Bhutan’s Development Journey – The Way Forward

The 14th Round Table Meeting (RTM), a public discourse forum for international development partners, government, policymakers, and civil society organizations, successfully concluded this week. Some 50 multilateral and bilateral agencies congregated in the capital to delve deeper into Bhutan’s development process, reflect on the successes and challenges, and craft the way forward.

The meeting of diverse minds, comprising an eclectic group of development and policy experts, has further deepened intellectual discourse on Bhutan’s unique development paradigm based on Gross National Happiness (GNH). The meeting was also timely as Bhutan prepares to graduate from the category of the Least Developed Country (LDC) by 2023.

The transition from LDC to a middle-income category would present both challenges and opportunities. On one hand, it would mean a massive decline in foreign aid and donor money that currently funds a vast majority of Bhutan’s development programs. But this, on the other hand, also means that we have the opportunity to be more independent, more self-reliant, and more resilient.

Bhutan is at a critical threshold in its development journey, with close to six decades of development and with over hundred years of farsighted leadership of the Wangchuck Dynasty behind us. Within this short period, Bhutan has transformed itself from a medieval to a modern nation state. And the fact that Bhutan is transitioning to a middle-income country is a significant milestone, a culmination of the efforts of all these years, the leadership of our Kings and the political governments in recent years.

But there is still a long way to go. And the journey will only get more difficult and challenging. It is going to be an uphill task.

However, the uncertainty of change and the enormity of the challenges should not worry us. Not now. For we have taken the biggest leap of faith when we transitioned from absolute Monarchy to a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. The initial fears and doubts have given way to more confidence. Today we are more poised, even as democracy is a work-in-progress.

The way forward is quite simple although it is easier said than done. Bhutan must work towards building a robust economy. Currently, hydropower and tourism are the central pillars of Bhutan’s economy. We have made huge investments particularly in hydropower development and perhaps this has created an imbalance in investments in other areas. Diversification of our economy must be prioritized over the next decade with renewed focus on agriculture, small and medium enterprises, and private sector development.

The alarming rate of unemployment among Bhutan’s young population must be a huge concern, enough to drive the government and policymakers to come up with creative solutions and opportunities. An explosion of frustration among the unemployed youth could result in contagious social illness and crimes. We are already witnessing the patterns of social discord among our young. And it is only a matter of time when it would reach a tipping point. By then it would be quite late.

 We have to really step up our efforts to be able to navigate the uncertain vagaries of our development journey. For that, we need political vision combined with will, commitment and leadership. At the same time, it must be accompanied by a radical change in our mindset and attitude. We can’t progress with our laidback, complacent mindset and attitude. In a few years, the donors will be leaving. They have done their part. It is time for us to do ours now. It’s time to get rid of the donor dependency syndrome.