Letter from Thimphu

Azusa Kubota, UNDP Resident Representative in Bhutan

UNDP in Asia and the Pacific
5 min readFeb 22, 2022
His Majesty The King (seen centre) with UN representatives, at a ceremony to confer the Druk Thuksey (Heart Son of Bhutan) medal to the United Nations (UN) Bhutan in December 2021, during 114th National Day celebrations at Tashichhodzong.

On a bright and sunny morning of 17 December 2021, in the courtyard of the grandiose Tashichodzong in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, we joined the nation in celebrating its 114th National Day. In comparison to other years, the 2021 celebration was humble and solemn with a small crowd due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, for the UN Bhutan family, it was a momentous day. His Majesty the King conferred the Druk Thuksey (Heart Son of Bhutan) medal, Bhutan’s highest civilian order, to UN Bhutan in recognition of its exceptional service to the nation as an important partner in Bhutan’s socio-economic development.

It coincided with the 50th anniversary of Bhutan’s membership to the UN. The award holds greater significance for UNDP as we have worked side by side with the Royal Government since 1973, and we are the first UN agency to open our resident office in 1979.

In conferring the award, His Majesty highlighted the important role which UN Bhutan played in supporting Bhutan’s response to the most pressing challenges facing our time — COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. “In both areas, Bhutan has emerged as a beacon of hope in the region and the world,” said His Majesty. And indeed, for UNDP in Bhutan, tackling the climate crisis and COVID-19 have been the center focus of our efforts in the last two years.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we are yet to see the end to the crisis. While we continue to fight the fast-evolving virus, we have pivoted our programme to strengthen the systems and introduce new ways of doing things so that we learn to live with the uncertainty in a smart manner.

Living with uncertain times entails being agile, innovative, anticipatory, and adaptive so we can better respond to the crisis and come out stronger, greener, and more resilient. Over the past two years, UNDP has pivoted our focus to support Bhutan cope with COVID-19. In close partnership with the Royal Government and partners, in 2021, we have intensified our efforts to advocate for innovative ways of doing things and took advantage of the COVID dividend and the policy space created to discuss, embrace, and experiment alternate ideas.

Digital solution was one of the key enablers we believed in. From introducing iCTGs — a mobile device for prenatal care — to piloting eLitigation for continued access to justice, we ensured uninterrupted and enhanced provision of essential services to those in remote communities despite movement restrictions and social-distancing requirements. We brought in experiences and lessons from other countries to ensure fast development of the Bhutan Vaccine System for smooth and efficient roll out of vaccines. The pandemic provided once in a life-time opportunity to drive digital transformation in close partnership with young digital entrepreneurs.

On the innovation front, we focused on public sector innovation to enhance the speed and quality of service delivery. We also introduced the use of behavioral insights techniques to improve waste segregation. These tools are necessary if we are to continue improving public services in the wake of a fast-shrinking fiscal space.

While fighting COVID-19, we made sure to keep the pressing issue of climate change in sight. Our five-segment Climate Series, in the lead up to COP26, shone a spotlight on Bhutan’s climate vulnerabilities and risks, and showcased climate and environmental leadership. The low-emission development strategies in five sectors provided valuable scientific base to formulate Bhutan’s raised ambition in its climate ambitions through the Second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). Good progress was witnessed in promulgating climate-resilient farming practices, climate-proof irrigation schemes and roads to build resilience of farming communities, while a new ecotourism project was kicked off to mainstream wildlife conservation into tourism. These efforts prepare the tourism sector for its strong come back.

During the pandemic, the global community decisively moved towards green technology and solutions, particularly renewables. Here in Bhutan, to drive green recovery and bolster efforts to diversify energy sources, we unleashed the potential of renewable energy by investing in Bhutan’s first grid-tied solar plant.

Youth unemployment kept rising; and skilling and job creation for youth remained as our top priority. Building on the past systems map exercise of the youth employment, we focused on assessing the needs for future skilling and demand creation to get young people ready for the fast-changing job market. The Digital Jobs Study and the Innovation Challenge, which directly followed, aimed at getting young people ready to be employed in the digital economy.

As part of our efforts to harness the digital talents and skills of the Bhutanese youth, we partnered with the winners of our Innovation Idea Challenge in developing a mobile app for the Thimphu City Bus service. The Gakyid Ride app is designed to make the use of public transport easier and convenient. The goal is to get more people to use public transport to ease traffic congestion and combat air pollution. Our target audience are office goers, the youth and students. Recognizing the potential of reaching them through TikTok, a social media platform that’s hit among the young people, we teamed up with social media influencers to start a TikTok challenge and a popular YouTuber to promote the app.

We also focused our efforts in helping Bhutan realize the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while leaving no one behind. Together with Civil Society Organizations, we listened and responded to the needs of the most vulnerable and severely affected. A historic step was made to make provisions for legal aid support to vulnerable women, who became subject to increasing reported cases of domestic violence. Training and seed funding were made available to support economic empowerment of persons with disabilities and home-based women workers, who lost livelihood due to COVID. We also intensified our advocacy efforts, together with CSOs, government institutions and UN agencies, to addresses the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence and mental health.

2022 will inevitably be yet another challenging year. His Majesty said, “As we grapple with the challenges posed by the pandemic, we must not lose sight of the many important national tasks ahead of us.” UNDP remains committed and prepared to respond to the call of Bhutan’s fast-evolving development needs and priorities. The implementation of the NDC to ensure Bhutan remains carbon neutral, job creation and skills development for youth in orange, green and digital sectors, and public sector innovation for anticipatory and agile governance and to prepare Bhutan for the future will remain our focus.