The RIGSS Blog
To stimulate analysis, innovation, and forward thinking, and generate new ideas and insight
on subjects that matter in 21st Century Bhutan.
A humble tribute to celebrate learning, leadership and service that His Majesty The King continues to champion.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on the RIGSS Blog are that of the authors and do not represent the views of the institute.
EMPATHY: THE BEDROCK OF PUBLIC SERVICE
A patient in pain already feels better with the gentle touch of a doctor and a few kind and reassuring words. The poor villager feels heard and happy when the agriculture officer spares time during his district tour to listen to the villager’s story of hardship with a genuine intention to help. The young officers feel valued and motivated when the supervisor sincerely invites their views in their very first official meeting without prejudice. If each one of us in the public service can be as empathic as the doctor, agriculture officer, or supervisor mentioned above, the public will have so much to gain from our service.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” (Cambridge Dictionary). Or as Dr. Roman Krznaric puts it, “it’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions (Greater Good Magazine, November 2012).
Public service must be amongst the noblest of professions because it offers unlimited opportunities to serve and to literally touch countless lives and bring positive change, directly or indirectly. In any case, to be good and do good unto others is a natural human tendency. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins (Roman Krznaric, Greater Good Magazine, November 2012). And being in public service expands the scope for us to serve and spread goodness.
As someone had said, above the clouds every day is a clear day. So long as one can comprehend, public service provides that purpose to rise above the clouds and be in the service of a higher calling, a larger-than-life mandate. It’s a world of opportunity to make a positive difference. At the same time, when public servants fail to behave and conduct like public servants, we become the hindrance or the very cause of suffering for the public we are entrusted to serve. And more often than not, what makes the difference between the two is empathy (or the lack of it).
Everyday issues and grievances, be it with government policies or public services, can be addressed to a large extent if public servants, particularly civil servants, behind these policies or services practise a little more empathy. For public policies to work in the manner expected to fulfil the intended objectives, policymakers need to walk a mile in the shoes of the public. Bhutan’s policy to ban the sale and use of plastic carry bags, for example, could have yielded better results if we have envisaged the possible challenges businesses and citizens would face without them, or without suitable alternatives.
Kit Collingwood-Richardson, a UK civil servant, in her article “Why civil servants should become experts in empathy” describes how a 1920 ban on alcohol in the United States led to a huge loss in tax dollars, a massive upsurge in organised crime with only a modest downturn in alcohol consumption. “What they failed to understand was that many people quite like a drink, and that if government removed the opportunity they would be quite creative in filling the gap”. The ban was finally repealed in 1933. Some of our own policies such as the “dry day” policy prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Tuesdays or the removal of cut-off point for Class 10 students come to mind. “The ability to understand people’s motivations and feelings when they interact with the state should be considered a core skill in our sector. Civil servants should become experts in the practice of empathy”, notes Collingwood-Richardson (Civil Service World, November 2017).
In a country like Bhutan, where policymakers in Thimphu are geographically distant from the people in the villages, and the realities on the ground, the application of empathy should be a requirement in the policy formulation process. Policymakers should challenge their own assumptions, and each other’s, through an intense questioning mechanism, and through imagining or simulating all possible experiences the public will likely go through when the policy actually comes into effect. Policies formulated in bubbles or with policymakers detached from the reality are bound to fail.
The other aspect of public service where empathy is literally begged is public service delivery. We have all been at the receiving end at one point in time, so we know what it means. “Goedra Bey Yi: Office Sketch”, a satirical video developed by OTT platform Samuh depicting how an ordinary citizen is made to go through the miserable experience of bureaucratic indifference and red-tapism has been viewed over 591,000 times on its Facebook page, perhaps because people could relate to it. Citizens having to run from pillar to post, wait for days or weeks, or at times bear the wrath of an apathetic public servant for want of a service or information is commonplace in our public service system. Ironically, we sometimes leave citizens waiting at our office door so that we can go and attend a sermon by the high lama on how to be a good human being. Much of it has got to do with the lack of empathy than anything else.
The civil service is being reformed as per Royal Decree and the expectation is for it to be an intelligent, efficient and effective machinery in delivering its public mandates. This calls for, among others, leaders and civil servants to realise and accept, that we have an empathy deficit in our system, whether it is in the formulation of public policies or their implementation in the form of public services. We need to cultivate empathy, exhibit empathy-inspired behaviors, and make empathy a part of our culture and daily lives in public service. This is important for us to be able to serve the public fairly in the most inclusive, efficient and compassionate manner.
The good news though is that empathy is a cultivable attribute. Just like any other skill, we can learn how to be empathic. And more than anyone else, public servants need to learn how to be empathic because our behaviors and conduct impact the entire citizenry. Dr. Roman Krznaric, in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People” describes six ways to develop empathy, and they are i) cultivate curiosity about strangers, ii) challenge prejudices and discover commonalities, iii) try another person’s life, iv) listen hard and open up, v) inspire mass action and social change, and vi) develop an ambitious imagination.
There are plenty of similar free resources on the internet on how to develop empathy and it is useful to read them because empathy doesn’t only make us good, it is good for us too. According to Professor Jennifer Lerner, a psychological scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, people with empathy will feel more united with others, be able to resolve conflicts faster and achieve greater satisfaction at work. Experts also say that a mindset focused on others’ needs can lower stress hormones (CNN, June 2020). Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership (Roman Krznaric, Greater Good Magazine, November 2012).
It’s all too good to have public servants who are competent and coolheaded, but that is not enough. In a profession where our thoughts and actions affect the emotions and lives of so many other people, we need to be warmhearted, too. Empathy indeed should form the bedrock of public service and measures must be adopted to foster empathy through training or even testing empathy levels of candidates during the selection and recruitment process.
Author & Poet
Transcription of Episode 12 of the RIGSS Podcast with Mr. Koh Buck Song
When Simon Anholt first wrote about ‘nation brand’ in 1996, he simply observed that the reputations of countries behave like the brand images of companies and products, and they are equally critical to the progress, prosperity, and good management of those places. However, since then, the term has prominently evolved into ‘nation branding’ though with some differences in meaning and context. Countries today place huge importance on ‘nation branding’ and rightly so, as it has helped reap the targeted economic and social dividends. Today, one country that shines outright when it comes to successful nation branding is Singapore. The country, in its quest to become Asia’s leading global city, has consciously and painstakingly invested its time, money, talent and all the resources at its disposal to build ‘Brand Singapore’ to where it ranks today. Mr Koh Buck Song, the author of ‘Brand Singapore’ writes, “As a country, you can be paradise on earth, but it’s no good at all if no one knows. The message has to be delivered well and get through to the target audience.”
In order to further discuss the importance of ‘nation branding’, we would like to warmly welcome Mr. Koh to the RIGSS Podcast.
Q1. So, my first question is, if you could explain to us, what is nation branding in simple terms and what are its different attributes?
I think the first thing to consider is that the brand of a country can be considered and treated as if it were a commercial brand but there are big differences. And the biggest difference is that a country’s brand is much more holistic than a commercial brand, in a sense that almost anything can be relevant to a country’s brand and affected - any piece of news, any views that are expressed overseas. So, these would include anything that a tourist guide, for example, in Bhutan says to a visitor or any opinion about Bhutan expressed abroad by an influential voice. Now in Bhutan, you might have some control over the first, what the tourist guide says but the second opinions expressed by people overseas, it would be almost impossible to have any kind of direct influence over.
Another difference is that for commercial branding we could just be talking about one particular product and if there is some problem with it, with its brand, the company could just drop that product. But you can’t do the same with the country brand - you can’t fire your citizens. To take one example, which is in the news currently - in the United States, the issues with gun control have some influence surely on brand America but it’s not something that the country can change overnight. Change takes time; a lot of time.
And the third point I want to make on this is that because of its holistic, all-embracing nature of country branding, it means that every citizen has the potential to contribute. Hence, the importance of internal brand building - what a country does with its communication, with its own citizens to get as many people as possible to understand what is country branding, and then to see what contribution they could possibly make to enhancing the country brand.
Q2. Nations today are into this rat race to create a good brand for themselves. So, why has ‘nation branding’ become so important in this day and age?
I will address your question on the basis of where the world is currently. I think all nations are now at the stage of trying to see the best way forward in terms of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. In some places, places that are quite heavily dependent on tourism, for example, Easter Island, it is absolutely critical to work on enhancing the branding of that place in order to then bring in the tourism that would enable the whole economy and the whole society to recover. In other places, it is important to almost start afresh to draw new investments and to repair some of the economic connections that were already in place. And some of these could include the supply chain arrangements in terms of delivery of goods and services to those places. And to add another point which is connected to the state of the world, if you look at Ukraine and the war situation there, it is the country brand of Ukraine and the perceptions of Ukraine overseas that determine the kind of support and help that they are getting from the rest of the world in addressing this difficult situation that they are in. So, country branding is important in many ways.
Q3. Now coming to Singapore, from what we learnt from your book ‘Brand Singapore’, some of Singapore’s most admired brand attributes did not just come by accident. Therefore, it also can’t be denied that nation branding continues to play a critical role in the success of Singapore as one of the most successful nations in Asia and the world at large. So, if you could kindly enlighten our audiences on how Singapore continues to brand itself not only at home but also in the external world so admirably — so much so that Singapore is a role model for the developing countries around the world?
Well contrary to what some people might think, in Singapore, there is actually very little that is done at the overall level in terms of the mother brand; there isn’t one central office that directs everything. Instead, most of the buildings of brand Singapore are done at the sub-brand level and here it is done in terms of very strategic, well-planned direct marketing in four main areas— what I call the two Ts and two Is. The first two Ts are Trade and Tourism, and Isare Investment and Immigration. So, for trade, Singapore has, from the earliest days been very focused on expanding its trade network. For example, currently we have more than twenty free trade agreements with countries and regions around the world. And as an island nation that is so dependent on trade, that’s very important. For tourism we have the current ‘country brand’ centred around the key idea of ‘Passion Made Possible’. In summary we are trying to promote the idea that Singapore is the place where people who are passionate about various aspects of tourism can come here and build their businesses and thrive in the whole tourism sector. On investments, we have agencies like the Economic Development Board where I worked for five years in the early 2000s, which are focused on bringing in direct investments to Singapore from all around the world. And the last I is immigration and here too, it is a very targeted effort to connect with and to persuade a global talent to relocate to Singapore whether to study, work or even to take up citizenship eventually.
Now in addition to this direct marketing, there are also overall factors about Singapore that contribute to the strength of its ‘country brand’. I will cite just two—one is the stability that comes from effective governance and also the management of security, including geopolitical security. And the second factor is the efficiency in terms of general administration of the country and also the management of its infrastructure. And this second point, efficiency of administration and infrastructure, was absolutely important in helping the country to get through the worst parts of the pandemic so far.
Q4. So, in Singapore’s case, the prominent actor in leading the country in its ‘nation branding’ effort is the state. Therefore, how can the government, the private sector and an individual work together to promote a vibrant and lasting nation brand?
I think, from the perspective of the state, ‘nation branding’ is something that has to be led from the top. The state can facilitate and provide overall vision and framework. For example, in Bhutan in terms of environmental stewardship, managing the forests and all the other environmental resources that you have, that’s something only the state can organise overall. But of course, what is also crucially required is the participation and collaboration of the private sector and individual. The private sector can do a lot in terms of the products and services. If you take an example of South Korea in terms of how the private sector has been effective in shaping international perceptions about Korea’s country brand, much of this has happened in the arena of pop culture, for example, in music and on Netflix. And, of course, this can also be demonstrated and promoted through commercial products - the products and exports of a country, which I know is also one of the newer priority areas in Bhutan. And lastly, I think individuals should recognise that they also have a lot of scope to contribute to their country brand, and today, with the internet all of us are equipped to do so, through contributions to various forms of media whether mainstream or on platforms like YouTube. I mean anyone of us could create a YouTube video that could go viral, that could then have possibly some major impacts on our ‘country brand’.
