Delivering a digital economy for Bhutan

Bhutan has had to adapt very quickly

The Covid-19 pandemic required us to make many changes in our lives – more significant of these being able to move education online and through TV, get civil servants and the private sector employees to work from home, and develop Covid-19 dashboard in a matter of weeks to monitor the on-ground situation. The urgency and the efforts needed to deliver these successfully underline the importance of digital technologies for countries like Bhutan.

The benefit of adopting digital to an economy is well established.

The World Bank found that a 10 percent increase in penetration of broadband services in developing countries provides a increase in growth of 1.38 percent in GDP per capita. A study by MIT on the financial and social impact of mobile-money services in Kenya found that Kenyans are saving more (as much as an additional 22 percent) and managing financial uncertainties better leading in reduction in poverty. Digital solutions have created new industries (e.g. sharing economy), transformed existing industries (e.g. e-commerce & driverless cars), and enabled individuals and companies to reduce costs, improve services and achieve growth by providing access to markets beyond their borders.

Bhutan can also reap digital dividends. Our experience with Covid-19 indicate that we should accelerate our investments into digital technologies. Digital is doubly important for Bhutan for three reasons: Firstly, we have a limited talent pool, and digital is critical to scaling our skills, knowledge and capabilities. Secondly, digital should encourage innovation in our economy while enabling our businesses to participate in the global market. Lastly, investing in digital means that we start addressing the structural problem of our economy – over-reliance on certain sectors and still maturing private sector – and benefit from productivity and economic gains in the long term.

Opportunities abound for us across both private and the public sectors. For instance, we can use digital solutions for collaborative content delivery and management – readily available to every child, teacher and school in Bhutan. Patients can use online channels and mobile health solutions to consult with health workers and access healthcare, reducing stress on the our health system. There is a gap in the market for an app or portal that can disseminate education and information on healthy living and wellness. Within financial services, the existing banking apps can be further enhanced to help individuals manage their day to day finances and encourage good financial behaviours.

Bhutan is in a good position to start focusing on digital technologies. As of December 2019, the internet and mobile penetrations stand at an impressive 110.4 percent and 98.3 percent respectively. Most of us comfortably use platforms such as Facebook and messaging apps such as Wechat and WhatsApp. We also use the online portal provided by the Royal Government for services. While these trends are promising, this is far too short of having an economy fully enabled by digital.

His Majesty The King during the 112th National Day address highlighted the need for Bhutan to recalibrate our economy and create opportunities in emerging technologies. To start this journey, the government has embarked on a programme of initiatives called as Digital Drukyul (budget of Nu. 2.5bn) with a focus on public services, education and health.  To complement this important initiative, I believe that there are five specific and important areas we need to take up immediately.

1. Draft and commit to a digital vision and blueprint for Bhutan. There is a need to review and revise the existing 2009 Bhutan Information and Communications Technology Policy and Strategies.

2. Expand current initiatives to build ICT infrastructure across the country to improve connectivity for all individuals and businesses, and enable new technologies such as automation, distributed ledgers, digital identity and e-commerce.

3. Implement a strategy for improving digital literacy and skills by embedding digital curriculum within schools and higher educational institutions. For adult out-of-school population, implement programmes to train in ICT skills through training institutes, coding schools and community programmes.

4. Encourage and incentivise the private sector to invest in digital and innovate by providing opportunities in flagship public sector programmes, and commit funds to support technology startups and companies to invest into appropriate digital technologies.

5. Finally, as we develop our roadmap for 21st century economy, recognise digital and technology as foundational enabler for building a robust and an innovative economy.

Addressing these areas will demonstrate our commitment through clear articulation of our digital ambitions and strategies for good ICT infrastructure, pipeline for digital talent and a more vibrant private sector.  Digital transformation of our economy will not be easy but it is a necessary step for Bhutan to remain relevant and succeed in the fast-paced world.

Contributed by

Dorji Wangchuk

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