Not long ago, Bhutanese going abroad to study or work always returned home to the surprise of their South Asian colleagues in universities or working in department stores. Unlike many from developing countries who usually try hard to settle down in the host country, Bhutanese always wanted to come home.

Forgoing the opportunity to settle down in a first world country and returning home to then a least developed country perplexed many. For the Bhutanese it was not even a question.

The trend is reversing.

There are many who want to not only go abroad, but are after a long term stay or permanent residency. This is ironically happening when Bhutan has developed and is on the verge of graduating to a middle-income country.

The progress in the last few decades has opened up opportunities. Our GDP per capita income is one of the highest in South Asia at USD 33,58.59, ease of doing business has improved, there is peace and security, and our environment is among the cleanest. Centre to our guiding principle for development is creating an environment and opportunities for the people to find happiness whether it is staying on a farm or working in a government job.

Yet, people are not only leaving, but are apprehensive that the government would stop them. Recent interventions like stopping banks from lending ‘education loans’ has not helped.

Is it a concern?

The average profile of Bhutanese leaving for abroad has changed. It is not only students or young university graduates. Many are from the mid-career level civil and public servants. Even the private sector is now feeling the impact even if we say Bhutanese going abroad is just a “salt in the curry” (handful).

It is a problem that is concerning us all. Why shouldn’t we be concerned when, for instance, a senior teacher or a lab technician or a chief in a government agency educated, trained and groomed to serve the people, leave?

It is not the money invested in educating or training them, it is the vacuum created.  We now know well that there is a push and pull factor in professionals from the government, corporations and even private departing for Australia or Canada.

The push and pull factor cannot be separated. While attractive salaries and wages may be pulling Bhutanese, we need to be concerned about the push factor. Working conditions, incentives, recognitions, job satisfaction, favouritism, redtape and many more could push people to move.

The consensus is that people leave for money. It is true. Money guarantees security and freedom. As those living or working abroad tell their friends and relatives about the possibility of buying a flat or a plot of land in three years, it will pull many more. An officer in Bhutan cannot earn what a cleaner earns abroad.

We cannot stop all the people from leaving, but we should be able to retain some. How we identify or recognise them is crucial. We need to recognise and reward professionals in the civil service and elsewhere. The civil service is in the midst of reforms. It should be able to reverse the trend.

The proposed clean wage system is an example. With a draft leaked and civil servants busy doing their math, not many are impressed with it. They know another pay raise would come soon with the change in government in 2023.