Q5. Now coming to Bhutan, as someone who somehow understands our limitations and potentials at the same time, what are the key areas that Bhutan’s nation branding effort could focus on from your perspective?
Let me just talk about a couple of aspects. One is tourism, which of course is very important to Bhutan. I think one thing that could be done is to see how you can take your tourism branding to the next level. I think that Bhutan is already right up there in terms of country brand, in terms of the brand awareness. If you ask most people around the world they would immediately think of the concept of happiness and connect that with Bhutan. So, you are already in a very good place but the key is to see how to take it to the next level, especially in this post-pandemic environment where there are some significant changes in terms of behaviors, regulations and so on. And of course, you would want to attract new travelers while at the same time also seeing how to draw on repeat customers, and one place to look at could be in terms of branding the districts of Bhutan. Thus far, most of the tourists have been to places like Thimphu and Paro but there are many other parts of Bhutan which are less well known, which have a lot more potential for tourism as well.
Now, in terms of investments, there are two key areas. One is to highlight the value proposition. For example, I think for Bhutan connecting your brand attributes with the value of sustainability is something that you are very well placed to do. And the other thing is to see how to align your sub-branding with the mother brand— the whole concept of happiness.
Q6. In your book ‘Brand Singapore’ you wrote, “In the standard of branding word association tests many people think of Lee Kaun Yew the moment Singapore is mentioned.” So, what role does leadership play in ‘nation branding’?
I think in this case, we are talking about political leadership, which is absolutely vital. In Bhutan, your King demonstrated admirable leadership in leading the country through the pandemic. So, I think there are many great stories to tell that are centred around the leadership of your King and all that He represents. Again, citing Ukraine, its current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has grabbed the attention of the world in terms of his demonstrative courage and the way he has been able to communicate both to his own people and to international audiences. He just spoke at an international conference on regional security in Singapore and this is of course critical to the country. And I think on the question of leadership, there is also a pandemic factor that has become even more prominent in the last two years, which reinforces this point about how important leadership is to nation brand building, and the fact that the role of the state has become much more crucial. On the domestic front, everything that has to be done in terms of enhancing public health, and internationally in terms of border control, just these two factors alone have reiterated the key role of the state in steering a nation forward and this, of course, reinforces the point of how important leadership is to nation brand building. So those are the three aspects— the state, the private sector and the individual—and these should all work together.
Q7. In your book, you stated that “In the global nation branding game, there is no such thing as job done but only an ending effort of branding, brand management, and rebranding”. So, can a nation or a company rebrand itself after a major downfall and still come out stronger? So how does branding work in such a situation because you also said that a brand keloid cannot be so easily excised or removed?
Yes, for sure. A country, just like a company, can certainly recover from the negative impact on the brand. For countries, I think two prominent examples would be Japan and Germany after World War II, the extent to which they have been able to not only recover but flourish. Today, the country brands of Japan and Germany are two of the strongest in the world, through the various aspects of what their brand represents, which people have come to recognise and appreciate. In the case of Japan, in the earlier decades, it was the quality of their products, especially, the household products like refrigerators and also cars but that has gone into a bit of period of decline). But another aspect which has continued to grow from strength to strength is the refinement of its culture, various aspects of its art, food, design, entertainment and so on. And for Germany, we have seen the leadership of Chancellor Merkel in the earlier decades, and their influence across Europe. And, of course, again like Japan, German brands in cars and other products have continued to lead the market in many areas.
Now you mentioned the concept of ‘brand keloid’ which I coined in my book ‘Brand Singapore’. The analogy is of comparing a negative aspect of a brand to a physical keloid, like a scar on your body, which would be quite difficult to remove and quite painful if you try to address it directly. So, the thing to do is not to spend too much time or be hung up on trying to address it directly or to get rid of it quickly because in some cases it’s practically impossible to do that. Instead, the attention, energy, and effort should be focused on just building the positive aspects. So, if we apply that to what we were just talking about, Japan and Germany, that’s what they have done. They focused on the positive aspects of what they can offer to the world in terms of products and services, even ideas and values and that’s what has brought them where they are in the world today as leading ‘country brands’.
Thank you very much Mr. Koh.
About Mr. Koh Buck Song:
Mr. Koh Buck Song has been actively involved in the nation branding of Singapore for almost three decades, and led a team to create the global entrepolis brand concept for Singapore. The book ‘Brand Singapore’, now in its third edition (2021), is one of nearly 40 books by Mr. Koh as an author and editor.
Transcribed by Choden, RIGSS
DRIVING BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE IN PUBLIC SERVICE
Programme Officers, RIGSS
Challenges in the Bhutanese public sector, from civil servants not being motivated or poorly trained to citizens not being happy with the mediocre public services and cumbersome administrative processes, have grown notably over the years. His Majesty The King has constantly shared the vision for a developed Bhutan and what Bhutan’s public service should strive for in numerous Royal Addresses, finally culminating into the issuance of a Royal Decree in 2020 to reform the civil service.
Citizens' frustrations with the system's inefficiency resulting in days, weeks or even months of running from one office to another to get a job done have been shared even by public servants. The call for public servants to reflect on the efficiency and quality of the services we provide, and our role and behaviours as public servants is greater than ever.
In a Polis conversation with over five hundred Bhutanese public servants and private workers on “What are the desirable behaviours of public servants?” the respondents noted the most desired behaviours among public servants as having a high moral and ethical standing, being polite to clients, being accountable for one’s action and dealing with the public fairly and efficiently. While we seem to know the desirable behaviours as public servants, the bigger question is whether our day-to-day actions at the workplace translate to such behaviours.
Driving behavioural change is crucial in enabling the civil service as an institution to grow and achieve the level of excellence and sophistication necessary to support the larger national vision of becoming a developed country. It is high time that we realize the importance of keeping pace with global developments, and be reminded of His Majesty’s concern as thus stated: “If we are passive, slow, and daunted by the speed and complexity of innovation and change, we will not only fall behind others but our economy also risks being terminally dependent on foreign aid and loans.”
A study on “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change” cites two dimensions that give rise to behaviours - the way to achieve (skills or abilities) and the will to engage (motivation) in a behaviour (Berkman, 2018). For an employee to engage in the desired behaviour, he/she must possess the relevant skills or abilities backed by the right motivation. This would require not only a fundamental shift in the skillset and mindset of public servants but indeed a re-engineering of our organisational processes and systems to drive the necessary behavioural changes.
Building a positive organisational culture is key to driving behaviour change in any organisation. Creating conducive work environments that nurture healthy team dynamics and collaboration, and regular and meaningful conversations between the leader and subordinates are important for employees to thrive at work and foster motivation to achieve the larger goals. This is where the role of leaders become pivotal; a leader who provides vision, inspires purpose-led actions, drives results, mentors and coaches, and ignites passion in their subordinates is integral to organisational development.
On the other hand, a growth mindset is one of the key factors that enhances life-long learning, workplace engagement and productivity. For instance, Joshi (2021) describes, a positive mindset as “the tendency to focus on the bright side, expect positive results, and approach challenges with a positive outlook.” While there are a lot of uncertainties during the change management process it is important to maintain a positive outlook. The Polis survey respondents also acknowledged the importance of positive mindset and highlighted that the seeds of a positive mindset must be cultivated at home and in schools.
Similarly, nudging can create positive and lasting change in the workplace. Improved punctuality among employees with the introduction of the biometric attendance system is a common example. Nudges could also be used to change public behaviours by agencies. A simple example of a nudge with great success is the significant rise in tax compliance in the United Kingdom after a reminder letter was simply reworded to say that most people pay their bills on time (Simmons, n.d.).
Additionally, research suggests that positive non-financial incentives like rewards or recognition, new projects, time-off, praise in public etc. for hard work and achievements, will likely produce the most motivation in employees. It also helps team members to be accountable. Further, inculcating spiritual values in professional life would help employees in finding purpose and driving more ethical behaviours in the workplace. Studies have shown a strong correlation between spirituality and resilience (Smith et al., 2013). According to Sarkar et al., (2017) collective research on psychological resilience suggests that enhancing resilience presents a viable means of preventing the potential negative effects of work stress and enhancing wellbeing and performance in the workplace.
Another powerful driver of behavioural change is training and continuous learning and development. Training enables an individual to acquire new skills, knowledge and abilities. To impart relevant training programmes, it is first essential for organisations to understand the current skill gap of their employees, and the practical realities of daily work. Continuous assessments and post-training engagements are ways to drive behavioural change in the training culture.
In the face of a fast-changing world and the stiff competition for growth and survival, governments and the larger public sector are understandably expected to perform and deliver at a higher level than ever before. In Bhutan too, the many reforms that we are currently undertaking aim to achieve just that, to enable us as a nation to keep pace with, or better still, stay ahead of the global forces of change.
While so much can be envisaged in terms of the macro-level structural and systemic transformation, a fundamental tenet of change remains the human behaviour, driven by one’s mindset, skillset and motivation. Hence, driving a sustained behavioural change in people working in mega state machineries such as the bureaucracy to make them more competent, motivated and performance-oriented is crucial in the pursuit of our larger national goals. Effecting the right behavioural change should not just be an integral part of the current transformation initiatives, it should indeed be the cornerstone of our pursuit of excellence in the public service and progress as a nation.
WHOSE INTEREST IS THE LARGER INTEREST?
When the war in Ukraine unfolded, a nation’s sense of safety, security and survival was shaken to the core. In the city of Dnipro, which hadn’t yet come under the Russian attack at that time, hundreds of women came together on a Saturday morning to make Molotov cocktails to help the army fight the invaders. Arina, a school teacher among the group had said, “Nobody thought that we would spend our weekend like this, but now we are doing this and it seems like the only important thing to do. We just can’t live our ordinary lives even if we are safe, we have to do something.”
Something for whom? Something for what cause? And something at what cost? After all it was not her house that was being bombed, and she was apparently safe; at least at that point in time.
The larger interest is beyond you. It transcends the individual, and individual interest. And generally, individuals have a stake in the larger interest because it affects them, directly or indirectly, now or in the future. Sadly, many of us just don’t realise that.
In the popular story of “the tragedy of the commons”, the ranchers graze their cattle on a common pasture, some adding more animals to their stock to maximise individual profit but none caring for the pastureland. The pursuit of self-interest by individual ranchers ultimately renders the pasture unfit for grazing as there is no more grass left to graze on. The larger interest was ignored and everyone suffers at the end.
Organisations and countries that do well do so on the merit of collective strength. And the collective strength is derived from individual contributions inspired by the desire to serve the larger interest. Individuals may be talented and capable but unless they believe in, and take ownership of, the organisation or the country’s larger vision and consciously contribute towards accomplishing that, it will be challenging for organisations and countries to accomplish the greater good. Competition for individual success oblivious of the larger organisational or national interest, or worse still at the cost of it, will be disastrous.
Nation-building will always remain a work in progress, and it should be the collective endeavor of every citizen to take it to the next level. Progress is hard and change is disruptive. But that is how we move on to the next level. And that is how successful countries have come to where they are now, united behind the visions set forth by their leaders, and relentless and resilient in the pursuit of the larger interest. If wanting to belong to and identify with a strong, peaceful and prosperous nation is our aspiration, then building that nation is our responsibility, not somebody else’s.
Bhutan sometimes is referred to as a poor country with rich people. This is a very undesirable portrayal of our country because if it is true, we have a problem. How can a country be poor if the people are rich? What we aspire to is for Bhutan to be a strong country with rich, happy people. While people can become rich in myriad ways, individual richness does not necessarily add up to national strength and character to make us a strong nation. Smugglers, tax evaders, poachers, unethical businessmen, corrupt officials etc., for example, could all be rich but a nation is perhaps better off without such people and their wealth. The pursuit of individual interest is important, but for our collective and long-term success as a country, it is critical that we don’t lose sight of the larger interest.
