The Youth Self Employment Programme of Bangladesh, a Programme that has created three million youth entrepreneurs in four decades.
Posted on December 23rd, 2023

By Garvin Karunaratne

It all happened in the Bangladesh Secretariat, three days after General Ershard took over the country in a bloodless coup on the 24 th of March 1982. The Minister for Youth Development was clamped in prison and the work of the Ministry was in jeopardy. The third in command, Air Vice Marshall Aminul Islam, the Minister for Labour and Manpower evaluated the work done by the Ministry. Suddenly at the close, he realized that I was an outsider and inquired who I was and I was then introduced as the Commonwealth Fund Advisor to the Ministry of Youth Development.

What can you contribute for Bangladesh”. It was more a military command. I could have spoken in support of the youth training programmes done by the Ministry but decided otherwise. I replied.

I would like you to consider approving a new programme aimed at making the 40,000 youths who are being trained every year to be guided to become self employed.”

The Secretary to the Treasury, the highest officer in the land, objected.

The Creation of self employment can never be done. The ILO of the United Nations has just folded up a self employment programme which they have been trying to establish in Tangail, Bangladesh over the past three years with a massive loss. They brought experts from all parts of the world to guide the programme but it was a total failure. The Bangladesh Treasury has no more funds to waste. The ILO are the experts. They hold the last word on employment creation.

I replied that though the ILO failed I had the experience as well as the academic qualifications, which was contested by the Secretary to the Treasury. He was adamant that I would fail. I argued with the Secretary to the Treasury explaining how I had successfully established employment projects in Sri Lanka and how I held the academic qualifications at doctoral level. The heated battle went on for over two hours. The Minister allowed the two of us to argue; he was making notes and finally commanded us to stop.

Are there any development programmes in Bangladesh that train people to become self employed?”

The Secretary to the Treasury replied: None”

How many youths are trained in vocations every year.” The Minister inquired.

The Secretary to the Treasury rattled out the number that were being trained by all Government Departments and it totalled to some two hundred thousand. This included the 40,000 the Ministry of Youth trained a year.

Tell me the number of youths that pass out every year and fail to find either employment or a place for further study and continue being unemployed and destitute, living scraping the barrel for life.”

The Secretary to the Treasury replied. Sir, It is in the millions.”

The Minister without batting an eyelid ordered, staring at me, in my face.

I approve you establishing a self employment programme. Go ahead and show what you can do, which the ILO. failed to do.”

Before I could thank him the Secretary to the Treasury replied;

I will not provide any funds from the Bangladesh Treasury. The failure of the ILO attempt was a massive waste of funds and the Treasury has no more funds to waste.”

I replied even without consulting the two Secretaries of the Ministry with whom I worked, who were present.

I need no new funds. I will find savings within approved youth training programme budgets to hold training sessions. I need approval to divert savings from approved training budgets to create this new programme and approval to alter the remits of officers to include training for self employment.”

The Minister approved my request.

I got cracking with training youth directors and lecturers of training institutes in economics. It included detailed studies on the economy of Bangladesh to identify areas where there was a propensity to create employment in a manner that also helped the economy in terms of production.

We had no funds to offer subsidies of any sort.

Youth Directors were all veteran workers who knew the art of relating to the youth. They moved with the youth and introduced ideas of how the youth could find incomes by rearing chicks and live with the chicks and see them grow. Some youths persuaded their brothers and sisters- even those who had migrated to the UK to help them. Till then they had not known what to with what they had studied in their three months training.

Yousoof Ali, a youth who had been trained did not know what to do with what he had learned and he became a nuisance to his brothers and sisters at home. His elder brother who could not tolerate him even went to the office of the Deputy Director of Youth at Jamalpur and accused the Department of indoctrinating his brother with ideas they could not follow. He even threatened to burn the office down. Instead of reporting to the Police who would have arrested him for public disorder the Deputy Director for Youth Development got in touch with us. I instructed the Deputy Director to somehow placate him and request him to attend our training sessions on self employment with his belligerent brother This was in a weeks’ time. When I marched into the training sessions I was shown his brother who was really breathing fire at us and the Department. Our sessions ran into hours of activity where we inspired the youths to save and commence any enterprises on their own. Some were motivated to even save the small daily stipend we paid for attendance to buy chicks which they could rear and see how the value increased. Our sessions were more inspiring the youth to save and take action to grow something, buy a chick and see it grow. The belligerent brother too joined us in our sessions because we related to them as brothers and sisters, as equals and the brother was so convinced that he immediately coughed up funds for his belligerent brother to buy a cow, ducklings and chicks and rear them. His brother got down to work under our supervision. Ten months later, on a surprise inspection, I met the belligerent lad- he had , 190 layer ducks, one milk cow, 2 goats, earning a net income of Taka 1496 in December1982, all achieved in eight months. Our aim was to make them earn Taka 500 the then salary of a Clerical Officer in the Government Service.

