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From painful realities to exciting solutions

Most of us think of history as a period of times gone by… of events described in books. On November 4, as we listened to the Royal address from the Golden Throne, we came to understand that such a phenomenon is not just timeless – and it is not academic. It is very real. It is now. It is very personal. 

His Majesty looks at the bare truth of Bhutanese life and translates personal observations into national vision. The predicament of a 27-year old mother raising a four-year old son in Thimphu, and of youth drawn by the prospects of urban Bhutan pooling everything they earn to make ends meet are painfully real. And yet they are mere symptoms of a society suffering the consequences of a limited horizon. His Majesty The King advises us to ask important questions, confront realities, and dare to be different today. 

The Royal address provides a perspective of the Bhutanese narrative. Why the urgency of the “transformation” process to find new direction and pace in nation building? Because an entire system of governance, from the functioning of its structure, its planning and activities, and outcome, is failing. While a population of 700,000 people should be easier to govern with efficiency we are reminded of the ineptitude of committees, commissions, boards, the inadequacy of education, futility of training and exposure, and a work culture marked by complacency and malaise.  

One resounding message in the Royal address was that we must confront reality and face the truth. For example, our national economy is not flourishing. The expectations of abundant revenue from hydropower – what was once perceived as white gold – feels like a broken promise. With major projects stalled, after massive investments, the hydro power potential has deteriorated into a huge debt burden. 

And the rhetoric, “the private sector will drive the economy”. Some of us expected that trade will spur growth. But the magnitude of trade in Bhutan is limited to the import of consumer goods, including essentials, from the region for sale in the domestic market. With low productivity in agriculture and industry, our exports are non-competitive so Bhutan has become an import driven consumer economy with a negative balance of trade.  

A weak economy does not accommodate vibrant technology or encourage higher skills development. This suppresses opportunity and growth because there is no demand from the economy to support higher learning and skills. Therefore wages, instead of rising with the times, are low, and Bhutanese youth are seeking livelihood in more than 100 countries. 

His Majesty has reminded parliament, government, and Bhutanese people that capital investments – infrastructure for people’s development – are funded with loans and grants. If Bhutan remains a donor dependent and debt-ridden country we will continue to be vulnerable and fragile. 

The Point of  Inflection

Bhutan is at a point of inflection, more out of necessity than choice. And the time is now. Decisions and action cannot be left for the future.

We know what is wrong. Yet we need to be reminded that the Bhutanese system has a major problem with operating efficiency, with significant resource wastage and leakage. His Majesty pointed out that it takes five people to do one person’s work, it costs two or three times as much, and takes two or three times longer than it should. If this inertia is not radically transformed the future, our children, are at risk. 

It is disturbing and embarrassing for officialdom, entrusted with governance, to receive such reminders from the Throne. Although His Majesty advised that there is no need for shame and regret, we cannot take comfort in the fact that we are still in a better space than countries where people do not even worry or care, where they do not take ownership, where they hesitate to raise issues – thereby leaving problems unaddressed.  

As Bhutanese, we claim to be different. The times are different and we face new problems, with greater risks. We need to deal with circumstances that are changing every day. On this crossroad, we cannot afford to take the wrong turn. Just as a small decision in the right direction will take us a long way, a small mistake will be a major disaster. 

We acknowledge that we have tried and failed. We learn from the past and try again. This time, we do so with the condition that failure is not an option. We need to muster the clarity and momentum to identify our challenges and solutions. We must understand the nature and magnitude of our task.

Our national goals have not changed. The objective is to fulfill the aspirations of our people – to ensure a sovereign and secure nation with a prosperous and happy population. 

Are we ready? Of course, we are. If we do not have the confidence, we will never be ready. There are people who prefer to avoid risks, to adopt a gradual and comfortable pace. But that does not work when we take on reform on this scale. We are talking about transforming a nation.

Will we succeed? Of course, we will succeed. We will succeed because we are not following a blind path. We are asking, why are we doing it? What is our goal and vision? What is the purpose? Who is it for? 

We are revolutionising the system to improve lives and future for our children. They will not survive without the skills and competencies necessary for the 21st century. We must elevate the competency and salaries of our work force to global standards. This is the opportunity to correct our course with a new approach. Such opportunities will not come again and that is why the current transformation process is a serious commitment to our children and to the future.