In Singapore, you talk to anyone from a taxi driver to a government official to a businessman, the narrative they have of their country and their role as citizens is the same. They say Singapore is a small, import-dependent country, without much land and natural resources where they even have to import their drinking water. “All we have are the Singaporean people, and we must give our 100% for our country to survive and succeed” is the catch line when Singaporeans describe their country or themselves. Today Singapore is amongst the richest countries in the world with one of the lowest crime and corruption rates, and the best of institutions and public services. It may be a small, import-dependent country but it is a strong country in many respects.
Inspired by His Majesty The King’s vision for a better future, Bhutan is currently undergoing major transformation in many key areas of nation-building. It is indeed crucial that we view it from the lens of the larger interest to make sense of all that is transpiring. It is not only important that we understand it ourselves and do our part in whatever we are doing, we must indeed educate and encourage each other along this transformation journey. While some level of confusion, unpleasantness and uncertainty is inevitable, there are enough reasons for us to be positive and hopeful that we will become a better, stronger country, sooner than later. And one such reason for our hope and optimism should be the realisation that each one of us are doing our best when the country needs us the most.
The writer is the Director of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies. The views expressed in the article are his own.
OF QUANTITY AND QUALITY: THOUGHTS ON CIVIL SERVICE
Louise Monger (Sr. HR Officer, RCSC)
The civil service in Bhutan is currently undergoing an unprecedented transformation in keeping with the Royal Kasho on civil service reform and towards the new vision of a developed Bhutan. It would hopefully be a matter of years within which we could see tangible and substantial outcomes of all the transformative works that are currently underway. We are indeed living through exciting and opportune times in our lives to be a part of these reforms, and it is incumbent upon each one of us in the civil service to reflect and situate our own roles in this reform process and beyond.
It is also particularly propitious that we are undertaking such transformative initiatives at a time when we have begun the inevitable and arduous journey of building forward our country from the impact of the pandemic. While COVID-19 has posed several economic and social challenges, it has also given us the opportunity to re-orient and re-position ourselves to emerge better and stronger. In this context, the reforms in the bureaucracy, education and other sectors couldn’t have come at a better time.
The role of the civil service in nation-building is undisputed, and indeed non-negotiable. And as recognised in the Royal Kasho, we have the numerical strength and the required knowledge, skills, exposure and experience in our civil service. But this has apparently not translated into commensurate performance and accomplishments, hence, the call for reforms. We have done so much, and we could do so much more.
Bhutan is a modern welfare state and those of us running the state machinery, as indeed the primary beneficiaries, need to provide role-modelship to the rest of the country in terms of hard work, efficiency and productivity. If the civil service can get this right, we can drive the rest of the country out of the comfort zone toward a culture of self-realisation, industriousness and self-reliance.
As per the Civil Service Statistics 2021, the size of the civil service in Bhutan is 31,177 as of 31st December 2021. Between 2008 and 2021, the cumulative growth in the civil service strength is recorded at 64.83%. As of December 2021, civil servants constitute 4.12% of the country’s total population (it is about 1.5% in Singapore and 1.9% in South Korea). The ratio of civil servants to the population is about 1:24, at least doubly better than Singapore’s 1:64 or South Korea’s 1:50. The median age in the Bhutanese civil service is 35 years in 2021.
Of the total of 26,322 regular civil servants, 34 have PhDs, 2760 have Master’s Degrees, 2515 have PGs, 8030 have Bachelor’s Degrees while 12,983 have Diplomas or lower qualifications. In 2021 alone, a total of 351 civil servants were approved for long-term training.
Despite the staggering statistics, civil service productivity has always been a matter of concern. The provision of lifelong employment and stability has perpetuated a culture of performance stagnation and a bloated civil service with a lot of deadwood. Most civil servants were getting used to a culture of doing the bare minimum. We come a little late to the office and leave a little early, and there is so much in between that keeps us away from doing meaningful and productive work for the organisation. And outside the “9 am to 5 pm” supposedly magical corridor of time, there is usually little flexibility and accommodation for public service work.
Quantity of work we churn out matters as much as quality. Procrastination and delays have associated costs that impact the entire value chain. We need to invest more time in our work to produce more outputs, at least by the rule of thumb. If each civil servant is willing to give one-hour extra work each day outside the 9 am to 5 pm window, we will be collectively contributing 43 months’ worth of work every day to nation-building.
It has been over six decades since Bhutan launched its five-year development plans, and we have come a long way. Yet we can’t help but compare ourselves with countries like Singapore and South Korea that started their development journey around the same time. The fact that we are still an LDC depending on foreign aid is the single biggest realization that every civil servant must own, and it should drive us to do more. Our productivity needs to match the potential we have and the resources we expend on the civil servants. We need to do all we can to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” and ensure that our modern welfare state thrives and sustains.
The other aspect of civil service is the quality of the work we do. With a high level of job security, a poor culture of supervision and a weak mechanism of accountability, the quality of work we do is often compromised. We say compromised because the poor quality of outcomes is not always a result of inability. The Royal Kasho on civil service reform highlights that “the core impediments against the development of a more professional and efficient bureaucracy remain entrenched in the system.” When a culture of getting through with mediocre work becomes pervasive, there is no sense of pride and ownership in what we do or the impact that our work would have. We then do things for mere compliance with the minimum requirements set in our ToRs, IWPs, or APAs, and simply sail through without much turbulence or trepidation.
Among other things, becoming a developed country will demand us to have higher levels of depth and sophistication in our thinking, the work we do and the results we produce. And this should manifest in both tangible and intangible forms, from the cultures and systems we develop in our organisations to the policies we formulate and implement for our country, or from the ways we interact with the outside world to the quality of infrastructures that we build. We need to dream big and yet care for the smallest details, and achieve a certain degree of finesse in whatever we do. We ought to embrace a growth mindset and cultivate the habit of lifelong learning; depth and sophistication cannot be achieved overnight by googling. Conscientiousness, grit and professionalism are values we must promote in the civil service.
Civil service is a calling that transcends the meaning and benefits of mere employment. What we do (or don’t do), and how well we do what we do have larger ramifications for the country, the people and our future. At the end of the day, it is the civil service machinery that would drive the whole country forward or backwards depending on what it does, how much and how well. His Majesty has always emphasised the importance of the civil service as a permanent institution to ensure continuity and progress in our developmental pursuits. We need to view civil service in the right light and with the right lens, and we could realise that it is a profession worth committing our lives to, for all the difference that it can make.
With so many changes already taking place in the civil service as part of the reforms, we are living through some opportune times in our personal lives and professional careers as civil servants. Much like the larger systemic transformations that are underway, there is the need for deep reflection and soul-searching among civil servants in order to re-discover ourselves and unleash the true potential that we have, individually and collectively, to make a real difference. If the wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience we have in the civil service is used to the fullest, with all civil servants doing all that we can to the best of our abilities, there is no reason why we cannot achieve excellence or become exceptional in the world, as His Majesty envisions. Those countries who got there before us came the same way, fully leveraging shared vision and sense of purpose, collective merits and the true power of human potential.
We are at a crossroads, and we are indeed privileged to be among this generation of civil servants entrusted with the unprecedented responsibility of transforming Bhutan’s civil service, and the opportunity to shape and secure our country’s future. This is a sacred responsibility that we as civil servants shall shoulder “even if lightning should strike from above, the space in-between collapse, or the earth below move” as the Royal Kasho states of the Zhabdrung’s fearless resolve in building our nation.
LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC
How we can apply them to nation-building
Research Officers, RIGSS
During the recent and first outbreak of COVID-19 in Tsirang, some of us from RIGSS had the honour to serve on the interim Tsirang Dzongkhag Task Force for about a month. It was a great learning opportunity for us to witness how leaders must strategise swift decision-making and resource allocation in times of crisis. Throughout the course of the pandemic, His Majesty The King has tirelessly toured the high-risk regions in the country, interacting with the frontliners and the general public alike and inspiring each one of us along the way. While in Tsirang, we were also blessed to be a part of the audience His Majesty granted to the Dzongkhag Task Force on two occasions. The Royal audiences have always offered us profound insights into His Majesty’s concerns and vision for the country, which only challenge and motivate us to do better as individuals and public servants.
One of the earnest messages from the Royal audience in Tsirang was how we must transfer and apply the lessons we learnt from the pandemic to other aspects of nation-building. His Majesty said that going forward, we should focus on our national goals with the same drive and determination we showed in combating COVID-19 as a nation. This is an invaluable insight, given the possibility that most of us would likely forget many good things we did together when the pandemic comes to an end.
His Majesty highlighted that our collective effort and effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic exhibited our country’s potential to achieve great results worthy of global recognition. If we prioritise one problem at a time and give it our 100 per cent like we did during the pandemic, we can create breakthrough impacts and bring transformative reforms. For instance, if we target to improve the education system in the country and make it more STEM-centric, we should draw all our attention, energy and resources toward realising this goal until it is achieved. His Majesty’s wise and prophetic words always give us hope and a sense of direction at this crucial juncture of our country’s development.
There are so many lessons we can, and need to, carry forward from the last two years of dealing with the pandemic. These moments of reflection are filled with countless examples of how we came together, and each played our part with the national interest at heart. The solidarity and sense of urgency to adhere to the highest standards were best exercised and demonstrated during the pandemic. With the national goal to prevent the loss of lives due to the virus, the government enforced every possible measure to mitigate community outbreaks in the country. Despite the resource constraints, Bhutan did not compromise on the quality of services provided to the public, be it in terms of the state-sponsored quarantine facilities, healthcare services, or vaccination, to name a few. As we now prepare to live with the virus, the reverse isolation initiative - a first of its kind in the world - was introduced in the country under His Majesty’s guidance to protect the vulnerable and the immunocompromised population.
The various Task Forces set up in the country to manage the impacts of the pandemic clearly demonstrated the importance of multi-sectoral cooperation and collaboration at every level of governance. We had observed the effectiveness of breaking out of the silos mindset during our interactions with the Southern COVID-19 Task Force that was stationed at RIGSS in Phuentsholing. The many agency heads and representatives provided a holistic understanding of the issues. Decisions that would have otherwise taken weeks or months to finalise were made instantly and implemented accordingly. Different sectors must continue to work together to solve common problems and serve the public better, instead of one sector pursuing its mandates oblivious, or at the cost of the other sector(s). This is the future of public service delivery in our country - to be proactive, collaborative and efficient.
Another valuable lesson is the need to leverage technology to make better decisions and enhance public service delivery. For example, the development of digital platforms such as the Check Post Management System (CPMS) and the Druk Trace App significantly aided in contact tracing during the early stages of an outbreak. The public service call centres, which were systematised and streamlined, provided valuable data that enabled our leaders to make informed decisions and disseminate accurate and reliable information to the general public. We realised more than ever before the importance of maintaining robust and comprehensive data for successful policy interventions. Our public health policies, like the nationwide vaccination campaigns, were extensively informed by reliable data from both global and national sources. Henceforth, these databases could also be applicable in other areas of development where needed, reducing time and resource wastage. It is encouraging that such a paradigm shift in governance to become more data-driven comes at a time when His Majesty is consistently advocating for use of technology and data in our country’s advancement.
As the country transitions into the next phase of the pandemic and strives for economic recovery, Bhutan is extremely fortunate to have a farsighted leader on the frontline. The whole world has commended Bhutan’s fight against COVID-19. The possibilities to achieve similar feats in other areas are endless. We have shown that we have the potential, and we have the momentum going, which we must now maintain without giving up halfway or leaving things hanging in the middle, whatever be the project. After a great start, we must persevere to see things through to the very end; we must finish as well as we began. This was another ardent remark expressed by His Majesty during the Royal audience, which reminded us to be consistent in our work at all times, not just during a global crisis.
Dealing with the pandemic has surely been challenging for us, but the lessons learnt have been equally rewarding, especially in terms of their relevance and applicability towards nation-building. Situating our role within the larger vision, we must fulfil our responsibilities with the same dedication and due diligence that we showed these last two years. Words may not suffice to thank our King for all the sacrifices and selfless acts of leadership, but our right attitude and actions towards nation-building can be a good starting point.
