The process of graduating from the group of least developed countries (LDC) is about concern for the future as basic aspirations remain yet to be fulfilled.

In this context, the UNDP Administrator and UN Under-Secretary General, Achim Steiner who is in the country to co-chair the 14th Round Table meeting said,  “graduation in development context is to some extent an arbitrary milestone.”

As a close follower of Bhutan, he said the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) emerged at a time when the simplistic measure of development based on GDP and wealth accumulation did not create happiness. “Bhutan’s journey is an extraordinary one,” he said.

Having met the graduation criteria for the first time at the triennial review in 2015, Bhutan met the criteria again in March 2018, making it eligible to be recommended for graduation by the UN Committee for Development Policy (CDP).

The assessment is based on three criteria – gross national income (GNI) per capita, human assent index (HAI) and economic vulnerability index (EVI). While Bhutan easily met two of the three criteria, economic vulnerability index remain a challenges. Bhutan’s GNI per capita is USD 2,277 and the HAI score improved from 45 in 2000 to 67.9.

The UN Under-Secretary General said that economic vulnerability depends on a number of factors such as international community and natural disaster. As the country graduates, he said vulnerabilities lessen and resilience grows.

“This should not be a reason to withdraw but to forge new partnerships and RTM would lay foundation for such conversation,” he said.

Highlighting the achievements Bhutan made such as tripling of GDP in 10 years, progresses on the literacy rate, poverty and healthcare indices, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said these have been possible with the support of developing partners.

“But a deeper dive into this transition is making me more worried. We have to be strategic during this last-mile ride, because we consistently qualified only with the social indices and never on the economic vulnerability front. By this, we risk being a very poor country behaving like a rich one,” he said.

However, he said the government is passionate about uplifting the poor and keeping the vulnerable out of poverty. While the country proudly rides on the success of primary health care, he said budgetary allotment to health sector is only three percent of the total outlay.

The government, he said is willing to invest in wholesome development, emotional wellbeing, and resilience of children and young people as more than half of the population is under the age of 27. “We need to understand this and be able to take advantage of this potential,” he said.

However, he said, Bhutan’s fertility rate is 1.9 and projected to further decease to 1.7 by 2020. “With rapidly decreasing fertility rate, increasing life expectancy and increasing youth unemployment in a small nation of just 0.8 million population, I really doubt if we are on the right track,” he said adding that if appropriate interventions were not put in place, the little that the country earns from hydropower would not be enough to support the unemployed and aging population.

The government, Lyonchhen announced would extend the 1,000 golden days programme so that every child, from the time of conception to attending his or her school is closely monitored by the government.

“Only then can we be confident of the future of this nation,” he said. “Without fulfilling the basic needs of the people, I cannot understand the reason behind the graduation. The nation must progress along with the people.”

Bhutan’s gini co-efficient index has increased from 0.35 to 0.38 in the last 10 years. The concern, he said is not just the widening income gap but its coincidence with 10 years of democracy. “So, it is time to ask – are the politically elected government doing things differently?” he said.

On Bhutan’s status on the sustainable development goals, Achim Stiner said that macro data are remarkable. “It shows that Bhutan is not only taking SDG seriously but also implementing it,” he said. “The UN was and is committed and will continue to work alongside Bhutan, not just till graduation but further,” he said.

However, he said that challenges are not easy to address, climate change being the most dangerous. Even as the country sits proudly as the only carbon negative country, he said addressing climate change is on a road to disaster despite the Paris agreement.

“Its not because the nations have not committed but because the follow through is simply inadequate,” he said. “It’s not technology, politics or economics but time is the greatest enemy on the climate front.”

Tshering Dorji