During my recent mission visit to Sivagangai District in Tamil Nadu, India, I met with Mr. Kannan, a social entrepreneur. I was visiting communities to understand the latest efforts under the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) to support the differently abled with economic activities following their identification and mobilization. For six months now, Mr. Kannan is running a Community Skills School (CSS), an innovative approach to skills enhancement, in the Kalaikulam Village. At the school, which provides self-identified and motivated trainees with skills to repair home appliances, Mr. Kannan has already trained 70 differently abled men and three women. Among the trainees is his wife, who is differently abled herself, but is of huge support to Mr. Kannan in running the CSS and in working with women. He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women.
He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women. Run on a guild program model, the CSS ensures that upon completion of a one-month program on skills enhancement, the trainees can become self-employed or work in small enterprises repairing home appliances in their own and neighboring villages. The rapid urbanization of rural Tamil Nadu offers plenty of such opportunities.
Mr. Kannan designed the key aspect of the curriculum—which goes beyond technical training—based on his own life experiences. During our conversation, I found out that Mr. Kannan is differently abled himself—he was afflicted with polio at the age of three and has lost the use of both his lower limbs. As a result, Mr. Kannan needed a wheelchair to get around. Nevertheless, he was not deterred and continued his education to receive a diploma in mechanical engineering from a local Polytechnic. He ended up at Samsung’s service center in Chennai, the state capital, where he spent four years acquiring skills in home appliance repair.
Omer Ahsan is a chartered accountant in the making from Waziristan. He first heard about the Youth Employment Program, a free digital skills program offered by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Technology Board, from discussions on a group chat over Whatsapp, and applied immediately. Within two weeks of completing the digital skills program, Omer has built an online profile and has successfully earned money as a professional content writer.
Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is emerging from decades of instability and conflict, and would seem an unlikely place for digital workers to thrive. But with nearly 16 million youth in the province, and few available jobs locally, there is a pressing need to think outside the box in terms of equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and capabilities to take on the future.
In 2015, together with the World Bank, a series of pilot programs were conducted to test a model of digital skill training for youth. Growing connectivity, cloud technology, and the emergence of new business outsourcing models have lowered the barriers to entry for global employment, even for youth in remote parts of Pakistan. The key ingredients to accessing this employment: access to the internet, basic skills, and awareness, and the pilot program tested different approaches to supporting youth to develop online work skills.
October 17 is the international day to end poverty. There has been much progress toward this important milestone: the World Bank Group’s latest numbers show that since 1990 nearly 1.1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, around 100 million people moved out of extreme poverty. That’s around a quarter of a million people every day. This is cause for optimism.
But extreme poverty and the wrenching circumstances that accompany it persist. Half the world's extreme poor now live in sub-Saharan Africa, and another third live in South Asia. Worldwide nearly 800 million people were still living on less than $1.90 a day in 2013, the latest year for which we have global numbers. Half of these are children. Most have nearly no education. Many of the world's poor are living in fragile and conflict afflicted countries. In a world in which so many have so much, it is unacceptable that so many have so little.
Skills recognition is changing the lives of informal workers in Bangladesh
In 2014, Nikhil Chandra Roy was struggling to find and keep regular employment. He had extensive experience dating back to 1977, doing the work of an electrician. But because he had no formal training or certification, Nikhil couldn’t win the confidence of employers in Bangladesh to give him anything more than episodic, relatively low-paying work.
At age 55, just as he was giving up hope for career progress, Nikhil saw an advertisement that ended up turning his outlook and life around. The ad introduced him to the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) program, aimed especially at people like Nikhil, who have real skills and experience in a particular occupation but no formal, independently recognized qualifications.
Not long later, Nikhil participated in a three-day program, which entails one day of assessment and two days of training. That led to the recognition he had long awaited and needed to boost his career: a Government-endorsed skills certification from the Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) in electrical installation and maintenance.
“From that point on,” Nikhil said, “there was no looking back. With my years of experience, knowledge and now skills certification, I was ready to progress my career from just an electrician to an entrepreneur.”
Nikhil was one of the many vulnerable informal sector workers in Bangladesh who have no regular jobs and who work on ad hoc opportunities, making it difficult to sustain livelihoods. These workers, with enough experience to perform the technical work well but not the credential many jobs require, improve their employability and bargaining power in job markets when they get the proper certification. And with that certification, workers gain social status in their communities.