DIRECTOR’S NEW YEAR MESSAGE
As we leave behind yet another year of the coronavirus pandemic, it is time to look forward to a better year ahead. It is also an opportune moment to reflect on what we have been able to do and achieve, as individuals and organizations, for the greater cause of our country and people, and what we can do better in the year ahead. Better times are crafted through true reflections, commitments and actions and not by mere imagination and wishful thinking on special occasions.
Of all things that were said and done this past year, His Majesty The King’s address to the nation on the 114th National Day on 17th December 2021 stands out loud and clear, like the roar of the thunder dragon. It was a speech that will be remembered and cherished by us Bhutanese for a very long time, a speech that will go down the annals of Bhutan’s history as one that changed our country forever for the better. It was an awakening of the greatest depth and deepest meaning that should have shaken the conscience of every single citizen. It was the greatest reminder to us of what is at stake if citizens fail to exercise the responsibilities to our country bestowed upon us by citizenship, or if public servants falter in our service to the nation, a sacred duty with which we are entrusted.
His Majesty warned us of being left behind as a country in a more vulnerable state when others move forward, if we fail to change and adapt. And His Majesty pointed us to what we need to change, and how, if we are to become the country that His Majesty always envisioned, the country that we truly deserve and the country that we are capable of building – a self-reliant and a fully developed Bhutan.
As we move into the new year, it is a propitious moment for every Bhutanese to reflect upon and internalize the concerns and commands of His Majesty The King as expressed during the 114th National Day, and act upon them, individually and as organisations. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are; what matters most is the realization that Bhutan is the country we call our own and we must unconditionally tread the path our King is leading us on to reach our collective national goals. We must leverage the blessings of great leadership we have in our country, and situate our own role in building the future that we envisage for ourselves and our children. This shall indeed be our most sacred responsibility and the biggest new year resolution that we can make this time round, as Bhutanese. Everything else, and everything less, should be secondary.
At RIGSS, 2021 was a fairly successful year, despite the pandemic and all the disruptions that it has caused. The institute recruited five young officers who were selected from amongst hundreds of aspiring candidates through an open, competitive and rigorous selection process. They are doing great work from year one, guided by the experienced and able seniors. The institute continued to serve as the Covid-19 Control Centre, providing secretariat, logistics and research support to the Southern Covid-19 Taskforce instituted by His Majesty The King in March 2020. The RIGSS Coronation Hostel in Rinchending, which has been converted to a Covid-19 Isolation Centre since the start of the pandemic served its fullest purpose, especially during the summer of last year when Phuentsholing had prolonged community transmission of the virus for months at a stretch.
We moved our Programme Division to the Royal Audit Authority’s Professional Development Centre in Tsirang in May 2021, and successfully launched the School Leaders Development Programme (SLDP) in the same month in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. All school leaders in the country will undergo this two-week leadership course, designed to develop the necessary leadership competencies and shared understanding among them in shaping and implementing the education reforms as enshrined in the Royal Kasho. A total of 200 school leaders have already been trained in eight runs of the course until December 2021.
On the research front, the institute has been able to conduct a few important studies. Our researchers studied the feasibility of professionalizing domestic help to address youth unemployment and dwindling fertility rates in the country. They also carried out a study to assess what motivates young civil servants in the country and the impact of leadership on employees’ motivation; the study involved over 3000 young civil servants across the country. We continued to engage our alumni in our research projects and one such project was the “Comprehensive Household Census of Phuentsholing Thromde and Peri-urban Areas” carried out in collaboration with Chhukha Dzongkhag and Phuentsholing Thromde. After over four months of work by a team of eight members, supported by hundreds of enumerators, a comprehensive database containing demographic, socio-economic and other useful information of the town and its 27,000 residents is now available. This database will not only be useful for decision-making and necessary interventions during the pandemic but will help enhance Thromde governance, planning and service delivery in the years ahead.
As a new chapter dawns for our country, we look back with gratitude for all that we have been able to accomplish. At the same time, we look forward in curiosity, excitement and confidence to discover more possibilities and better opportunities for our institute, and our country at large. We pledge to organise more impactful progammes and research that will complement the efforts of the government to formulate sound policies, enhance good governance and promote the growth of democracy to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the Bhutanese people as envisioned by our far-sighted monarchs. More than anything, we pledge to be guided and driven, in letter and spirit, by the most powerful and emotional National Day address of His Majesty The King on 17th December 2021. That much at the least, we owe to our King.
Wishing everyone a Very Happy New Year 2022.
Dy. Chamberlain to His Majesty The King
UNLOCKING THE HIDDEN POTENTIAL OF EVERY SCHOOL LEADER
Faculty, Strengths Advocate/Mindfulness Coach/Career Strategist, RIGSS
Have you ever wondered who you are and what makes you unique? Do you think the most likely route to success is through minimising your weaknesses or maximising your strengths? Those were the opening questions I posed to the 200 Bhutanese school leaders as we embarked on a strength-based journey over the past six months trying to help them uncover their hidden talents and strengths through the Clifton StrengthsFinder.
According to a Gallup World Poll conducted from 2014-2016 on adults aged 23-65, only 3% of Bhutanese are engaged at work. Gallup defines engaged employees as those involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. If this were true for the educators in Bhutan, can you imagine what the school would look like? This statistic is startling, and perhaps part of the reason could be because Bhutanese employees are unaware of and thus not taught to tap on their strengths at work.
Research by Gallup shows that compared with those who do not get to focus on what they do best, people who have the opportunity to use their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life. Also, people who harness their strengths look forward to going to work, have more positive interactions with co-workers, achieve more on a daily basis, and tend to be more creative and innovative at work.
Throughout my individual coaching sessions with each of the principals as part of the School Leaders Development Programme (SLDP) organised by RIGSS, almost everyone shared that they did not realise they possess such unique talents. They were awed by the uncanny descriptions in the Gallup Strengths reports, which accurately spelt out their talents and made them realise that they had these wonderful talents all along even though they were unaware of it. One principal even likened it to visiting the astrologer, which I believe most Bhutanese have experienced!
Just for the record, we are all unique individuals, and our talents are just like our fingerprints. No two individuals share the same set of talents. According to Gallup, there is a total of 34 Talent Themes, and the odds of finding another person with the exact Top Five Talent Themes as us is one in 33 million! When I went through the Top Five Talent Themes of the 200 school leaders, I was both amazed and impressed by the sheer diversity. All the principals are performing more or less the same duties yet achieving success in their own ways through their own unique talents and strengths.
Gallup defines talent as a naturally recurring pattern of thinking, feeling, and doing. In other words, it is our innate potential. Talents describe us, influence our choices, explain why we are better at some things than others, and most importantly, act as a filter upon which we see the world. For example, someone who has the talent theme of ‘Responsibility’ tends to have a deep sense of dedication and ownership towards things they commit to. They keep to their word, and others know they can trust and count on them.
Through the Clifton StrengthsFinder, the principals became cognizant of their Top Five Signature Talent Themes. Many of them could identify and resonate with their talent themes, and they could draw connections to how these talent themes actually manifest in their work and life. By reflecting on how these talents helped them achieve success in the past, the principals gained a greater appreciation and newfound confidence in their own strengths. They realised that by intentionally tapping on these strengths, they would overcome the challenges at work better and achieve greater success moving forward.
In light of the education reforms and evolving education landscape, the expectations and responsibilities of a school leader have never been greater. The pressure is on them to move with the times and equip the students with 21st-century skills and competencies. It is no longer about maintaining the status quo but transforming the school and fulfilling the vision of His Majesty The King. Changes are coming thick and fast, and principals must be adept not just at executing tasks or being mere administrators; they have to influence and motivate staff, build relationships with the community, and come up with strategic plans to drive their schools forward.
In order to cope with the incessant demands and daunting expectations, it is all the more imperative for school leaders to appreciate and harness their own talents and strengths to bring about positive changes to their schools and communities. There will be many challenges and road bumps ahead as we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world but going on this strengths journey with the school leaders fills me with much hope and optimism.
Although no two principals are the same, everyone has a strong sense of duty and commitment, and an unwavering passion for making a difference. I am deeply impressed and humbled by their humility and eagerness to learn, even though many have served as school leaders for twenty to thirty years. With the attitude of life-long learning, if the principals can learn to unlock their own potential and the full potential of their staff and students, I believe the future will shine brightly in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
I will end with one of the most common questions posed to me during the coaching session. Many principals have asked me repeatedly which are the best five talent themes or which five would be the best predictors of a good leader. My answer to them was always, “There is no best five. Our Top Five Talent Themes are what we have. Only by accepting and learning to work with them can we be the best leader and the best version of ourselves.”
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE FOOD, NOT THE MENU
Faculty, Organization Development and Change Management, RIGSS
Can you imagine going to a restaurant and evaluating the menu but not talking about the food? Neither can I.
Well, it may not exactly be the same, but it seems that people in organisations sometimes talk about the menu and lose track of the food. There is a long list of terms that can be used as the menu, like being Agile or Digital, a Learning or Coaching Organisation, doing Organisation Development (OD), Design Thinking (DT), Change Management, Innovation, or Transformation.
When these terms are used too loosely and frequently, people can lose track of what they aspire to create, and the focus shifts to the term and can become polarising.
How about an example? I once facilitated a workshop with the senior leaders of an organisation on the concepts and tools of a Learning Organisation (LO), the work of MIT’s Peter Senge. At the check-in most of the directors expressed an intense dislike for “LO” even though they didn’t know much about it. It turned out the CEO had gone to an LO workshop, got excited and came back and kept talking about being a “Learning Organisation”. This turned people off. As the workshop went on the leaders saw how helpful the concepts and tools were for them and their organisation. After the workshop I met with the CEO and he asked if I had any advice for him. I said “Just one thought. You can stop talking about being a Learning Organisation and talk more about what kind of organisation you aspire to be, and how some of the LO ideas and tools can help you all achieve your mission and strategies.”
These days there is a lot of talk about being Agile, but agile practitioners say that being agile is not their end goal, but it is to be agile in service of a larger mission for an organisation or community. The same goes for being digital. There are new terms coming into the world of organisations that could fall into the same trap, like being a Teal Organisation (see “Reinventing Organizations” by Fredric Laloux) or a Deliberately Developmental Organisation (a “DDO”, see “Everyone Culture” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey).
Most recipes for organisation change require a mix of ingredients, so which are the ideas and tools that can help you achieve your mission and strategies? Remember that whatever terms or tools you are using, they are in service of your aspirations.
The next time you hear someone use a term that describes a tool or method and not an aspiration for the organisation, you can ask if they are describing the menu or the food. Ok, that probably won’t make sense to them, but you can ask what they are hoping to become or to achieve.
May your meals and your organisation be nourishing and nutritious for each and all, and may your mission be served.
Douglas OLoughlin, PhD, The Dao of Thriving, Civil Service College
FROM SYSTEM TO ECOSYSTEM THINKING
Faculty, Organization Development and Change Management, RIGSS
To make our work with organisations and communities more impactful, we each want to think more systemically, to help shift systems to a healthier place.
While there is no one tool that can resolve this, a principle of Systems Thinking provides a hint on expanding our perspectives. The principle is that whenever we are working with a system, it is helpful to look at a level or two higher to see the wider context. For example, if you are working with a team, you also look up and across the larger system to look at their context, goals, stakeholders, etc., to see how they fit into the bigger picture, and the same would apply at every level of the system.
A word we can use to remind ourselves to think more expansively is “ecosystem”, so we are more likely to do landscaping instead of planting trees. We can think of ourselves as Permaculturists, as we apply the principles of living environments that are harmonious, sustainable, and productive. We ask ourselves, “how does this element fit into the larger interrelated system?”
While the term ecosystem is typically used in the biological world, we can see that most of the contexts we live in fit the definition of an ecosystem, which is “a complex network or interconnected system,” and our organisations and communities are living systems, not machines. When we see something as an ecosystem, we look for all the connections, partners, stakeholders, and all who influence and are influenced by the ecosystem.
