Civil society is the oxygen of world’s most vibrant and stable democracies. In these countries, governments, civil society and development partners work together to achieve common goals.

Today (September 15), as we observe the International Democracy Day with the theme ‘Space for Civil Society’ in Bhutan, the United Nations reaffirms its appreciation to the country’s growing civil society. As Bhutan’s democratic culture deepens, so the role of civil society will evolve. In a democracy, civil society can be a partner to complement the Government, but also to hold it accountable.

This year, the celebration for Democracy Day in Bhutan is being held at Samtse College of Education. The partnership behind the event between the Institute of GNH Studies at the Royal University of Bhutan, Election Commission of Bhutan, Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, and UNDP, is a symbol of creating space for civil society.

Globally, the role of civil society has never been more important than this year, as the world prepares to adopt a new development agenda, formulated to by all the world’s governments.

Addressing the Fourth World Conference of Speakers of Parliament, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon said that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 addresses democracy by calling for inclusive and participatory societies. He added that a ‘people-centred and planet-sensitive’ development could be achieved only if the states work in close partnership with civil society to implement and monitor SDGs.

This year’s theme is an important reminder that the hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, in his message on the International Democracy Day this year says, “As the United Nations continues to work towards a democratic, pluralistic future for all, the State and civil society can and should be partners in building the future people want.” He adds that the progress and civic participation go hand in hand. A confident nation gives citizens a role in development.

Bhutan is a relatively young democracy but, breathing life into the democratic foundation. For instance, the Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy started a project called Bhutan Speaks to create a youth platform to express their views on democracy. Through this online platform, hundreds of youths have been able to comment on various development issues such as unemployment and education. It is through such forums that governments can address critical social issues.

Today, Bhutan’s 47 Civil Society Organizations hold the potential for inclusive social progress and growth.

The role civil society can play to bridge the gap between the government and the population – especially at the grassroots level – is self-evident. Civil society can help express people’s concerns. Civil society can also use its knowledge and analysis of the situation as evidence for policy makers. To translate civil society’s experience into knowledge, analysis and evidence-gathering will be critical.

Bhutan’s civil society is naturally still developing, but it has important strengths. For instance, Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW), has a network of 2,700 volunteers around the country. For a population of just over 700,000, this is quite a significant group and resource. Civil society networks such as RENEW’s are source of support to people in Bhutan, as well as experts on the situation on the ground.

Soon, 193 United Nations Member States will embark on a new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) path which will determine the direction of global development efforts for the next 15 years. Goal 16 of the SDGs promotes, “Peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”, and this can only be brought about by a proactive civil society.

Strengthening our civil society will not only establish accountability in society, but also help represent the diverse interests of the minority and most vulnerable groups of society in a democratic Bhutan.

Christina Carlson, 

Resident Coordinator, UNDP