SAPLING Learning Corps: Capacity Building for Youth in Bangladesh


In September 2015, USAID (United  States Agency for International Development) awarded Helen Keller International (HKI) a cooperative agreement to lead the Development Food Security Activity (DFSA) Sustainable Agriculture and Production Linked to Improved Nutrition Status, Resilience, and Gender Equity (SAPLING)Under this five-year program, HKI, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Caritas Bangladesh and three local implementing partners work in partnership with individuals, communities, traditional institutions and the Government of Bangladesh to apply a multi-sectoral, integrated approach to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition in 48,000 households within 5 sub-districts of the Bandarban District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

The Chittagong Hill Tracts is in south-eastern Bangladesh. Bandarban District is one of three districts within CHT. Topographically, the Hill Tracts are the only extensively hilly area in Bangladesh. Compared to other regions of Bangladesh, the region is under developed according to measures of infrastructure, education and poverty. The underdevelopment of the Region has led to limited opportunities for Jobs/ Professional growth within CHT due to a reduced literacy rate, and limited infrastructure such as electricity and communication systems.

(photo credit Hellen Keller International)

It is in this environment that the, Learning Corps, one of SAPLING’s local capacity building initiatives operates. The Learning Corps is a professional career development program founded on the principles of “on the job” training and mentoring. The program has been designed to build local capacity by helping underemployed youth to develop relevant career skills, enabling them to professionally contribute to the sustainable development of the CHT region. Program participants are youth aged 19 to 29 who have graduated high school, dropped out of university or graduated from any of the five sub-districts in which SAPLING operates. After a thorough selection process, those nominated are awarded fellowships to practice “learning by doing” within SAPLING and are known as “fellows”. Each Learning Corps fellow gains experience through on-job training in specific area such as Disaster Risk Reduction, Gender, Monitoring and Evaluation, Finance and administration, Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Savings and Internal Lending in Communities (SILC) etc.. They are also coached and mentored by experienced SAPLING supervisors from HKI, CRS or Caritas. SAPLING Learning Corps fellowships offer a monthly stipend of $120, and are awarded for a duration of 6-12 months, depending on the sector/ area to which the fellow is assigned.

CRS as a strategic lead for Local Capacity building has conceptualized the process on SAPLING Learning Corps and brought in learning from CRS to the consortium on tools for staff interviews, staff orientation and onboarding, reflection sessions, development planning, structured coachings and session exit interviews. CRS worked with the Human Resources teams of HKI and Caritas Bangladesh, ensure there is a common process which is aligned to each organization’s policies and procedures. A Learning Corps coordinator was recruited by HKI to oversee the Learning corps program who is functionally supervised, coached and mentored by a CRS Advisor.

(photo credit Hellen Keller International)

To date 3 diverse cohorts of the Learning Corps have been recruited with a total of 65 fellows (34 Males, 31 Females) representing 10 ethnic communities. The first cohort of 24 Learning Corps Fellows have graduated the program and the other two cohorts will complete the course in 2019. A total of 17 fellows have been hired to work with international NGOs such as, BDRC, UNICEF, IOM; and as school teachers. They have acknowledged the experience they received through hands on job training, exposure to work via different trainings and visits to communities to support the trainings as a large part of their professional development. A recent Mid- Term evaluation by Technical Assistance to NGOs (TANGO) termed the intervention as a “Life changing impact”.

The Learning Corps is a professional career development opportunity for young people from the CHT in need of job experience. These young people benefit from the on-the-job experience that they acquire and they are also specifically mentored by an individual SAPLING staff member. While acquiring experience, the fellows also provide useful support for the program. A total of 64 Learning Corps Fellows have been recruited with 24 of these completing their one-year period of engagement.  Over half of these graduated Learning Corps Fellows have obtained jobs, at least in part because of the experience acquired in SAPLING. This is good life-changing impact. Although the numbers are small, the activity seems to be at an appropriate scale given the resources available.                                                                                                       - TANGO Mid-Term Evaluation Report

Article by: Mehul Savla, CRS Bangladesh