For example, think of the system for early childhood education. One might think of the students, teachers, parents, modes of teaching, and perhaps the government agency that supports early childhood education. When we think ecosystem, we tend to be more expansive. In this case, we can include community partners, the family system, the neighbourhood, access to health care, home conditions, access to technology, funding opportunities, good practices from around the world, and teacher pay and training. You may think of more when you think ecosystem.
We wouldn’t intervene in all the elements of an ecosystem. Still, a broader perspective helps us to more wisely decide how to intervene, for the enhanced effectiveness and health of any initiative. Eric Berlow did a ted talk titled “Simplifying Complexity” to illustrate this point (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThV4pnPbI8E).
Besides seeing the ecosystem and making choices on how to create optimal shifts, sometimes, it makes sense to bring the ecosystem together to think together and explore what is for the greater good.
I read recently that the word ecosystem is being overused. Well, if the word can remind us to widen our perspectives as we explore a living system, that sounds good. May we each help develop Healthy Ecosystems for our organisations, societies, and planet and create a world that works for each and all.
Douglas OLoughlin, PhD – Associate Consultant with Civil Service College
POST VACCINATION DILEMMA
Many countries worldwide seem to be going through a big dilemma as to how to go about life post-vaccination. From Singapore to Saudi Arabia, Germany to Canada, UK to the US, different countries are taking different measures to deal with their own vaccinated people or vaccinated foreign travellers. This dilemma is understandable for the simple reasons that we have no prior experience, the pandemic is evolving rapidly and researchers are struggling to keep pace with the raging pandemic now coming in newer and deadlier manifestations. There is so much the world doesn’t yet know about the coronavirus.
In Bhutan, too, people are asking all sorts of questions about post-vaccine life and relaxations, some seemingly believing that we are done with the virus now that most citizens are inoculated. That Bhutan has been hailed the world over for its successful vaccination campaigns is certainly great news for our country, but we cannot afford to get carried away or become overconfident by this shot of success. We should indeed continue to do more of what is wise to keep saving lives and setting examples.
With over 65% of its population vaccinated, Bhutan is now at a crossroads; the path we choose to tread from here might be a game changer. Any miscalculation could not only undo all the good work that we have done so far under the wise and selfless leadership of His Majesty The King, but it could also turn out to be catastrophic for a country with such a small and fragile health infrastructure like ours. The last thing we would want our decisions to be influenced by is overconfidence.
COVID-19 cases are rising again the world over, including in our own neighbourhood. India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia etc., have all reported a rise in cases in recent days. In Vietnam, a country considered one of the most successful in combating the virus, cases increased over ten-fold in recent days and soldiers in hazmat suits were seen spraying disinfectant down the streets in Hanoi. In China, in what is reported to be the worst outbreak since Wuhan, hundreds of people recently tested positive in a fresh wave of infections believed to be triggered by the Delta variant. New restrictions have been imposed and millions of people are being tested to control the spread of the virus. And in the west, countries like the US relaxed restrictions for vaccinated people only to reinstate them with the sudden surge in cases in recent days.
Back home, we have thankfully not seen cases surge by the thousands. Still we must bear in mind that the high-risk areas in the south, particularly Phuentsholing, have reported almost non-stop community cases for close to four months now. While this can be attributed to a number of assumptive factors, the fact that the Delta variant was found to be responsible for 87% of infections in the country should not be forgotten. And as more contagious variants emerge, the probability of their spread to other parts of the country from high-risk areas cannot be completely ruled out, despite having the most stringent measures in place.
We may be vaccine-protected, but the war with the coronavirus seems far from over. There is a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability surrounding the virus and the protection offered by the vaccines. The WHO has listed four emerging variants as “Variants of Interest”, including the Lambda variant, which is now detected in some 29 countries. A “Variant of Interest” is believed to have the potential to be more contagious and virulent and escape vaccine protection.
“In a paper posted on Wednesday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review, the researchers warn that with Lambda being labelled a "Variant of Interest" by the World Health Organization, rather than a "Variant of Concern," people might not realize it is a serious ongoing threat. Although it is not clear yet whether this variant is more dangerous than the Delta now threatening populations in many countries, senior researcher Kei Sato of the University of Tokyo believes "Lambda can be a potential threat to the human society.”” (Reuters, 3 August 2021)
While data from some vaccine manufacturers have shown protection of at least six months after the second dose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on its website says it is still learning about “how long COVID-19 vaccines can protect people” and “how effective the vaccines are against new variants of the virus that cause COVID-19”. In the meantime, in a pre-print document published by the UK government, an analysis by British academics reportedly said that they believe it is almost certain that a SARS-Cov-2 variant will emerge that leads to current vaccine failure. They recommended that authorities continue to reduce virus transmission as much as possible to reduce the chances of a new, vaccine-resistant variant (CNN, 1 August 2021).
Many studies have reportedly shown that vaccinated people are not fully immune to getting infected with the virus. New research suggests that “among people infected by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, fully vaccinated people with "breakthrough infections” may be just as likely as unvaccinated people to spread the virus to others” (Reuters, 3 August 2021). Just a week ago, the CDC revealed in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that 75% of patients in a cluster of 469 cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts, were vaccinated (The Harvard Gazette, 3 August 2021).
This is important for us to note because we have close to 150,000 children below the age of 12 years (PHCB 2017) who are not yet protected by vaccines. If vaccinated people let our guard down and do not follow safety protocols after vaccination, these little children at home or spread across primary schools and ECCDs in the country become easy targets for the virus.
Whether the world will achieve global herd immunity, and in how many years, is a subject of current study by experts. However, with just 15.2% of the world population being fully vaccinated as of 6 August 2021 (Our World in Data), it seems a far-fetched dream, if at all possible. And we know that the more the virus gets to spread, the more chances it has to undergo change (mutate), producing newer and possibly deadlier variants in the process. In addition to the vaccines, the only other ways by which we could prevent the virus from spreading and mutating are to avoid crowded places, wear facemasks, maintain physical distance and wash hands with soap regularly, irrespective of whether one is vaccinated or not.
We may have thankfully achieved one of the highest vaccination records in the world, but we sit in a region where the vaccination landscape is completely different. As of 6 August 2021, India’s fully vaccinated population stands at 7.95%, Bangladesh at 2.70%, Thailand at 5.99% and Nepal at 7.31% (Our World in Data). And experts have warned us repeatedly that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
We are perhaps at a phase in the pandemic where we need the most aggressive education and advocacy than ever before. It doesn’t suffice that only educated people who catch up with the latest news about the pandemic or those involved in COVID-19 assignments know about the virus or the vaccines. The larger mass needs to understand how the overall pandemic situation is evolving worldwide and in our country, and the various unknown variables in the equation that (should) inform individual and government decision-making.
As a developing country, we may be lacking in resources and capacity. But the farsighted and selfless leadership of His Majesty The King, the political will in the government and the solidarity of our people are resources that no amount of money can buy. More than ever before, we realized this throughout the current pandemic. With the blessings of such priceless resources, Bhutan should be able to fight this pandemic till its very end, and win. And great victories are never accomplished through choices made or decisions framed in haste or overconfidence.
The writer is the Director of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) and a member of the Southern COVID-19 Task Force. The views expressed in this article are his own unless otherwise cited.
YOUNG PROFESSIONALS’ PERSPECTIVES ON BHUTAN’S CIVIL SERVICE REFORM
His Majesty The King’s address to the nation on 17th December 2020, announcing the issuance of the Royal Decree for ‘civil service reforms’, sounded like music to many. If social media posts were anything to go by, civil servants felt empowered and emboldened as their posts covering grievances and shortcomings in the civil service machinery suggested. Did we realise and acknowledge that we were also part of the system that we complained about? Already into the sixth month after the Royal address, did we try correcting certain things we could do as individuals? Or are we waiting for comprehensive reforms to be introduced, recommended by the pronounced Civil Service Reform Council?
What is the status of the Reform Council then? Sectoral initiatives seeking feedback from civil servants for reforms are underway. This raises a couple of questions. How much of help will it be to rely singly on ‘insider’ perspectives? Besides overall governance fluidity, the Royal Kasho states that 35 per cent of services delivered were between and amongst government agencies. How would reform initiatives enhance services of the civil service to its key service recipients - the people? On that premise, the reform ought to address both civil service administration as well as service delivery.
‘Small, compact and efficient Civil Service’ is the rhetoric of Bhutan’s civil service. However, with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) being the largest employer and civil servants to population ratio of 1:25 (2017 figures), the smallness has been questioned. Recruitment, retention and promotion are integral parts of civil service administration. Among others, standard routine promotions are alleged to be breeding complacency. For example, if 20 officers are recruited, all those 20 get their first promotion after five years of service. Do they have equal competencies and have performed equally well? The practice of meritorious promotion in itself has a conceptual shortcoming. Promotion, by definition, suggests that it should be based on merit. Thus, a performance-based promotion system should be instituted. Job responsibilities also need to be revisited. Professionals having to perform the same job before and after their promotions and post-graduate studies are replete. Are our Terms of Reference (ToRs) progressive enough? The current approach of ‘forced ranking’ needs to be revisited. And performance evaluation would be more representative and comprehensive by adopting a ‘360 degree’ approach.
The increased proportion of civil servants vis-a-vis the population questions the very underlying principle of small and compact civil service. Among others, the creation of specific posts for certain lines of work that can otherwise be managed by general civil service is one factor. Given that agriculture is the main economic activity in villages, and infrastructure development the arteries of growth, economic activities can be coordinated by Dzongkhag Engineers and Agriculture Officers. Is there a need for an Economic Development Officer? It is observed that the Beautification Officers’ work, by and large, confines to procurement. Further, is there a need for specialists at micro-units such as Post Production Officer and Horticulture Officer? Will there be a Pruning Officer in the distant future? Can an Agriculture Officer multi-task by building capacities? The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) has the largest number of personnel at 2,778 across agencies (Statistical Yearbook 2020), including constitutional and autonomous agencies. Having specialists (preferably from different professional backgrounds) in the central agency (RCSC) would help determine human resource audits, including creating new positions, capacity building, and syncretic discourse, among others.
Concerning the creation of new positions, the establishment of new small agencies has been observed. In an attempt to specialise and cater to specific target groups, concomitant inability to collaborate has meant delays in service delivery. Beyond this, it has entailed extra administrative costs in terms of rentals and utilities. Therefore, agencies with similar mandates and responsibilities need to be merged. The focus needs to be on strengthening human resources rather than creating a separate agency. Having similar mandates might have implications on budget proposal and allocation, further widening the differences adding problems to a system that already lacks collaboration.
The pursuit of institutional autonomy has, unfortunately, encouraged organisational silos and compartmentalisation. On the other hand, the current approach of ‘parent agency’ affects the officials in the working agency in terms of capacity building and a sense of belonging. Placing all Planning Officers under the Gross National Happiness Commission and Information Communications Technology (ICT) Officers under the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) needs to be reconsidered. It is argued that the employing agency best knows the needs of employees but has a limited role in human resource management. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Professional support and growth are crucial for employee motivation and institutional growth. However, mentor-mentee relationships are observed to be lacking. As a result, employee motivation, particularly for new recruits and entry-level professionals, is met with stumbling blocks right from the start. Instead, incidents of rigid hierarchical work culture and alleged ‘bureaucratic harassment’ are being shared. With a weak mentor-mentee relationship, succession planning is left on the margins affecting ‘institution building’. To an extent, institution building has come to mean ‘massive office building’ for some. It is not surprising that the biggest ‘modern’ concrete buildings in Thimphu today are built to house government offices. Ideally, institution building should entail capacity building with an emphasis on succession planning. In a way, it would also help address issues of ‘indispensability’. Thus, mentor-mentee culture needs to be built and integrated across the civil service machinery.