We built up the momentum not by offering money and subsidies, but by relating to them day in and day out. One word of a problem- it could be small farm of a dozen chicks two hundred miles away in an inaccessible village but we were there within hours to share the burden with the youth. We were inspiring the youth to become entrepreneurs and it was never instructing, but in youth work language participating with the youth, make the youth think and act -to educate them informally.

We were building up the abilities and capacities of the youth to become entrepreneurs,perhaps the only such programme the World has known.

It was non formal education in action where officials were never instructors but providers of ideas for the youth to think and become motivated. The staff was totally trained in non formal education methods of inspiring the youths to think and act on their own and become productive.

By the time my service period of two years was over, I had trained officials to continue the employment programme as a youth movement. It really paid high dividends. I last met the Minister Air Vice Marshall Aminul Islam just before I left Bangladesh. My request to him was to make an order that youths on our Youth Development Programme who had within months created incomes and earned more than the tax level should be given a reprieve to be exempt from taxes for a few years. The Minister said he will get that done.

These were the beginings of a youth self employment programme that commencing in 1982 has created over three million youth entrepreneurs within four decades. 1982 to 2022, the only such programme of development the world has known. In a letter to me on June 20, 2005, a full twenty two years after I had established the Self Employment Programme, MrAsafuddowlah, the Secretary to the Ministry of Youth Development wrote:

You will be happy to learn that the Self Employment Programme of the Youth Department has expanded across the country and attained great success. I have not forgotten your valuable contribution to the success of this great programme.”(Muhammed Asafuddowlah: June 20, 2005)

The Fifth Five Year Plan of the Planning Commission of Bangladesh, makes glorious references to this Programme and devotes eight pages to detail its success. It is a Programme that has achieved accolades in all the subsequent Five Year Plans of the Planning Commission of Bangladesh.

It is important to note that for the first four years we had no funds from the Bangladesh Treasury. We found funds through savings in approved training budgets . But once we proved ourselves though hard work in training youths and inspiring them to become productive the Government funded it aided by the IFAD(FAO)

The youth self employment programme became a national programme and many helped. Way back after my work in Bangladesh I was working in Edinburgh. Whenever I went to London I took bulky and heavy dress pattern books which I handed over to Bangladesh Biman to be taken to the poor youth entrepreneurs in dress making at Jamalpur. That was the contribution made by Bangladesh Biman. Once six cows, all what a youth had died. I with Golam Atahar the Director for Livestock marched to the Insurance Corporation of Bangladesh. The two of us held the floor for an hour, In three days the Insurance Corp approved an insurance programme for cattle on our employment programme. I am dead certain that I could not do such things in my own country, Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, administrators were dedicated and worked unruffled despite odds.

By now(2023)over three million youths have become entrepreneurs on this programme. Many thanks are due to the officers of the Bangladesh Civil Service and officers of the Ministry , trained by me, who carried on the programme initiated by me to achieve to reach the World Stature of today. The Youth Self Employment Programme of Bangladesh is a world class programme that has found a definite place within the sands of time.

It is high time that the Government of Sri Lanka seeks to establish a similar programme to create employment for our youth and also create the production that will allay the economic meltdown of today. Take employment creation out of the vagary of party politics- these are national programmes that have to be invariably supported, despite changes in Governments.

In 2011,when His Excellency Milinda Moragoda, till recently our Ambassador at Delhi made a bid for the Mayorship of Colombo in his Manifesto stated that if elected,  he would seek to implement the Youth Self Employment Programme of Bangladesh which incidentally was am amazingly successful scheme introduced to that country by a distinguished son of Sri Lanka, Dr Garvin Karunaratne, who served in Bangladesh as an international consultant.”(The Nation: 11/9/2011)

It will be a pleasure to serve my Motherland again and I look forward to establish an employment creation programme if called upon. . It will be done in nineteen months- the exact time I took to establish that Programme in Bangladesh.

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph D Michigan State University, formerly SLAS, GA Matara 1971-1973.

24/12/23, Rajagiriya, Colombo,

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