Celebrating 15 years of diplomatic relations and more than 50 years of informal friendship between Bhutan and Australia on International Happiness Day, the fifth annual consultation between Bhutan and Australia was held in Thimphu on March 20.

At the consultation, the need to explore bilateral ties in vocational training institutes, women and gender issues, tourism, collaboration to address emerging challenges of environmental protection, water security and economic diversification were discussed.

Officials from both countries emphasised that the assistance in human resource development and development cooperation programme would continue to be the priority for the official donor agency of Australia in Bhutan.

Foreign ministry’s director general of bilateral affairs, Kesang Wangdi, who led the Bhutanese delegation said that Bhutan remains committed to further strengthen the relations for the mutual benefit of the two countries.

“As a landlocked country, high priority was given to human resource development. Bhutan immensely benefitted from Australia’s assistance in this area,” he said.

He said the collaboration in the development activities is an aspect of relationships and it needs to expand in areas such as economic relations, technology, and information communication technology.

Suggestions to address pressing issues like water security and environmental protection was welcome because the country’s economy is dependent on the sustainable but climate-sensitive sectors such as hydropower and agriculture.

Australia’s first assistant secretary for South and West Asia Division with Department of Foreign Affairs, Kathy Klugman, said that the relation between the two countries has reached the level where the development cooperation was important.

“That’s only one part to facilitate the much broader relationship and that’s a healthy way to build forward,” she said.

A press release from the Department of Bilateral affairs stated that the consultation reviewed the whole range of ongoing bilateral development cooperation programmes. “The two sides also agreed to align Australia’s assistance to Bhutan with the priorities of Bhutan’s 12th Plan.”

The consultation also expressed the need to document and review the ongoing development cooperation programmes pursued under the bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, the consultation was held at the point of time where the country faces the prospect of graduating from least developing country category and it highlighted the importance of support from international communities, particularly from development partners.

The LDC graduation assessment is based on three criteria of gross national income per capita, human assent index and economic vulnerability index.

Bhutan easily meets two of the three criteria but the economic vulnerability index remains a challenge.

The consultation also highlighted Australia’s contribution in fulfilling the second criterion of human assent index in LDC assessment through scholarship programmes and other human resources development programmes.

The visiting delegation reaffirmed Australia’s continued assistance for Bhutan’s socio-economic development post 11th FYP and come LDC graduation in 2021, according to the press release.

Kesang Wangdi said that graduation from LDC category was the important objective of achieving a goal of self-reliance.

Kathy Klugman said that Australia supports country’s maturity in approaching the prospect of LDC graduation to middle-income status and expressed its support in this endeavour through New York or through the bilateral relationships.

The annual bilateral consultation was an important forum to hold policy dialogue on issues of mutual interest in keeping with the memorandum of understanding signed between two countries on development cooperation in 2012.

The consultation was last held in Canberra, Australia, in April 2016.