Recruitment, promotion and institutional building should all gear towards one goal - public service delivery. However, with 35 per cent of services delivered being inter-agency, ‘people-centric service’ has remained more of a rhetoric than reality. Turn-around time (TAT) with strong compliance and accountability measures should be in place. This initiative must link to a performance-based promotion and reward system approach, which would serve two purposes. First, it will streamline and strengthen service delivery procedures. Second, it will help in differentiating performing and non-performing employees. This should be complemented with the delegation of responsibilities. For example, instances of delays in issuing a timber/firewood permit in the absence of the Chief Forestry Officer are numerous. Other examples of clients having to go from one door to another just to deliver a letter are aplenty. Some would even be made to return in the afternoon or the following day. On the other extreme, practices of a supervisor delegating an irrelevant and unqualified officer to sanction works amounting to millions of ngultrums are also abundant. While there are existing rules governing delegation, they need to be revisited, and implementation should be overseen/approved by a respective superior.
We believe that His Majesty The King issued the Royal Kasho acknowledging these concerns. Among others, the Kasho requires a need to establish a time-bound Civil Service Reform Council. While the Council is apparently not formed, consultations are underway, engaging different tiers of the civil service. Such consultations aren’t new or the first of their kind. RCSC conducts similar exercises to revise Bhutan Civil Rules and Regulations (BCSR) once every four years. In that light, consultations need to engage service recipients, including people at the grassroots, because they know how best to deliver the services. Engaging former civil servants who resigned may also help shed light on the retention of high performers. To this end, it is vital to have a dedicated, time-bound Council that could reach out to all relevant stakeholders and offer a concrete roadmap towards civil service reforms. Without a clear path forward, the ongoing consultations within existing public servants will unnecessarily limit the scope of reforms to that of earlier initiatives.
EARLY EDUCATION IN RURAL BHUTAN
Master's Candidate, LSE. Planning Officer, GNHC
In June 2017, as part of the first Foundational Leadership Program offered by RIGSS, we spent a week in Chimuna Village, Lokchina Gewog under Chhukha Dzongkhag to get a deeper understanding of the development challenges and potential in our rural communities. One of the highlights of our time there was the visit to the local school — Chimuna Primary School. While we were touched by the incredible welcome that we received from the principal, teachers and students, and enjoyed our interaction with them, the challenging environment in which these students are being educated left a deep impression on me. Besides issues pertaining to acute teacher shortages, the school had several challenges, such as lack of proper toilets for the students and the distance they had to walk from the dorm to the traditional pit toilets. A glimpse into a dorm room showed thin plastic mats laid down on the floor for students to sleep on. Another distressing sight was a student with a big sore on his nose. Its cause, as revealed by the student, was due to leech infestation from drinking water from the stream, which apparently was not uncommon in the village.
This was the reality of early-years education in rural areas such as Chimuna. Unfortunately, it does not even begin to scratch the surface of all the challenges people in rural areas face regarding education — for both students and teachers.
This scene provides the premise for this reflection piece. Until we prioritize early education, until we bridge rural-urban education disparities, and until we equalize opportunities for children born into disadvantaged backgrounds, we cannot accomplish His Majesty The King's vision for Bhutan to become a self-reliant and fully-developed country within our lifetime. Higher investment and expanding support for early-years education to prepare our children for the new realities of the twenty-first century must lie at the heart of the new education reform.
Early Childhood Care and Development
His Majesty highlighted the need to transform our education system so that our children develop abilities for critical thinking, creative thinking, and learning to be lifelong learners to tackle the challenges of the increasingly progressive and fast-changing world. According to a large body of research, the key to such kind of education is timing. There is uncontested evidence that shows that the ability to learn is established very early on in one's life since much of a child's brain is developed before the age of five. There is also evidence that shows that investing in children's education within this critical window has positive effects in developing cognitive and socio-behavioral skills, which later aid in learning in adulthood. Moreover, investing in early learning and development is also a powerful equalizer since it provides opportunities for children from less advantaged backgrounds to succeed in life. Hence, early childhood care and development (ECCD) programs are extremely critical.
While the ECCD program is identified as a national priority in Bhutan since the ninth Five Year Plan, and programs pertaining to expansion of ECCD centers, professional development of facilitators and ECCD-related policy development and advocacy have been carried out, much more remains to be done. According to the report on the evaluation of the ECCD program in Bhutan, access to center-based ECCD program is still low. The proportion of children aged 3 to 5 years in the country attending ECCD is only 23.71 percent as of 2020. Moreover, there is also a wide variation in the provision of ECCD programs by district with a greater provision in more urban areas than the rural areas. This is further exacerbated by the fact that privately-owned ECCD centers are concentrated in the urban areas, and since these centers charge fees, they cater only to children from families who can afford to make the payment.
According to the Annual Education Statistics (AES) 2020, private ECCD centers have the lowest children-facilitator ratio, which means the availability of facilitator services to the children is higher in private ECCDs than the other centers. As per the report on the evaluation of the ECCD program in Bhutan, children who attended ECCD are already found to be more ready for formal school than those who did not. Hence, if the gaps in access and quality of early education in the rural areas are not addressed, the differences in the performance of children from different social groups will continue to worsen, and the children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to remain at risk.
ICT Infrastructure in Rural Schools
His Majesty has constantly reminded us that as a small nation, we must build a strong foundation for technology if we are to thrive in the twenty-first century. The wave of technological change and the pace of digital transformation is opening opportunities for social and economic advancement. However, the trends globally show that the accelerating pace of digital transformation is now favoring the highly skilled and those who live in the urban areas. If not managed properly, there are risks of exclusion of those who are not digitally connected, which could further exacerbate disparities between rural and urban Bhutan.
Currently, while the lower, middle and higher secondary schools have internet connectivity, 43.9 percent of the primary schools in the country are yet to gain internet access. These schools are predominantly in rural areas. Moreover, according to AES 2020, 10.6 percent of public schools do not have electricity. Contrary to their peers in urban areas, children in rural areas are more likely to be deprived of technologies such as smartphones, personal computers, and internet access, which have now become pre-requisites of learning due to the pandemic. If left unaddressed, these gaps will set back learning for students in the rural areas and lead to greater socio-economic costs to society.
Hence, to tap into the power of technology and to thrive in the digital age, we must invest early and invest smartly. Integrating technology into schools must start with providing access and opportunities to the rural primary schools first. That is where the need is the greatest and the highest returns on investment generated in the long run.
Drawing inspiration from His Majesty The King, the biggest service we can provide as public servants is to create an environment where everyone has a sense of purpose. For me, one of the greatest reminders of it came when some of the students of Chimuna Primary School shared with us their ambitions in life—an engineer, a pilot, a couple of boys wanted to join the army, while another chimed in to say that he wanted to become a teacher to help his community. They expressed their desire to go to college—the first in their families for most. These answers and the hope that laced each one was really quite moving. Despite being educated literally in the poorest of circumstances, they remained positive and believed sincerely in the power of education. Hence, we cannot fail them. More importantly, we cannot fail the trust and faith bestowed upon us by His Majesty to transform our education system so that EVERY Bhutanese is enabled to take our great nation forward into the twenty-first century.
WHAT MORE CAN BHUTAN DO IN MITIGATING CLIMATE CHANGE?
Masters Student, LSE, Former Asst. Integrity Officer, ACC
With over 70 per cent of its area under forest cover, Bhutan claims to be a carbon negative country. At home, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the country’s development philosophy which has ‘ecological diversity and resilience’ as one of its nine domains. An agrarian country, she outlawed shifting cultivation. And the constitution requires a minimum of 60 per cent of land under forest cover for all time. At the global level, she has unreservedly committed to international environmental treaties and regimes, including the Paris Agreement (COP 21). What more can Bhutan do? This opinion piece is an expression of hope that given Bhutan’s environmental stewardship coupled with its embedded socio-cultural values vis-à-vis the natural environment, more can be done. Selected, not necessarily interrelated, topics on road infrastructure, use of plastics (lifestyle choices) and meat (consumption pattern) are discussed. I argue that the application of stringent bioengineering in infrastructure development, taxes on plastics, and ban of meat in official functions will contribute to a more environmentally friendly growth at home and elevate Bhutan as a ‘norm entrepreneur’ in climate change mitigation efforts, globally.
As a developing economy, infrastructure, particularly transport network, is at the core of our development agenda. Road happens to be the most suitable and invested mode of transport in Bhutan. A 2018 report published by Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) found that road construction leads to "deforestation, habitat fragmentation and interrupt natural ecological flows in the natural environment." Not investing in the transport system is not an option for it is the ‘lifeblood’ of commerce, hence livelihood and economic growth.’ However, substandard work and letting construction rubbles slide destroys vegetation before it reaches the streams and rivers below, potentially disrupting aquatic lives. There is environmental impact assessment but the case of Tsheringma Dupchu in Trongsa (allegedly caused due to tunnel construction) questions the applicability and effectiveness of such a policy screening tool.
Our late embrace of modernisation presents an opportunity to learn from the lessons of the developed countries. Road networks, including bridges, however, have not been the case. As Dai Nippon Construction (DNC) meticulously applies bioengineering techniques such as stabilising slopes, Bhutanese counterparts tend to bulldoze the landscape, come what may, on its predetermined route. As DNC transported rubbles from Telagangchu bridge reconstruction site to Dorji Gonpa and later used for land refilling, Bhutanese contractors widening the east-west national highway would let boulders roll down from Thumgang (Viewpoint) stretch to Mangde Chhu. As a developed country, Japan can afford quality infrastructure, whereas Bhutan’s limited financial resources may not. How much resources, both human and financial, are incurred in repairs and maintenance, let alone those ecological disruptions?
In recent times, waste has become one of the major public policy issues. It is quite ironic that a carbon-negative country has to adopt waste management as one of the government’s flagship programmes. From the total outlay of Nu.15 billion spread across nine flagship programmes, Nu.1 billion is allocated for ‘waste and stray dog free communities.’ Are Bhutanese ecologically mindful residents? Go to sacred sites, Dragi Phangtsho, Paro and Do Mendrel, Thimphu, and the like; trashes are an eyesore in otherwise refreshingly lush vegetation. The use of plastic plates and cups are gaining currency in public events. In a traditional village-based society, one would carry one’s own cup (phob) and bangchung which can be reused indefinitely until it gets worn out. In a way, bangchung and torey helped reduce food waste by storing leftovers to be taken home. Such traditional practices helped instil individual responsibility. Further, socio-cultural beliefs in deity citadels (pho drang), protector deity (tsan), country god (gnes dag and yul lha) and lord of the soil (sa dag) helped restrain residents from actions that would potentially upset those entities. With hikes to sacred places beginning to be seen more of a leisure, an escapade from busy urban life than spiritual nourishment, what would bind our ecological responsibility, given the growing presence of trashes along the trails? Enforcement of plastic bans has failed - thrice - already.
Globally, livestock accounts for a significant share of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions. A 2015 study accounted livestock (including livestock production and animal feed production) for 18 per cent of GHGs emissions. In 2019 alone, Bhutan imported over Nu. 1 billion worth of ‘meat and edible meat offal’ from the total import worth Nu. 69 billion. Given that imports, including meat, are sourced mainly from India, it is instructive to note India’s GHGs emissions. A 2016 study found livestock and rice production as the main sources of GHGs emissions in Indian agriculture “with a country average of 5.65 kg CO2eq kg¯1 rice, 45.54 kg CO2eq kg¯1 mutton meat and 2.4kg CO2eq kg¯1 milk. Production of cereals (except rice), fruits and vegetables in India emits comparatively less GHGs with <1kg CO2eq kg¯1 product.” In countries such as Germany, the Ministry of Environment has banned serving meat in its official functions (for guests). In Bhutan, too, Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) Limited is said to have adopted a 'no meat policy.' Our actions may not be exacerbating global GHGs emissions directly, but as far as we continue to engage in global trade, we leave carbon footprints. ‘Distancing effect’ blurs our sight. Given a long supply chain including transport services, we see products, meat in this case, only in its finished product, not its production, packaging and the like. Understanding the 'transport effect' help quantify emissions from the use of fuels to deliver those products from the production sites otherwise unknown to most consumers.
