Bhutan on track to achieve most SDGs 

Yangyel Lhaden

The Covid-19 pandemic that is now running into 16 months has derailed the country’s progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030.

A Voluntary National Review Report (VNRR) 2021 by the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) found out that five goals – poverty, gender equality, decent work, and economic growth, reduced inequalities, and partnership for goals are at risk of not achieving today.

In the first VNRR 2018, it was reported that only SDG 17 (partnership for goals) was at risk. However, the report also found out that progress had been made across most SDGs under the 12th Plan (FYP).

VNRR 2021 is a collective whole society approach evident based description based on available data of Bhutan’s status in SDG implementation. The theme and structure of the report are around the theme of transformational processes that build on past achievements and draw lessons from the pandemic- as Bhutan works to “build back better” while also moving ahead towards least developed country graduation, the SDGs, and Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Compared with the first VNRR 2018, there is an improvement in data availability and level of indicators adoption in VNRR 2021. 93 out of 247 indicators are fully adopted which is an increase of 38 percent compared with 2018 and indicators that are relevant but not adapted have dropped to 30 percent (74 indicators) from 44 percent (107 indicators) in VNRR 2018.

SDGs are accessed by 231 unique indicators.

Senior Planning Officer with GNHC, Phurba, said that in collaboration with National Statistics Bureau (NSB)- Dewa Platform an integrated dashboard to monitor GNH, SDGs, and national development progress improved the database to access indicators.

He said data availability continues to be an issue as some surveys to access SDG needed independent surveys which were not possible due to cost and limited human resource capacity. “However, in collaboration with NSB, we are working to improve data availability.”

Phurba said VNRR 2021 was a timely midterm review as the first VNR was developed during the formulation of 12th FYP where SDG implementation was integrated into the Plan. “ The findings from this report will be used in future planning and policy formulation.”


Goals at risk: Goal one Poverty

The SDG one is accessed to be at risk despite Druk Gyalpo Relief Kidu protecting the most vulnerable during the pandemic since the pandemic is expected to have a deep and lasting impact on the economy especially on the livelihood of the vulnerable.

Phurba said the overall progress and setback based on the multidimensional poverty Index (MDPI) and Gini-coefficient will only be available after the next Poverty Analysis Report  (PAR) in 2022-2023. “An initial assessment found that many people have been affected by the pandemic.”

The Covid-19 and Social Protection in South Asia report on Bhutan suggested that economic shocks from the pandemic could lead to an additional 5,503 people falling into poverty line of USD 3.20 (Nu 235) per day, and 14,083 people based on a poverty line of USD 5.50 (Nu 404) per day.

Many of these emerging poor are expected to come from informal workers which constitute more than 87 percent of total employment in Bhutan.

According to PAR 2017,  income poverty at the national level was reduced from 23.2 percent in 2007 to 8.2 percent in 2017, while rural poverty was reduced from 30.9 percent to 11.9 percent in the same period, and MPI decreased from 12.7 percent in 2012 to 5.8 percent in 2017.


Goal four: Quality  of Education

The report states SDG four is accessed to be at risk today because of uneven access to online learning, prolonged school closure leading to students dropping out of school, and the increasing cases of anxiety and depression among students.

The report, however, stated that the Royal Decree highlighting the need for fundamental reforms in the education system was a positive step forward to improve education but it is also an indication of significant gaps in the current system.


Goal eight: Decent Work and economic growth

As of May 2020, according to the report, 11,000 individuals from tourism-related sectors lost job, more than 50,000 individuals had been impacted directly or indirectly by the pandemic, and the situation is expected to have been compounded with several thousand youth returning home from overseas amid the pandemic.

According to Labour Force Survey 2021, overall unemployment reached the highest to date with an increase of five percent in 2020 (6 percent for female and 4.1 percent for male). Youth unemployment has worsened reaching 22.6 percent with female constituting 61.3 percent of the total number of youth unemployed today ( 6,922 persons).

The report states, the economy has been impacted by Covid-19 containment measures. At the beginning of the 12th Plan, the economy was projected to grow between six and seven percent on average. Growth in 2020 was projected at 6.9 percent which projected downward to negative 6.1 percent following the first nationwide lockdown.

Phurba said, however, as reported by the Ministry of Finance during the mid-term review of the 12th FYP, average economic growth is estimated at around 2.3 percent by the end of the Plan period.

The report states 12th FYP will focus on addressing the country’s unstable macroeconomic environment such as lack of technology and human capital, low productive capacities, and the insufficiently diversified economic base and other economic factors.

Goal 10: Reduced  inequalities

Like in the first VNR, the report stated  that Bhutan still needs to address the issue of income inequality. The Gini coefficient had increased slightly from 0.36 in 2012 to 0.38 in 2017, with the index being higher at 0.35 for rural as compared to 0.32 for urban Bhutan.

Phurba said inequalities in various forms such as gender-wise employment where men are employed more than women and the increasing gap between rich and poor needed to be addressed. The report states that the richest per capita consumption quintile is on average seven times more than that of households in the poorest consumption quintile.

Phurba said goal 17, partnership for goals, was identified at risk during both VNRR as Foreign Direct Investments were limited every year, withdrawal of traditional development partners, and decline in Official Development Assistance. He said the pandemic and impacts on the economy would further put goal 17 at risk.

The VNRR report was presented to the United Nations High-level political forum on July 15.