International Citizen Service – Entrepreneur brings together young people from around the world to work on projects to improve livelihood opportunities for young people in some of the poorest parts of the world. Here in Bangladesh, we are working as part of VSO’s Women and Youth Entrepreneur Development programme to develop micro-enterprises to reduce unemployment in this demographic. VSO Bangladesh operates a ‘model village’ approach, working to improve life for a community across a range of projects to inspire other communities to follow suit. Our project is just one of a number that VSO and other development organisations are working on in this part of Bangladesh.
Our particular focus is two-fold. Firstly, we are working to create two profitable micro-enterprises to reduce unemployment, particularly for young women. The unemployment rate here is about 35% but is even higher for women, for whom there are very few opportunities. Secondly, we are working alongside two local ‘Youth Clubs’, young volunteers from the community, to build their institutional capacity to continue our work after the ICSE project has finished. The Youth Clubs are relatively new to this community, operating for only the last two or three years, so are inexperienced and in need of a lot of support to make them effective. Our primary tool for this is the Community Action Day – working with the Youth Clubs to address various issues in the community, from providing blood grouping to English classes, to raising awareness of environmental issues. We are the second of three twelve-week ICSE cycles on this pilot scheme; by the end of third cycle in July 2015, the two businesses should be up and running. Our focus is on developing the skills of the two selected entrepreneurs and a pool of workers, as well as formulating business and production plans so that production can start on the third cycle.
So far, so straightforward, right?
Except this is Bangladesh, where ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’ and tomorrow doesn’t always seem to mean tomorrow! Life here just has a different pace to back home; there’s a different sense of time and urgency. We tend to see things through the prism of our twelve-week cycle, especially as twelve weeks quickly become nine once you take out time for training, reviews and debriefs: we need to achieve this by that date, what’s our impact going to be? For the community, there are no such deadlines. This is meant to be a sustainable and lasting project so what does it matter if it’s done this week or next, tomorrow or the following day?
Our focus for the next couple of weeks is identifying which handicrafts the two enterprises will produce. But first, it appears that there was an incident involving one of the entrepreneurs at the end of the first cycle so we are now trying to understand what happened and select another entrepreneur. It’s a slightly strange concept, selecting someone to run a business as well as what that business is going to do; I’m still skeptical about whether the ‘entrepreneurs’ will have what it takes to run a successful business but I guess we will see how things develop over the coming weeks. We’ve not had a chance to have a proper discussion with the entrepreneurs yet so it’s difficult to assess their motivation. But this is my first experience of development work so it’s all new to me. I’m excited about the potential of the project; I guess I’m just trying to be realistic about what’s achievable in the short time we are here and within the framework of the local culture. It’s a great challenge to be involved in!