The preceding discussions suggest that Bhutan’s rich natural heritage is more of nature’s bounty coupled with leadership commitment as manifested in our policies, constitutional guarantee and international commitments. The residents’ efforts, visible in the implementation of development works, lifestyle choices and consumption patterns discussed above, have rooms for improvement and readjustment. Against this backdrop, the following recommendations are made:
- Design and build durable (quality) road infrastructure employing bioengineering techniques such as stabilising slopes and proper disposal.
- Tax ‘bad goods’ such as plastics (from an ecological perspective) to change consumer behaviour. The tax revenue can be invested in conservation efforts. Such fiscal measures may also help revive the traditional use of phob and bangchung during public events, hence reducing the use of plastic cups and plates.
- Ban meat from official (government) functions. Besides being a climate change mitigation effort, it would help reduce import. Further, it would save resources such as water and energy. One may like to compare the time taken (amount of water and energy used) in cooking meat vis-à-vis vegetables.
In the absence of counterfactual studies, the recommendations mentioned above will have implications- financial outlays for infrastructure, potential political costs attributable to taxes, and grievances for leaving out meat from the menu of official functions. Two counterarguments are noteworthy. First, setting high standards entails costs in different forms. Second, current costs are treated in isolation - a one-time budget allocation for roads and bridges. Can we build the recurring expenditure in repair and maintenance and ecological disruption in overall costs? Similarly, taxes and ban of meat need to be framed as duty and sacrifice (minimal) for one’s own good- efforts to live in harmony with the larger ecology. A sense of duty for the country and being a responsible member of the global community can also be a part of the discourse. If implemented, these recommendations are expected to contribute to a more environmentally friendly development at home and elevate Bhutan as a ‘norm entrepreneur’ in climate change mitigation efforts, globally.
EXPOSED BY COVID-19
Sr. Research Officer, RIGSS
How did Bhutan just do it? Not a single health worker infected with COVID-19, and a recovery rate of over 97% among the 891 infected patients (as of April 5, 2021). Foreign personalities and institutions alike lauded Bhutan's response to the pandemic. The international media had special coverages on Bhutan's efficient response to the pandemic. Madeline Drexler of The Atlantic in February 2021 wrote about how Bhutan was “The Unlikeliest Pandemic Success Story”. The government, institutions, and individuals put their best efforts into easing the nationwide Covid-19-induced pain. Around the world, even the developed countries struggled to contain the pandemic and the entailing reverberations. Leadership failure was at the guilty end and a common target of blame in many countries.
However, in Bhutan's case, the success story is attributed to the tactful, wise and magnanimous leadership of His Majesty The King. While the Bhutanese people can only keep counting the blessings, we must also be cognizant enough to reciprocate the Royal Leadership. It is for us to reflect upon the roles we played and the responsibilities we shouldered as individual citizens during the pandemic. If national success is to be celebrated, we must not disregard our own shortcomings too. Lessons learned will enable us to do even better. Therefore, it must be admitted that Bhutan's response to the pandemic was not completely devoid of challenges and issues.
Despite earnest and repeated instructions and appeals from the government, there were cases of defaulters breaching Covid-19 protocols and laws; crossing the international border illegally, engaging in illicit trade, breaching lockdown protocols etc. Were some of us party to these irresponsible and self-serving acts?
Despite being economically sound, if some of us have either applied or received the Druk Gyalpo's Relief Kidu, which is intended for the needy, we may have to question our own conscience and morality. If we have not passed down or shared the benefits of loan repayment deferrals, then we may have just taken advantage of this initiative for our selfish gains. While it was a difficult time for almost everyone, there were still some of us who wanted to retain our gains and comforts at any cost. Prices of some commodities were raised exorbitantly high overnight.
As the nation was preparing for the worst-case scenario, some of us were knowingly or unknowingly making things worse, especially for the government and the COVID-19 Task Force members. Unfounded accusations and blames dominated social media outlets. While our frontline workers deserve genuine gratitude and appreciation, a few incidences deserve honest confession of complacency. As public servants, we must bear heavy moral guilt if we have siphoned and abused public resources during such trying times. Those of us who shied away from duty, or did not shoulder it well, may have to rediscover our sense of integrity, dedication and patriotism.
Did the two lockdowns make us grumble for having to stay at home? Ever since the pandemic hit the country, most of our national plans and projects progressed slower, rendering most public servants idle. Only we, ourselves, know how idle these idle times were. Actually, it should have been an ideal (rather than idle) time to be with family, enhance ourselves intellectually, learn new skills online and engage in spirituality. It is time for serious introspection.
Above and beyond, the nation as a whole achieved a certain paradigm shift. The government and agencies have been working long hours, putting in extra efforts like never before. Such collaboration among the agencies and officials is unprecedented. Task Force members comprising of officials from different sectors have been efficiently addressing problems on the ground. We could not have imagined the extent of COVID-19 impacts had it not been for such proactive measures. Indeed, our agencies and officials should function with such zeal, irrespective of whether we have a pandemic or not. Nation-building is always a work in progress.
After having endured these challenges together, our shared experience and wisdom must enhance our resolve ahead. The pandemic is not over yet. Rather, news of new COVID-19 variants sounds scarier. Nationwide vaccination drive should not justify the demand for normalcy. No country has attained 100% vaccination yet. Worldwide immunity is far from achieved; “No one is safe until everyone is safe”, so say the global experts. Therefore, the risk of importation and transmission of the virus persists. While relaxations within the country might be possible, opening to pre-COVID normalcy would be risky. Bhutanese must assent that our people’s safety must be accorded the highest priority amongst all.
More than anything else, we have the continued blessings of His Majesty The King. We have been patient and loyal so far and must continue to do so for our collective success as a country. With lessons learned from the pandemic thus far, the nation has to proceed and progress. Bhutan's social life and economy have to rebound. Innovation and resilience are the need of the hour.
After more than a year of being sheltered under the parasol of His Majesty's blessing and the government's initiatives, it is about time for us to translate our gratitude into action. We are wiser than we were at the beginning of last year. For our country to develop, we need the hands and hearts of every citizen. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the potential and promise of Bhutanese doing better than usual. We must leverage this at all times.
TOWARDS A DEVELOPED GNH COUNTRY
Research Officers, RIGSS
His Majesty The King has set the vision for Bhutan to become a self-reliant and a fully "developed" country within our lifetime. We now need to reflect on what the term truly means and what it really entails. In its basic sense, a developed country is associated with a high Gross National Income (GNI) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, advanced technology and infrastructure, and an overall decent living standard of people. But is this all there is to development?
The World Bank quantifies development based on the GNI per capita of a country. While countries with GNI per capita of $12536 or higher are high-income and developed, countries with GNI lower than that are categorized as developing. The income thresholds are updated annually to adjust for inflation (Serajuddin & Hamadeh, July 2020). However, quantifying alone cannot measure development, as indicated by the limitations of GNI where rich countries may lack in other aspects of social wellbeing. For instance, although Equatorial Guinea falls under the upper-middle-income classification, it has poor health and education facilities (Assa, Oct. 2020).
Thus, development goes beyond economic prosperity. Today, there is a growing emphasis on social welfare and human wellbeing to complement development. For Bhutan, however, this is not a new concept. Our development idea revolves around the guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which His Majesty has defined as "development with values." As the world rethinks development in the 21st century, GNH continues to gain widespread popularity. Similar to GNH, the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) takes into account qualitative factors such as health, education, and life expectancy along with economic growth. HDI is assessed on a scale from 0 to 1, where the developed countries score above 0.8.
While GNI and HDI offer a good measure of development, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, there is no set criteria or convention to define development. These indicators only give us a surface-level understanding of a country's developmental status. However, we need to delve deeper into this idea of development, which is more than just having a strong economy and the resources to provide adequate and advanced facilities. It is a common perception that poverty is an issue of only the underdeveloped and developing countries. However, the reality is that there is an alarming number of people living under the poverty line in the developed countries as well. At this rate, inequality is only growing with development as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. This is not true development.
In that sense, development is inextricably linked to equity, and with equity comes accessibility and affordability of the services available. Rich countries may have the best healthcare and education systems, but what is the point of having such facilities if the underprivileged and vulnerable sections of the society - those who need them the most - cannot avail them. A country can be considered developed when it not only has a strong and secure economy but also ensures effective public service delivery. The pandemic demonstrated how ‘developed’ countries like the UK and the US could not respond efficiently to a crisis despite having the ability to do so. On the other hand, developing countries like Bhutan have been gaining global recognition for their efforts in combating COVID-19 (Drexler, Feb. 2021). Dr. Jacob Assa, in his article, What is a Developed Country? distinguishes “a truly developed country” as having “both the means and the will to take care of all its citizens, in good times as well as in crises.” This perspective is perhaps a more profound way of defining development, one that is contextual as well as complex, and goes above the measures of GNI and HDI.
As a Buddhist country that emphasizes GNH more than GDP, Bhutan already upholds the values that align with this holistic understanding of development. This gives us the advantage of approaching development from a Bhutan-centric perspective like we embraced democracy, one that is suitable and customized to our society's needs and values. His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s quote, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product” in the 1970s clearly established our country’s stand on development that promotes wellbeing over wealth, progress over prosperity. However, this approach does not disregard the significance of economic growth, for GNH and GDP are not mutually exclusive. GNH is not a hindrance to GDP but an extension of it. Following the four pillars of GNH in pursuit of growth is the essence of ‘development with values.’ This is our aspiration for development, which goes beyond merely measuring material values such as production and consumption. In this regard, Bhutan can be a developed GNH country and can potentially play a crucial leadership role in promoting this alternative indicator of development.
Bhutan already has some pragmatic and strategic policies in place; we just need effective implementation and administration. We ought to capitalize on our unique culture and tradition instead of compromising them in the name of progress like in the case of most developed countries. Development does not necessarily have to come at the expense of our values, ethics and the environment, which Bhutan has been mindful of since the beginning.
We must continue working towards increasing exports and import-substitutes, ensuring self-reliance while generating higher per capita income. To keep pace with the changing times, a small country like ours needs to focus our investment in leading technologies and research, thereby increasing employment and reducing poverty. We can target the growing agri-business sector in the country to achieve these goals of promoting self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial opportunities (YPLP-2, RIGSS, 2016). Similarly, developing Bhutan's renewable energy sector will be a great platform for revenue generation and job creation. We can improve the quality of our essential services like health and education, which we are fortunate to have free access to. Further, enhancing the efficiency, creativity, and intellectual capacity of our civil servants will be crucial to achieve our higher developmental aspirations.
Above all, we have to uphold our strong values and culture of a sovereign nation, which ultimately comes down to good leadership at both individual and community levels. As responsible citizens of this country, we must constantly aspire to be better and more productive human beings by upholding the very principles and morals that define us as Bhutanese. And at the end, our pursuit of development must result in the creation of a just, equal and harmonious society which His Majesty The King constantly reminds us of.
SEVEN STEPS AHEAD
Former Managing Director, BBS
One evening in August 2020, the Prime Minister of Bhutan came on BBS TV. Apart from updating the nation on the current COVID-19 situation, he announced a Royal Command calling for people's support to feed the stray dogs in their neighborhoods. Bhutan had closed its international borders five months ago because of the Covid-19 scare, and now it was going into the first national lockdown. A person outside the quarantine facilities had tested positive, giving rise to fear of community transmission. It was at the height of the pandemic, and news from the region and beyond were not encouraging either. So, when the nation was grappling with economic downturns and loss of livelihood, fearing the worst outcomes, the Royal Command must have come as a surprise to many. The reason behind this was simple; starving dogs could attack humans. Despite all the challenges posed by the pandemic, His Majesty had even thought of the most minute details.
The BBS received few commands early on during the pandemic. First, enhance entertainment on television and radio. With many people in quarantine facilities and at home during the lockdown, His Majesty was concerned about the mental health of the people. The BBS introduced a two-hour live program with artists and entertainers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, the Bhutanese Film Industry, and local music bands. The Royal Office of Media also gave BBS 95 Bhutanese movies to broadcast. The feedback from the public was astounding. Many people in the villages didn't wait for the 7 pm curfew, but they were in front of the TV by 5 pm to watch the programs. People were well entertained with three movies a day apart from other programs. As far as I know, BBS was the only television and radio in the world that provided live musical entertainment programs during the pandemic. The Royal Commands were simple, but the impacts went a long way.