Are we being too idealistic? No. In fact, we are not being ambitious enough. A small landlocked mountainous country sandwiched between India and China – with incalculable change sweeping the world – can only survive and thrive if we attain our goal of being exceptional. The intention is noble. The goal is high. The resolve is earnest. Our achievements must be as extraordinary as we claim to be.

The Era

His Majesty outlined three conditions for transformation to succeed: adequate funding and resources; sustained efforts to transform and institutionalise good governance practices; and changing behaviour and mindset of the people, this being the most difficult. 

This new era emerges 16 years after His Majesty The King ascended the Throne. We have ignored guidance and been deaf to advice that we have heard year after year. The inertia is now being reversed with initiatives to reform and transform the system through a focus driven effort and strategic direction. Transition does not just happen, and transformation is never easy. It is a difficult decision to initiate a process which is guaranteed to invite both supporters and skeptics. 

That’s why the importance of solidarity and leadership. His Majesty commended the government’s fearless and wholehearted service through the Covid-19 pandemic and the process of transformation. While democratically elected governments are known to postpone unpopular decisions when elections are around the corner, our government has recognised the importance and urgency of transformation. The National Assembly members took ownership, the National Council provided valuable inputs, and the opposition shared solidarity through the two and half years of the crisis. The bureaucracy, with its influence and reach, worked without rest through a period when all of us felt the turbulence, alarm, and stress. 

His Majesty The King places his trust, most of all, on the people who have the mandate of being responsible citizens of a democracy. The Bhutanese people have exceptional spirituality, compassion, kindness but the future demands that we work harder, be alert, and exceptionally skillful. For this we draw on the Bhutanese strength in damtshi, the filial piety and fidelity of a closely knit society. 

The Transformation

On the timeline of the transformation process, there are three contexts. What is already visible is the RCSC reforms pushing focus, concern, responsibility, accountability. Timely interventions are aimed at making the bureaucracy transparent and efficient. Civil servants are more conscious, showing concern. There are new faces emerging in the bureaucracy. His Majesty clarified that the purpose is not to just replace older public servants with younger people, but to prioritise merit and competence over seniority. We know only too well that seniority is too often interpreted as age and years of service, thereby appointing wrong people in wrong positions.  

As examples of a new work culture, we see the Election Commission of Bhutan setting higher standards for elected officials. His Majesty Drukgyal Zhipa had commanded that we build a strong democracy to serve our people far into the future. Fifteen years later, the ECB is showing the spirit of the transformation process. The Royal Monetary Authority penalised the Bank of Bhutan for going offline, another sign of accountability being taken seriously. BOB is also required to draw up a business continuity plan. It goes without saying that ECB and RMA are themselves expected to function with the same integrity.

These remind us of the tourism industry’s Sustainable Development Fee, which was not revised for 30 years, and now forces the government to grapple with complications that could have been avoided with more thoughtful and consistent attention in the past. 

At another level, His Majesty pointed out that the impact of cultural, structural, and economic changes will take longer to emerge. But again, we do not wait for changes to take place. This is the mandate for today’s generation of Bhutanese. Short term goals by politicians and the complacency of the bureaucracy have been leading us astray. Let us not waste the healthy jolt that public servants are being given with the reform process.

But overall, today’s transformation is not a process of change that will come to an end. Transformation is the constant motion of showing resilience, switching gears, being nimble, advancing forward. Change does not happen once every decade or two – change is a perpetual motion to keep us ahead – to keep us safe and secure so that our people enjoy the best quality of life. In that sense we do not transform to reach a stage called GNH and stop. Transformation itself is a goal. 

But we have known all this. Why will it work this time?

His Majesty The King called out directly to 27-year old Karma Dechen, a mother living in modern Bhutan. Karma Dechen’s real and practical dilemma is ubiquitous to all Bhutanese citizens, particularly youth in the early stages of their careers. We all heard and felt the call. His Majesty assured Karma Dechen – and therefore all Bhutanese citizens – that our problems are not unknown. 

The State and government will do their part to provide opportunities and incentives. The people must do their part by making use of these opportunities and becoming exceptionally capable citizens. The vital change from our past attitudes is that we do not sit and wait for kidu. We roll up our sleeves and get to work. 

It is profoundly reassuring. It is intimately personal. And it is deeply emotional. It is a call for all of us to Believe. 

Contributed by 

Dasho Kinley Dorji