… says the UNICEF Bhutan’s outgoing Representative Dr Will Parks

Your term in Bhutan has come to an end. What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?

My wife Ranjana and I have felt incredibly blessed to have been in Bhutan despite the complexities of the pandemic limiting what our experiences might have been had Covid-19 not struck. 

We take with us a multitude of cherished friendships that evolved at work and outside of work. Personally, I take with me admiration and respect for the enormously talented UNICEF Bhutan team, who go above and beyond their call of duty. And I also take with me further lessons in wise, compassionate leadership through observing His Majesty The King, a leader the world should learn from.

And what do we leave behind in Bhutan? I hope I leave behind a more ennobled, engaged, and empowered UNICEF team as well as closer collaboration with partners including within the UN Country Team. And some important team-inspired achievements to build upon. We have been brave – for example, in bringing 1000s of Covid vaccines and cold chain equipment from across Europe and Asia at a crucial point in Bhutan’s response to the pandemic, all against overwhelming odds. We remained adamant that, after they were shut in early 2020, schools needed to be safely re-opened and must remain open. And again in 2021, we were part of a movement to make mental health a new national priority, contributing to a whole-of-government, whole-of-society initiative spearheaded by Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen.

Lastly, perhaps I leave behind a better understanding that commanding and controlling leadership, where a leader’s ego and pride dictate what is to be done and how it should be done, often harming and discouraging colleagues along the way, is much less effective than coaching and caring leadership through which results are determined and delivered by the talent and wisdom of the team itself. 

How has the situation for children and young people changed in the past three years? 

With the leadership of Their Majesties and the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) and an enabling environment, Bhutan has made significant progress in ensuring the well-being of children, adolescents, young people, and women particularly in the area of education, health, WASH, and nutrition.

However, Bhutan was no exception to the Covid-19 pandemic and like in other countries, the pandemic also impacted children and young people here. The school-going children and adolescents faced the biggest impact due to the closure of schools, disrupting in-person learning for many and we know the impacts it had on the mental health of children, parents and families. More children and young people were online, which means online safety became more prominent. With children learning outside the classroom, we saw an opportunity to digitise learning and UNICEF commits to support building this learning system and help expose children to as much learning stimulus as possible.

Getting meaningful employment for youth has become a complex issue and mental health among young people has become more visible. There is still much to do to make young people more resilient.

The past few years were challenging times for Bhutan. What challenges did the pandemic pose to UNICEF in its efforts to improve the lives  of children and  young people? 

Covid-19 was a complete disrupter of the plans we had in 2019 with the RGoB. What happened in 2020 was a cocreation of responding to Covid-19 and continuing the work. The biggest disrupter for me was the fact that schools were closed, and we might have lost for that cohort of children, a few years of learning that they need to catch up on. We have bounced back as a country, caught up, and leveraged digital platforms to accelerate learning. Despite the pandemic, the country has managed to achieve 100 per cent improved sanitation across the country. So, Covid-19 may have slowed us down, but it didn’t stop us.

Challenges to women and children continue in terms of violence. We have been working with partners to address this situation, which became more visible during the pandemic just like we saw with mental health situation. We have convened more than 20 partners for the End Violence Against Children campaign and as we address these challenges, we see the need to get more information, data and a more detailed situation analysis of women and children in the country. 

These challenges, especially during humanitarian situations, risk undoing decades of progress achieved in the wellbeing of children and young people. However, UNICEF and partners continue to work closely to mitigate these challenges and sustain the progress made thus far so that every child is included without discrimination, and has agency, opportunity and their rights fulfilled.

What are some of the emerging issues  affecting children  and young people  in Bhutan? 

Bhutan is already working on several emerging issues affecting children and young people. 

Some of these are mental health, gender-based violence and violence against children, digital safety and climate and environmental change. Nutrition remains a major challenge particularly micro-nutrient deficiencies, but young children are being reached with micronutrient supplement nationwide. I am pleased to see how the country has expanded the Early Childhood Care and Development programme to reach many more preschoolers, but we still need to reach 100% of young children. Support to children with disabilities has expanded and efforts are ongoing to make the education system more inclusive. UNICEF is humbled to work with the Central Monastic Body in improving the lives of our child monks and nuns. Youth unemployment still remains perhaps the largest challenge and addressing it is becoming more complex. Initiatives to skill young people are underway but we still have a long way to go.

What would Bhutan need to focus on to  address these  emerging issues? 

Bhutan has the leadership and an enabling environment to address any kind of issue affecting children and young people’s wellbeing. UNICEF is confident that the interests of children and young people will always be at the core of any new policies and plans. 

A lot of work is already underway and an inclusive and a whole of society approach that engages all stakeholders including children and young people would be critical to address these emerging issues. 

Addressing the lack of data is important to ensure that strategies and plans adopted are evidence-based and we can measure their cost-effectiveness.

If there is any area that we need to focus on further, it is the quality of education that children are receiving. We need to train more teachers and skill children and young people with transferable skills they need for the future. We must also build their resilience to prepare, adapt and respond to the changes around them. 

We need to expand the social work force to tackle some of the existing and emerging social issues. The one big challenge I see that we, as a community, are struggling with is youth unemployment and underemployment. We need to have an entrepreneurial mindset embedded into the youngest of children, all the way through education to take on new forms of employment.

What would be some significant changes, both good and bad, you saw in the lives of  children and young people during your time in Bhutan?

Bhutan invests a huge proportion of its national budget in health and education sectors, and we see significant improvement in saving lives in the first few weeks of life, enhancing access to early learning opportunities and sanitation, among others. The second decade of young people’s lives – adolescence – needs as much investment.

Children and young people in Bhutan, like in other countries are growing up in a transforming, complex world. To keep up, they must be able to seize opportunities and confront challenges. So, we are seeing children and young people in Bhutan learning new skills, innovating, participating and engaging more in policy dialogues. For instance, young people were active participants during the revision of the National Youth Policy. While it is encouraging that more children and young people have access to the internet and technological devices, there are still many who do not have access, especially in rural Bhutan.

I am also struck by the talent here. If we can invest in tapping into this talent, turn our attention less to criticism and more to cohesion, less to complaints and more to cocreation, and replicate the leadership of Their Majesties at every level of society, Bhutan would have everything it needs to fast-track its transformation and remain a beacon of hope to the region and the world.