COP 28 has highlighted the struggles of smaller nations like Bhutan in expressing their perspectives in vital negotiations. Diplomatic involvement in global forums is pivotal for Bhutan’s security and sovereignty, but it encounters hurdles not just in expertise but also in representation. The Ministry of Finance’s hesitancy to allocate funds for the Bhutanese delegation’s forces’ dependence on external sponsors may jeopardize our participation in international summits and tarnish our reputation due to last-minute fund acquisitions, affecting the preparatory process. COP28 is a good example with almost every delegate seeking donors for their  attendance at COP28 

The current foreign travel allowances, unchanged since the 1990s, fail to keep pace with inflation rates, rendering them grossly insufficient. Interestingly, on the contrary, salary hikes and domestic travel have been revised numerous times in recent years to bridge the gap with rising inflation. The foreign allowance which was sufficient in the 1990s to cover decent accommodation, meals and local transportation can’t even secure decent accommodation today. The current foreign travel allowances are disproportionately meagre, contributing to an inherent sense of inferiority at international forums. The inadequacy of funds compels delegations to seek shelter in the residences of Bhutanese embassies, and well-wishers, or opt for Airbnb when there is no Bhutanese ambassies. 

Contrary to the misconception that Bhutanese officials make tons of money by attending international conferences, the reality is starkly different, particularly when funded by the government. For instance, students studying in the United States receive a monthly stipend of USD 1050, an amount that falls short of covering even basic accommodation, let alone meals, transportation, and utility bills. The situation is equally exacerbated during international meetings, such as this COP, where the daily allowance for Bhutanese delegations is a mere USD 200, inadequate to meet the exorbitant hotel charges, in places like Dubai forcing the delegates including senior officers to Airbnb and having to take rice and other groceries from Bhutan to save costs.  Many use personal savings to cover the cost. The faraway places from meeting venues also mean a loss of time for the delegates to discuss and prepare for the meeting, as well as the safety of our delegates. Due to such reasons, most countries and international organizations ensure that the accommodations of their delegates are provided in the same place as the meeting.

A viable solution is to issue international credit cards to embassies or agencies solely to be used for such important events. This would empower them to directly book accommodations in reputable hotels or rent apartments in case students well in advance, reducing unnecessary last-minute costs and providing modest amounts for incidental expenses to cover meals and health emergencies. This will alleviate the logistical burdens of arranging accommodation for the delegates. This will also help the delegates to focus on active participation uphold dignity in international forums and ensure a seamless, efficient, and transparent process. It will also serve as a preventive measure against the misuse of the country’s hard currency. While Bhutan may not rival the wealth of other nations, strategic diplomacy remains indispensable for safeguarding national interests.

The government urgently needs to re-evaluate and adjust foreign travel allowances, aligning them with the current economic landscape. Tailoring allowances based on the costs in each country and each city is essential to meet rising expenses to ensure effective representation at global forums and enhance sovereignty and reputation internationally.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.