The Members of the European Parliament (MEP) delegation launched a Euro 2.5 million (M) European Union Programme to support civil society in Bhutan yesterday in Thimphu.

To be implemented by Helvetas, the project aims at improving the environment and operational capacity for civil society engagement in sustainable development and good governance by promoting an inclusive approach to strengthen civil society actors.

This project, according to Ambassador of European Union (EU) to Bhutan, Tomasz Kozlowski, who was also a part of the European Parliament delegation, is one of the first components under the three major agreements that the EU and Bhutan signed this year to honour the implementation of the Multi-annual Indicative Programme (MIP) 2014-2020.

Through the MIP, the EU assists Bhutan in its goal of achieving self-reliance and inclusive socio-economic development as identified in its 11th Five-Year Plan.

“We are supporting civil society and community based organisations because we think it is an important element of any democratic society,” Ambassador Kozlowski said. The project, which will cover all 20 dzongkhags is expected to benefit about 15,000 people, including poor and vulnerable group at the grassroots.

The other component is capacity development for local governments and fiscal decentralisation. “One of the objectives of your government is decentralisation of financial management and the empowerment of local governments,” the EU Ambassador told Kuensel. “That’s why we provided some financial resources to the government to promote fiscal decentralisation, capacity building for civil society and public finance management.”

The EU is also supporting sustainable agriculture and forestry. The ambassador said they provide resources for food security, employment capacities and climate related issues. “We provide some support for trade related issues to help Bhutan increase or boost its export capacities and help Bhutan in marketing its products abroad,” he said.

Including the new planned trade project for Euro 4M, the EU’s total support to Bhutan stands at Euro 48M.

Until 2014, the EU provided some assistance to Bhutan through specific projects in agriculture and education. “But we came into conclusion that the Bhutanese government has developed its own capacities, its own plans for social and economic development, we changed our approach and now we provide assistance directly to the government budget,” ambassador Tomasz Kozlowski said.

He said they are convinced that Bhutan has capacities and a strong political will to utilise their assistance in a proper way. “Our intentions concerning development cooperation and Bhutanese government’s plans coincide,” he said.

Ambassador Tomasz Kozlowski however said that their relationship with Bhutan is not limited to development cooperation. He said that Bhutan is a respected country with its own foreign policy and have a lot of similarities between the EU and Bhutan in certain fields like promotion of human rights and climate related issues.

Bhutan signed the Paris Agreement, which the Parliament recently ratified. At the end of 2015, the ambassador said that an agreement between EU and Bhutan for cooperation on issues related to climate change was signed. “Bhutan is successful in developing its policy of climate change and preservation of environment. That’s why Bhutan is a very good partner for us in such fields,” he said.

In 2014, Bhutan decided to contribute military officers to the UN peacekeeping operations. “This is again an issue on which we can cooperate, are cooperating and will continue to cooperate,” the ambassador said. “It means that in the international organisations and in the international arena, EU and Bhutan have very similar views on certain issues, that’s why we are cooperating. I would say we respect Bhutan’s support.”

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said the EU and Bhutan have enjoyed friendly relations since its establishment of diplomatic relations some 37 years ago. “Our relations have only grown from strength to strength because of the EU support. We have been able to establish democracy and that too at the grassroots level. Our local government is as vibrant as ever and effective,” Lyonchhen said during the reception hosted to celebrate “Europe Day” on May 24.

“But all other important trappings of democracy are growing in Bhutan. Be it with decentralisation or checks and balances between the three arms of the government or check and balances offered by the Constitutional bodies or indeed the vibrant media,” he said. “In all these, EU has played a part and I would like to thank you for it.”

While in Bhutan from May 23 to 26, the delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia participated in the 6th inter-parliamentary dialogue with the National Assembly. Delegation leader Jean Lambert said the visit has helped deepen the MEPs’ knowledge of the country, including political and social developments, assess and exchange views on cooperation between Bhutan and the EU and the impact of EU support to Bhutan.

Rinzin Wangchuk