In view of the fact that the vast majority of youth whom we train continue to be unemployed, I would suggest that you approve the implementation of a  self employment programme to supplement the skills training programmes  that are being implemented by the Department of Youth Development, where the lecturers who train the youths in skills will in addition, also guide the youths to establish enterprises to manufacture items for sale and ultimately become self employed entrepreneurs.”

The Secretary to the Treasury, the highest official in the country who was present objected:

Self Employment is not a task that can be done. The International Labor Organization (ILO) with all their unlimited resources have just miserably failed to establish a self employment programme at Tangail in Bangladesh. They laboured for three years and brought experts from all over and failed. It was a great loss – a massive expenditure and this Government is not going to waste any more funds again. Self Employment is not a task that can be done. That was the conclusion of the ILO and they are the experts of international standing”

I replied:

Though the ILO failed,  I can establish a Self Employment Programme. I hold the experience of establishing self employment units in Sri Lanka for eighteen years and also hold the Ph.D in Agricultural Economics and Non Formal Education from Michigan State University. I am confident of success.”

. The Secretary to the Treasury the highest official in Bangladesh laughed loud at my attempt to make entrepreneurs out of school drop outs- the category from which the Department of Youth Development found youths for skills training.

. I argued that though the ILO failed I would succeed. I quoted instances where I had established  successful employment projects providing incomes to youths while simultaneously producing what the country imported. The battle went on for an easy two full hours The Hon.Minister was listening in silence, making notes, till his patience was exhausted.  The Minister finally ordered us to shut up. He asked for any  Government training programmes that guided youths to become entrepreneurs. The Secretary to the Treasury replied None”. Then the Minister asked for the number of youths that failed to get into higher education or find a suitable job- the youths that will be scraping the barrel for life,  unemployed. The Secretary answered that it was in the millions, every year. The Hon Minister without any hesitation ordered that I should establish a self employment programme.

The Secretary to the Treasury stumped,  stating‚  that he will not provide any   funds to establish a self employment programme, to which I replied that we will find savings within the  approved budgets  for the skills training of the youths and re deploy staff as necessary. The  Hon Minister  approved my suggestion.

I had won the day- the task of establishing a new development programme without writing any feasibility report. Of course the two hour grueling battle with the Secretary to the Treasury included facts,   figures and  arguments. It was a snap decision by the Air Vice Marshall who allowed us to argue out, sussed the facts in his head  and barked out a military like order.

My task was to design the self employment programme, establish it and train the staff to continue the programme after I left.

We started planning work that night itself. It was a do or die” assignment. The next morning I was addressing trainees at the training centers and also training our Lecturers and Youth Officers on how the programme should be done. The officers who had till then done traditional youth development work were trained in concepts of economics. All Training Institutes were immediately altered to Training Cum Extension Institutes where the youths in training were to be guided to become self employed. Overnight we established a countrywide special extension service for the lecturers to go out on inspections and help the youths when they faced  problems.  The youths were guided to draft their own projects to become self employed, starting small farms even with a few cows or chicks. Dresses were sewn using the machines at the training centers that were kept open after work till ten at night. 

The method was to intensively guide the trainees in the management of their enterprises. Every action from the planning of their projects, to the purchase of raw materials, the chicks, the feed, the process of manufacture, the process of the growth and sale of cattle, the making of garments and their sale was all monitored on a non formal education  basis where the youths were trained to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action and act on their own. They were monitored closely and helped when they failed. . The trainees were taught basic economics related to their ventures‚  The training included understanding the free market economy and the youths were guided to think, understand and increase their ability and capacity in the process. This was non formal education in action. The achievement was within the village setting where the projects became family concerns with brothers and sisters becoming involved. On our visits, training sessions were provided impromptu where everyone could participate.

The effort was to make a youth movement to make youths establish ventures and guide them till they are income bearing equal to the earnings of a clerical officer in the Public Service.

This Programme began at the end of March 1982 with a few trainees and was expanded to 2000 by October 1983. By the time I left Bangladesh at the end of October  1983- in  sixteen months my team was guiding 2000 youths.  The team comprised the Secretary, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry with a few hundred staff of Directors, Deputy Directors of Youth, Director for Livestock and Poultry , Directors of the 3 Residential Training Centers in Livestock & Poultry, Lecturers in Training Institutes- all of whom were taught the essentials of economics firstly to be able to analyse the economy of Bangladesh and to arrive at areas of economic activity where self employment production would be an asset to the country. They were also taught methods of imparting instructions in a manner that would evoke the active participation of the trainees and enable them to think and make their own decisions. This included national and regional planning culled down to the village level., where the self employment units were established.

The officers were patriotic to the extreme. It was long hours every day for months Daily circuits in Toyota Hiace bone shakers- leaving early morning to return whenever. The officials responded ably.

 At that time Tk. 500.00 a month was the salary drawn by a Clerical Officer in the Government Service. Getting the youths to reach a net income of Tk. 500.00 was our aim.

An Evaluation Report done in August 1983, 16 months since commencement  states:

A Programme of Excellence in every respect  unfolds in the results documented. Of  500 unemployed youths who joined the programme in the early months,   479 are earning  an average net income  of Tk 596.00 in August 1983, 8 to 12 months after they commenced their commercial ventures, 55 of them earn over Tk. 1000.00 a month and 253 earn  over Tk 500.00.”

In August 1983, barely 16 months since the commencent, the achievement was hailed by the two Secretaries of the Ministry of Labour and Manpower; In their words:

Dr.Karunaratne’s significant contribution has been in the field of self employment to the drop-out youths. This programme was not only designed but also guided by him. This activity which was initially launched as a pilot experimental project has been a great success and has now being adopted as a fill-fledged Programme. The Government of Bamgladesh. has been successful in providing meaningful employment to a large number of youths on this Programme” .(Asafuddowlah)

Dr. Karunaratne’s role as the formulator of the program has been particularly commendable. It was mainly through his dedication and hard work that the pilot project has now been formally accepted as one of the most important development projects.” (Ayubur Rahaman)

The Self Employment Programme had phenomenal success.

By  August 1983, 16 months after commencement  The Department of Youth Development  was training  2000 youths. The Programme was expanded apace to involve 7000 youths by 1987, to 16,000 by 1992 and to 160,000 a year  from 1997. In 1982 we had only 3 Residential Training Centers. This was increased to 64 Centers by 1997.  In  2011 February  The Government of Bangladesh reported to the 34 th Session of the Governing Council of IFAD(FAO)  that this programme had guided as much as two million youths to be self employed‚  on  a commercially viable basis.(Statement to the 34 th Session of the Governing Council of IFAD(FAO), dated19/02/2011)

The YSEP has stood the test of time for over three decades (1982-2019) The Five Year Plan of 1997-2002 of the Bangladesh Planning Commission, devotes 8 pages to this program. This is easily the premier employment creation program that one can find in the world today. All other programs involve training and apprenticeship only and never include the tasks of motivating youths, involving them in non-formal education endeavor to develop their abilities and capacities, through technical guidance and management advice provided as they work on their projects aimed at their  becoming commercially viable, which are the cornerstones on which this programme  has been based.

Instead of traditional youth work, the aims of the Ministry had been altered:

    To facilitate the unemployed youth for gainful employment/self employment, providing vocational/skills development training and micro credit support. 

         To involve the youth in the mainstream of national development process”           

I am pleased that I was able to make a distinct contribution to the economy of Bangladesh, a contribution that perhaps no other person had ever done.

I feel sorry that I could not make a similar permanent contribution to my Motherland.

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D.(Michigan State University)

Former Government Agent, Matara

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