Bhutan’s pandemic success story deserves to be shared with the world

Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator & Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Kanni Wignaraja talks to Kuensel about her recent virtual visit to Bhutan from March 8-17

You have visited Bhutan twice before. This is your third visit, albeit virtually. What brought you to the country this time?

I have such special memories from my last visit to the country. That was many years ago. I very much wanted to be there in person again, but Covid-19 put an end to those plans. So, I decided I must still visit, even if virtually.

My agenda was focused first and foremost on how people are doing in these challenging times and how UNDP can continue to support the national efforts in Bhutan, to manage and recover from this pandemic. In my many meetings with senior leadership, we discussed the immediate pandemic response, the socio-economic recovery plan that follows, climate action and preparations for the global climate meeting (COP26) later this year, investments in young people who are the future of this country, and the graduation pathway from LDC status.  We also talked about the 50th anniversary of the UN’s presence in Bhutan. The long-standing trust and partnership the country has had with the UN and with UNDP was ever-present in our conversations.

What are the key outcomes of this visit?

Every conversation I had was an open exchange of ideas and experience. One learns so much more about a country’s DNA through the voices of people than any books and briefs. I found the sessions with the Prime Minister, Ministers and the Governor of the Royal Monetary Authority very telling of the people-centred vision for the development of the country. Sometimes we use words such as ‘sustainability’ very easily, without truly asking what it means for the lives of people, for the protection of our planet. I found that these questions are being asked, in very fundamental ways with regards to future progress for the country. And I was pleased to note that the ‘Reimagining Bhutan’ Conversation Series by UNDP and Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy has contributed to this national policy debate. We are committed to continuing to support the government and people of Bhutan in recovery from the pandemic and achieving the SDGs.

The partnership between Bhutan and UNDP has evolved over the years. How would you describe it and where do you see it heading in the next 10 years?

UNDP deeply values our long-term partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan. We acknowledge the significant progress achieved by the country. According to our human development report, the human development index value in Bhutan has increased by 25 per cent between 2005 and 2019. The life expectancy at birth increased from 65 to 71 years. Expected years of schooling increased from 9 to 13 years. We are proud that we have been supporting the Government in these areas over the years.

This does not mean that all is well and that there can be complacency. Our main objective is to prevent significant development setbacks that could result from the pandemic, and from rapid climate change. A significant investment on our part will be in innovations – bringing new ideas, knowledge, systems transformation and technologies – that will support the transformation of the country’s public institutions, development financing arrangements, youth capabilities and enterprises.

Bhutan is experiencing the impacts of climate change firsthand. Where does UNDP’s partnership with Bhutan sit in the context of climate action?

Let me take this opportunity to commend Bhutan’s extraordinary climate leadership and commitment to an even greener recovery. This year, Bhutan will submit its 2nd Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) with enhanced actions aimed at reducing emissions from the agriculture, industry, human settlement, and transport sectors. Early studies suggest a need for substantive investments in greening the transport and manufacturing sectors if Bhutan is to remain carbon negative. UNDP is supporting the country with its NDC ambitions. Bhutan will need to attract blended financing, leveraging its domestic resources and existing international funds to successfully implement the country’s enhanced NDCs. Another area of support will be to build further on the data and data analytic capabilities that must underpin clear and well-targeted climate actions. The UN Country team, including UNDP, supports various aspects of the data pool and diagnostics required.

Any thoughts on the way Bhutan handled the Covid-19 pandemic? What lessons can the world learn from Bhutan and vice versa?

I congratulate the Royal government on its model Covid-19 response under the leadership of His Majesty The King. Bhutan’s pandemic success story deserves to be shared with the world. There are lessons to be learnt. One of them is how important it is to have a reliable and viable national response plan ready ahead of a disaster. In Bhutan, the government was able to act strategically and effectively immediately following early warnings. This prevented the rapid spread of the virus. Then, there was efficient testing, tracing, sanitiser and PPE distribution, and effective quarantining. And people trusted their leadership to make the right decisions at the right times. And it was a remarkable result.

UNDP provided the government with support in terms of technology solutions for contact tracing and real-time data analysis, procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Inclusive Covid-19 risk communications and advocacy. Bhutan’s cooperation with the COVAX Facility, and the goal of a nationwide universal immunization campaign so all Bhutanese will be vaccinated, within a short period of time, is exemplary.

As Bhutan recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, what is UNDP doing to support greener, resilient, and sustainable recovery?

We wish to support the country to be future-ready, and while this future is certainly more uncertain given these shocks, it is also one where a Young Bhutan can thrive, as it makes the right policy and investment choices. Let me pick three issues I discussed in depth:

• Universal and affordable access to the internet will shape the future of work for young people. This will help enhance access to digital learning and skills, ramp-up digital finance and ensure safety and public information sharing needed for preparedness. High-speed internet is a high-value currency.

• Investing in human capability also means new social protection regimes. Social protection, if seen as an investment in human capital and well-being, means standing-up a viable social protection infrastructure for all.

• Transitioning to renewable energy and greener technologies must be accelerated; and with it Bhutan’s ability to attract more climate financing, private venture capital and impact investment.

All this, while keeping in mind the context of Bhutan’s LDC graduation process, and the adjustments that must come with that. UNDP will be there and is privileged to accompany Bhutan in the various phases of its journey.

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