Outgoing WFP Head of Office Svante Helms talks to Kuensel Editor Tshering Palden on his tenure in Bhutan, which began after WFP handed over the School Feeding Programme to the government in 2018, and future collaboration. Excerpts. 

WFP was supposed to phase out by 2018 end but it continued its support. What were the reasons?

When I arrived, we were looking into what role WFP could have, given that Bhutan is transitioning into a lower-middle-income country. WFP is also changing according to the needs of the country. After a lot of consultations with the government, we came up with three areas where we could work with the government. The first thing was to continue on the school nutrition programme. This includes everything from designing menus to training cooks to setting up digital monitoring systems and supporting healthy diets for school children and communities. Secondly, we took a stronger role in agriculture which is close to our mandate of reducing food insecurity. Thirdly, there was a high priority to build capacity in disaster risk reduction. These were areas where we could support Bhutan and we saw a programmatic role for WFP to continue working in the country. 

Could you elaborate on those three things that WFP is working on? 

We had a successful handover of school feeding and the government stepped up on the programme and increased the stipend by 50 percent. We continued supporting the construction and refurbishment of schools kitchens and stores. We are also working on developing a national campaign for improved healthy diets for school-aged children. 

With the education ministry, but also in collaboration with agriculture and health ministries, we are rolling out a digital platform called School Meal Planner (SMP) PLUS, which allows us to design nutritious menus based on a digital database of 3,500 types of food. We rolled it out in schools in five districts and the results were remarkable. The cost of school meals fell by 15 percent, the proportion of nutritious and local food increased, and there was import substitution by 20 percent. It will be rolled out to 102,000 school children under the National School Feeding and Nutrition Programme.  We are also exploring hospitals. It’s part of an overall transition that the Royal Government of Bhutan is working on with the Ministry of Agriculture leading on from what we call a supply to demand-driven agriculture. 

We have also mobilised USD 13 million for a project called Building Resilient Smallholder Commercial Agriculture (BRECSA) in partnership with Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and IFAD, which will help both production, linking farmers to markets and building resilience of farmers to factors like climate change. We also mobilised another fund from South Korea to look at accurate digital services – use digital platforms and digital agriculture to attract youth. This project will increase employment and income, and reduce food losses. It will also explore the possibility of exporting at least three products to South Korea.  

On disaster risk reduction, in partnership with the Department of Disaster Management we have worked with Durham and Newcastle Universities to design Earthquake Impact Assessment Modelling, which allows us to see the likelihood and the impacts if an earthquake hits Bhutan, on different scales. 

We just rolled out the first drone training last month for key institutions and development partners. Drones will give us a quick impact or recall impact analysis after a disaster, mainly in inaccessible areas. It can also be used for glacial lake monitoring among others.    

We’ve worked for two years on digitalising all information in terms of location of vulnerable groups, and distance to health station or a road. Instead of having them in an Excel sheet, they are now digitalised in GIS with maps showing different kinds of vulnerability layers. If we face a disaster, every 12 hours it can issue a report for each sector on what they need to do. We need a minimum level of preparedness so that a disaster doesn’t hit us very hard. That way we can bounce back faster and manage any kind of disaster.  

What were some of the challenges so far?

On the diet, it is very much part of national identity. This is difficult to change. I think it has to change gradually. If we introduce delicious and nutritious alternatives in schools, children will start building an appetite. Currently, we are in the process of developing a Social Behaviour Change Strategy for nutrition among school-aged children in partnership with the education ministry. We also have a children’s TV show focusing on healthy eating called Pinda’s Magic Bowl. We’re also developing a digital game-based platform called EduTrition, something like Pokemon GO, through which children learn about nutrition while burning calories. If you gamify learning, it becomes more interesting for children, and it is likely we will see more interest in nutrition and why nutrition is important. 


After the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine has caused issues in fundraising. Should we be concerned?  

It doesn’t affect us directly as of now, but it affects the country indirectly. For example, the country hasn’t been able to import fertilizers. WFP will be providing support. 

The UN assistance is expected to change after Bhutan moves out of the least developed country category. What about WFP?

We have a strong invite from the government to stay and as I elaborated earlier there are strong reasons to stay.

When I came, we were seven staff now we’re about 20 and we may increase to 25. We have a number of projects such as agriculture projects, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and nutrition. 

I think we just need to be a bit more creative in terms of funding sources. We can also look at private sector funding. It’s not easy, but there are ways there. I think there is a very strong programmatic need, for example, on disaster risk reduction and working with the government here, but also following through on all the good initiatives that the government has done in agriculture.

There are lots of bold and progressive thoughts in the agricultural sector, which we are supporting, both at the policy and resource mobilisation level. I’m just happy to leave the country confident that we have the right people here. We’re working with the right common partners in the right areas.


Reflecting back on your four years in Bhutan, how do you see it?

Every time Druk Air lands in Paro airport and I hear that music as I step out, I feel at home. The fact that I can look at the mountains and the temples and clear blue skies is just a big plus.  I’ve been hiking a lot here. I have also enjoyed the LIVE music here. My stay here has been enjoyable, both professionally and on a personal level. 

I will be working with the Food Systems Hub in Rome, which is supporting agricultural transformation. I’m trying to see if Bhutan can be a model country so I can continue supporting it. 


Anything else?

I’m grateful for the journey that I’ve been through, particularly with the government and my colleagues. We have a very strong partnership. I would like to continue this partnership because I feel that there is a strong bond between WFP and the Bhutanese people. This has been my mission over the past four years and I hope to see this partnership thrive.