Bangladesh ranks fourth in the ladder of international garment exporters, accumulating US$13.2bn in export revenues in the period July 2010 to March 2011, according to official figures.

But the industry is even more important to the country than that may make it seem: that $13.2bn figure accounts for about 80% of Bangladesh's total exports, with 5m people employed across the country.

A new EUR4m programme, funded mainly by the European Union and partly by Norwegian agency NORAD, and implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), aims to build on that huge importance to forge a stronger, more diverse industry for tomorrow.

The Better Work in Textiles and Garments (BWTG) initiative is now in its implementation phase, and it's clear from information supplied to just-style that its aims are ambitious and wide-ranging.

The contention from the agencies involved and from the Bangladeshi government is that the country's garment industry is still far too reliant on selling mid- to low-end products, while issues of product quality mean that rejection rates are relatively high.

Furthermore, it is suggested, Bangladesh suffers from an inability to cope with the demands of the modern, high-speed apparel industry, where fewer, more frequent orders and short lead times are the name of the game.

As the identity of the main funding partner suggests, the EU markets are a key target for the initiative, which lists among its aims an improvement to product quality, better productivity, adding value to the product mix and providing better employment prospects for Bangladeshi workers.

The programme has detected a shortage in the number of better-qualified workers in skilled and executive positions, meaning that Bangladesh is overly reliant on employing foreign staff to fill its skills gap.

To that end, five textile colleges and six training institutes are being set up, with the aim of training 1,000 qualified managers and supervisors, as well as 5,000 designers and technicians.

But improving the quality of work done in the country's many textile and garment factories, as well as the employment prospects and working conditions of local staff, is only part of the wide-ranging programme's ambit.

By the end of the initiative in 2014, the aim is for 20% of companies to be able to deal directly with international buyers, offering fast response services and/or creating new products or their own brands, rather than relying on outside help.

This new spirit of independence is also viewed as crucial for an industry which has so far been selling its wares almost exclusively through third-party agents and middlemen.

Now that approach will, it is hoped, be slowly replaced by giving Bangladeshi companies greater involvement in direct negotiations over contracts and product development.

The programme adds up to a comprehensive strategy to rejuvenate and help expand Bangladesh's garment industry, in itself recognition of the crucial role that the sector plays in the future prosperity of the country as a whole.

If its aims are achieved, particularly in the area of training and employee development, then BWTG will help to build a bigger, more efficient and more competitive industry, based squarely on Bangladesh's number one resource: the country's huge workforce.