The RPL program, which evaluates the skills level of workers and issues government certification to workers who pass an assessment, has operated since 2014 as a pilot activity under the Skills and Training Enhancement Project (STEP). STEP aims to give more Bangladeshis the technical skills they need to compete successfully in domestic and international labor markets.
The demand for RPL certification has been enormous. Since its inception, RPL has assessed more than 9,000 applicants from all over Bangladesh. Every month, RPL offers 600 applicants certification trainings in electrical installation and maintenance; IT support; block, boutique and screen printing; sewing machine operation; tailoring and dress making; motorcycle servicing; plumbing; and welding.
The China sourcing conundrum
In conversations with U.S. and European retailers and brands, ELEVATE – a company formed in 2013 to support corporate social responsibility – finds that apparel buyers rate diversifying away from China as one of their top three sourcing goals.
This is not to suggest that there is a desire to exit China – which currently holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade, at 41 percent – but rather a need to significantly reduce dependence on product from China, owing to rising costs, factory closures, unenthusiastic second generation family ownership, new attitudes about working in factories, and a perception that China wants to move to higher-value manufacturing. Sourcing and procurement organizations feel uncertain, and uncertainty is not a friend of supply chains.
The problem is that for all its uncertainty, China still has a huge base of factories, a well-developed transport infrastructure, and a comprehensive eco-system that supplies cut-and-sew operations, and management that has matured with years of experience. Even if a buyer would like to give another country an opportunity, many corporate risk managers view certain countries or regions as quite challenging for doing business.
Stitches to Riches? The Potential of Apparel Manufacturing in South Asia
South Asia could seize this opportunity by better meeting requirements – besides competitive costs – that are vital to global buyers. These include: (i) quality, which is influenced by the raw materials used, skill level of the sewing machine operator, and thoroughness of the quality control team; (ii) lead time and reliability, which are greatly affected by the efficiency and availability of transportation networks and customs procedures; and (iii) social compliance and sustainability, which has become central to buyers’ sourcing decisions in response to pressure from corporate social responsibility campaigns by non-governmental organizations, compliance-conscious consumers, and, more recently, the increased number of safety incidents in apparel factories.
Surveys of global buyers show that East Asian apparel manufacturers rank well above South Asian firms along these key dimensions, as noted in a new World Bank report on apparel, jobs, trade, and economic development in South Asia, Stitches to Riches (see table). So, what can South Asia, which now accounts for only 12 percent of global apparel trade, do to become a bigger player? An encouraging recent development is that buyers have started collaborating to facilitate new sourcing possibilities – as the case of Bangladesh illustrates.
In Nepal, the Jagattradevi and Tulsibhanjyang areas of the Syangja District are rapidly emerging as leading producers of seed potatoes -- whole or parts of potatoes intended to be re-planted as seeds -- which have traditionally been imported, mostly from India, to meet growing local demand.
Importing seeds from India is costly and time consuming. Therefore, producing seeds domestically is not only a lucrative activity but also a necessity for Nepali farmers, who are also dedicated to growing high-quality seed potatoes.
The Irrigation and Water Resources Management Project (IWRMP) has helped kick start the sustainable production and supply of this important food and cash crop. Since 2008, IWRMP has benefitted about 1,100 households and contributed to improving agriculture productivity and management of selected irrigation schemes in Nepal.
A couple of months ago, I visited a few tertiary colleges affiliated with the National University in Bangladesh while preparing the College Education Development Project which aims to strengthen the strategic planning and management capacity of the college subsector and improve the teaching and learning environment of colleges. Almost two-thirds of all tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in these colleges, making them the largest provider of higher education in the country.
World Bank report on education in Bangladesh
A recent World Bank report estimates that around 1.6 million tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in around 1,700 government and non-government colleges affiliated under the National University. This piece of information underpins a huge economic opportunity in context with Bangladesh’s quest to become a middle-income country over the next few years. There is a strong demand for graduates with higher cognitive and non-cognitive skills and job-specific technical skills in the country. This requires an improvement in the quality and relevance of tertiary education to ensure graduates have more market relevant skills. The National University student enrolment size combined with its sheer number of colleges network all over the country make it the critical subsector for making a qualitative dent in the higher education system.