Financing gap and data limitation is identified as major challenges for the country to meet some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), according to Bhutan’s voluntary national review report on the implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

The country’s domestic revenue, the report stated finances 64 percent of the total expenditure and official development assistance (ODA) is estimated to decline.

For the 12th FYP, a resource gap of Nu 24B, which is about 2 percent of GDP, is estimated. With rising level of debt, the report published by the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) last month stated that effective debt management is of paramount importance in ensuring that debt financing is sustainable.

The country will require continued ODA, which funds about 34 percent of Bhutan’s development programmes, for a successful transition from LDC to middle income country.

“Bhutan needs to develop a clear strategy for mobilising ODA after 2023 in order to keep up its effort towards realising the SDGs,” the report stated.

While foreign investment is recognised as alternative source of financing, the report highlighted that Bhutan has not been very successful in attracting global investors. In 2015, the FDI net inflow into Bhutan was reported to be only 0.4 percent of GDP. The net FDI inflow per capita in Bhutan is behind the average level of South Asian countries and LDCs.

The report also stated that Bhutan need to consolidate the existing efforts to ensure availability of accurate and timely data for effective evidence based decision-making and reporting.

An in-depth examination of all the indicators of 17 goals reveals mixed results on indicator adoption status and data availability. The report revealed that data are available for most indicators related to health, poverty, education and employment but limited for other areas such as energy, infrastructure and governance.

Another challenge to achieve SDG remains in terms of coordination. “Limited communication and coordination within national statistical systems is a major source of data problems. The lack of coordination among national data producers can result in reporting inconsistent or contradictory information to international statistical agencies,” it stated.

In terms of data availability, data is available for 84 SDG indicators (34 percent), partially available for 66 indicators (27 percent), and there is no data for the rest 94 (39 percent) of the indicators.

Of the 244 SDG indicators, 64 (26 percent) are fully adopted and 32 (13 per cent) partially adopted. About 104 (43 percent) of indicators are relevant but not adopted and rest 44 indicators (18 percent) are not relevant to Bhutan’s context.

However, almost all SDGs are aligned with the country’s five-year plans, which is based on GNH principles.

The first goal to end poverty aims to eradicate extreme poverty defined as people living below $1.25 a day.

As of 2017, the percentage of people living below national poverty rate reduced to 8.2 percent from 12 percent in 2012. Multidimensional Poverty also fell from 12.7 to 5.8 percent between 2012 and 2017.

“Poverty reduction was the overarching objectives of the 10th FYP and the 11th FYP,” it stated. It was also highlighted that huge progress has been made in agriculture, health, and education, which resulted in remarkable improvement in the lives of the people including life expectancy, mortality rates, literacy rate, and food security.  At the same time, extensive coverage of basic services such as access to improved drinking water (99.5 percent), improved sanitation facility (92 percent) and electricity (99 percent) contributed to poverty reduction.

To eliminate larger disparity in the society, His Majesty The King initiated a land reform exercise in 2007.  To date, 123,265 beneficiaries have been granted a total of 133,287.765 acres of land tenure-ship and rights. Today 71 percent of households in the country own land tenure-ship and rights.

Multidimensional poverty reduced significantly but rural poverty is much higher than urban poverty and inequality is rising in rural areas.

Climate-related disasters is identified as one of challenges that have increased in number and magnitude, reversing the gains of farming communities. The report also stated that road arteries that enable farmers’ access to market and the import of fuel, rice, and medicine are increasingly vulnerable to landslides. Urbanisation, it stated has given rise to a number of vulnerabilities, which could hinder efforts to eradicate poverty by 2030 if not addressed. For example, an estimated 10 percent of Thimphu city’s population lives in informal settlements characterised by lack of access to basic amenities.

The second goal to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture aims to ensure food security for all with satisfactory level of nutrition.

According to the latest survey, 97 percent of the households in Bhutan are reported to be food sufficient, with urban residents rarely experiencing food insufficiency. Approximately 4 percent of people in rural areas report experiencing food insufficiency. However, the high percentage of food sufficiency is on account of Bhutan’s import-dependency. Rice import alone amounted to Nu 1.536B (approximately USD 24 million) in 2016. Households in rural areas still experience seasonal food shortages, peaking during the months of May to August. Labour shortages and seasonal feminisation of agriculture, crop damages by wildlife, inadequate irrigation water, seasonal drought, hail and windstorms, landslides, a shortage of agriculture land, and limited access to markets are some of the factors limiting agriculture productivity.

Climate change impacts and other disasters intensify the agricultural challenges, according to the report. The location of farmland on slopes makes agriculture practices inherently difficult and unsustainable. For instance, 31 percent of agriculture land is situated on slopes of more than 50 percent gradient, resulting in a high rate of soil erosion.

Even though child nutrition has improved, the report stated that there is a significant health concern. About 21 percent of Bhutanese children below the age of five years are stunted, while 9 percent are underweight. The status of micronutrient, according to the report is also a concern, as despite substantial reduction in anemia prevalence since 2003, 44 percent of 6-5 month-old children, 35 percent of the non-pregnant women, and 31 percent of adolescent girls are anemic.

Early initiation of breastfeeding showed nearly a 20 percent increase in practice from 2010 to 2015. However, there is only a slight increase in exclusive breastfeeding practices from 2010 to 2015. With increased maternity leave from three months to six months, it was reported that there has been improvement in breastfeeding.

The GNHC report also touched on the performance audit report on school feeding programmes that found major systemic and implementation gaps in ensuring nutritional needs of children in schools.

While tremendous progress has been made in ensuring healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages, the third goal, rise in mental health problem and suicide cases are of concern.

“Despite the gains in key health outcomes, challenges remain, including regional disparities in health status and wide district-level variations in health outcomes and service coverage,” it stated. For example, neonatal death is responsible for 55 percent of the under-five deaths in Bhutan. Across dzongkhags, wide disparities were found in the prevalence of both institutional delivery and skilled birth attendants highlighting the need for district-level interventions in these two areas.

The report also stated that funding for health is declining. External financing of health has dropped from around 28 percent in 1996 to about 12 per cent in 2012 putting considerable strain on the health care financing.

With regard to the fourth goal, ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning to all, the government has allocated no less than 10 percent of the total budget in all the FYPs.

Bhutan has made great strides in improving access to education and is close to achieving the goal of Universal Primary Education. As of 2017, the Adjusted Net Primary Enrolment Rate (ANER) is 98.8 percent, the Gross Enrolment Ratio for Class PP-X is 108.8 percent and 95.7 percent for Class VII-XII.

However, the quality of education in tandem with development of labour market dynamics has also come under scrutiny.

Tshering Dorji