Another Royal Command to BBS was to engage the film and the entertainment industry. BBS received a budget and started the production of short films and programs. The Royal Vision served a dual purpose of giving sustenance to workers in the entertainment business and bringing additional programs to BBS television. Further, His Majesty was fully aware that if the pandemic endured for long, artists, actors, technical crew, scriptwriters, and many others would leave the industry. Although still in a nascent stage, the industry had come a long way in the last three decades, and it could be severely impacted if many left the industry.
Similarly, there was kidu for those who lost their jobs; medicines for the elderly delivered to their doorsteps; vegetables and other essential items distributed to households; and many more. His Majesty commanded all the Bhutanese worldwide would be provided vaccine and that the state shall bear the cost. It was His Majesty's initiatives that lessened the impacts of the pandemic on the Bhutanese people.
Our immediate needs restrict our ability to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, His Majesty The King was already looking ahead into the future. We will confront situations of the magnitude of Covid-19 pandemic again. But, it is reassuring for Bhutan and the Bhutanese that we are led by a King, who is not just an epitome of compassion but one who is already several steps ahead.
A Note of Gratitude from the New Recruits
RIGSS 2021 Recruits
We grew up hearing how the future of our country lies in the hands of the Bhutanese youth. Be it during the National Day addresses, commencement speeches, or school visits, His Majesty repeatedly emphasized this profound responsibility and opportunity that we have. Our King’s trust, faith, and belief in our capabilities to lead the nation forward led us on this path of public service. As we begin our career at this prestigious institute, we are filled with a sense of excitement and motivation to play our part in the nation-building process. We bring our young perspectives in our young democracy, a unique platform to affect change.
With the introduction of democracy in the country, our visionary leaders devolved the power to the Bhutanese people. Therefore, we consider it our sacred responsibility to live up to the trust bestowed upon each one of us. While democracies worldwide continue to be challenged, abused and fought for, we remain eternally grateful for the guidance and blessings of our monarchs. For the five of us, we come from diverse educational backgrounds and outlooks. However, coming together as part of the team, we aspire to achieve the larger national vision in our small yet significant ways. We realize that in a small, developing country like ours, every head, heart and pair of hands count.
Envisioning the far-reaching impacts of our contribution to the institute and the country encourages us to strive for excellence in everything that we do. By pushing ourselves to reach our full potentials, we fulfil the essence of real leadership. His Majesty's words, "What we need is not a leader to lead the masses - we need leadership of the self," are inscribed on the walls of RIGSS and in our hearts. We seek to become better individuals, and ultimately better leaders, by fostering a growth mindset. Learning something new each day is beneficial for our personal and professional development and the community that we belong to. We live in an interconnected world where we realize that our actions - what we do or do not do - will have implications. This awareness also comes to us almost naturally in our Buddhist context, where the philosophy of cause and effect always guides us.
While this view helps us in our public service journey, another source of motivation for us is this very place. The organization culture and the working environment at RIGSS make all the difference. Everyone here is focused, driven, and continuously living up to the core values of the institute - professionalism, collaboration, excellence, and leadership. The importance of teamwork is constantly highlighted, and so is every member’s contribution to the team. Since our first day, we became first-hand beneficiaries of the institute’s tradition of being helpful and service-oriented. This mind-set of the staff here has immensely helped us in our transition to a new place. We realize how this support system builds the foundation for a healthy environment, cultivating learning and growth. We want to preserve this culture and take it forward from here so that the people who come after us can also enjoy the same, if not better.
It is incredible seeing how far we have come since we first submitted our application four months ago. It is even more so, thinking how much further we can and should go from here. His Majesty has stated that Bhutan should become self-reliant and a fully developed country during our lifetime. This is most exciting because it gives young people like us a tremendous opportunity to work hard and make a difference. However, we are certain that the path ahead would come with its own obstacles. The world is changing rapidly. Our country is evolving at a drastic rate to keep up with the demands of the 21st century. Nevertheless, we shall take these challenges as opportunities to create, collaborate, and discover smart solutions.
This year, we join RIGSS at a crucial time when both the institute and our country are going through transformative reforms. The demand and prospect for the institute to shape the governance, policy and leadership landscape in our country is greater than ever before. There cannot be a better time than now, when everything seems to be at a crossroads, to unleash the best in ourselves. As we embark on this new chapter of our lives, we are filled with immense gratitude - to our parents, families, friends, well-wishers, and the institute. Most importantly, we are thankful to His Majesty for being the most visionary and magnanimous leader, and the greatest public servant we know.
HERCULES OF TONGCHUDRAK
Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan
Of so many wonderful memories of Gasa, one that stands out is the human element of a landmark place called Tongchudrak, midway between the Gasa-Laya trail. I am referring to Ap Khadip Phurba, who I regard as a larger-than-life personality. He claims - in fact, demands - both credit and compensation for making the direct (shortened) route possible. Single-handedly, his undivided, undying willpower, combined with ingenious skills in building dykes, he changed the river's course and built a makeshift bridge using hundred percent local materials. Like many, I also have succumbed to his claims, as the stark reality of the situation that one gets to experience first-hand on-site is a compelling one.
His is a story of how far the human spirit can go when will, determination, grit, and courage are in abundance. His is not a story of a mere mortal. That's why I respectfully call him Hercules - the Hercules of Tongchudrak. He displays the determination required to pursue one's goals and the necessary level of passion needed to achieve them. I cannot help but see his story as a showcase of "leadership of the self" - an emerging approach to "leadership" articulated succinctly in philosophy and practiced by our beloved King.
The Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing, an Institute envisioned by His Majesty for molding Bhutanese into great leaders, has the following quote from His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo as its guiding philosophy – “What we need is not a Leader to lead the Masses – we need Leadership of the Self.” This quote placed above the Prajna auditorium door overlooks the central lobby and welcomes anyone that enters through the main front gates leading to the reception.
I met Ap Khadip Phurba for the first time in June 2015. By then, he was already in his seventies. By any average measure, he was, without doubt, in the twilight years of his life. So he should be in some dark and dingy corner of a house with prayer beads in his hands, with toothless jaws in lazy motion chanting prayers. But that was not the path or place he chose for himself. His favorite place was upstream of the Mochu river at Tongchudrak, which is about eight hours walk from the headquarters of Gasa Dzongkhag and about five hours from Laya.
For almost nine months in a year, rain or shine, with his lanky body knee-deep in the water, he single-handedly carried and placed stones, boulders, and logs along the middle of the river to build a diversion dyke. He wanted the dyke to change the river's natural course to shorten travel time by almost one hour. His mission was to make a favorable walking trail along the base of the great Tongchudrak rock face.
And yes, this indomitable task he had embarked upon gave me the real context to experience what a "Herculean Task" means. I have heard and even used this term on numerous occasions but never really got the feel of what it truly meant until this time. An old and withered man working to divert the course of a river single-handedly couldn't be anything but a Herculean task. And in his younger days, with his tall height and muscular build, he must have stood out from the rest.
His name is Phurba, but people jestingly call him Khadip Phurba, meaning Phurba the Stutterer. He stuttered on every word. Depending on the onlooker, it could be either painful or entertaining to see him seriously struggle to say a word or two clearly. I have not met a stauncher stutterer, but one could understand him correctly if one listened with heart. Most did not care to listen to him; he was rather taken as a joker. One could say that he was the least understood personality in Gasa Dzongkhag. In fact, from early on, I was advised by many well-wishers not to pay any heed to him because he could be a serious trouble maker. But somehow, my instinct told me otherwise, and our first meeting at Tongchudrak confirmed it.
He hails from Chongra in Laya Gewog. He proudly describes his house’s location as the one next to the house that hosted Shabdrung Rimpoche on his maiden entry to the country about 400 years ago. He lost his parents four decades ago and four of his six siblings over the years. He has a seventy-six-year-old elder sister. He was married for thirty years to a woman who was nine years younger than him. They did not have any children. For the last fifteen years, he has been a divorcee. His primary source of income is from his forty yaks, tended to by his nieces. He lives with one of his nieces, who has six children, but he spends most of his time in the waters of Mochu at Tongchudrak—pursuing his mission of diverting the river to a new course so that the travelers could walk along the dry base of the Tongchudrak cliff.
Based on local sources, the story of this Herculean task began some twenty-nine years ago in 1992. He was supposed to have submitted the need to raise a dyke along the river banks of Tongchudrak to facilitate the travelers at a meeting graced by His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. It is said that in the meeting, His Majesty had remarked his submission as a good idea and that the Dzongkhag Administration should look into it. This Royal command was interpreted by Ap Phurba as an award of the dyke building works to him.
Since then, on and off, he has been working on this. He used his own resources for the work but received some cash compensation from the government. He approached various government authorities and personalities for additional compensation. The Dzongkhag administration could not help him any further as his modus operandi did not fulfill the necessary conditions for any official payments.
So from time to time, he approached VIPs like ministers, government secretaries, members of parliament, and other dignitaries in Thimphu, Gasa, and Tongchudrak, complaining about the incumbent Dzongda for not compensating his work and requesting their intervention. By 2016, he must have received compensation totaling Nu. 500,000, which was his original official claim. The most recent was a Soelra of Nu. 298,000 from His Majesty The King in August 2016, which was considered the final payment sealing all his claims. He, therefore, agreed not to pursue the matter any further.
But in the spirit of Hercules, he continued to approach authorities for compensation, despite signing the agreement. Some explain this unchanged appeal for compensation as a manifestation of his obsession with the place caused by the supernatural spirits of the locality. Locals jokingly remark that he is possessed by the supernatural spirits of the place. Whatever the truth may be, it is for sure that in the true spirit of Hercules, his unconditional devotion to the task at Tongchudrak will be upheld till the end of his earthly time.
I believe he is a perfect example of someone who exhibits "leadership of the self." He sees merits in his work at the Tongchudrak waters and therefore continues to work on it with full determination. I fully second the usefulness of that makeshift bridge that he improvised, as I have also crossed the river a number of times using it to shorten my travel time. Even the horses appear to be happier when not having to traverse the stretch over Tongchudrak rock.
He worked alone without any supervision. However, we cannot rule out the supernatural beings giving him company. Most of all, he did not seem to care for his life, considering the risks of working in these waters, especially at his age. Though I like to believe that we will never fully understand this larger-than-life personality, I can't help but think that he found the purpose of his life in serving others.
Today, with the motor road construction having reached Tongchudrak, his project for the last three decades is bound to become irrelevant. So, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say. When I met him in 2020, he did not mention anything on how this would impact his life's work, and I really could not gauge what his feelings were – a Happy or Helpless Hercules. Well, whatever his feelings, I think I prefer not to know them, but rather shout out loud in his praise: Long Live Hercules of Tongchudrak! May the spirit of "Leadership of the Self" flourish.
Miwang Ngadag Gyalpo Gyalo! Wangchuck Dynasty Gyalo! Palden Drukpa Gyalo!
 RIGSS – Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies was established in 2013 under Royal Vision. Today it is regarded as a peerless institute in the country and at par with the best in the region.
 Druk Gyalpo – King of Bhutan
 Mochu river joins her male companion Phochu at a confluence just south of the Punakha Dzong, which then becomes the Punatsangchu and later empties into Brahmaputra river in Assam in India. The famous hot springs of Gasa is on the banks of Mochu at Gasa.
 Gasa – one of 20 districts in Bhutan
 Dzongkhag – District. Bhutan is divided into 20 districts.
 Laya – one of 4 Gewogs (blocks) of Gasa Dzongkhag. It is the venue for the annual Royal Highland Festival
 Gewog – Smallest administrative unit. Bhutan has 205 Gewogs
 Shabdrung Rimpoche – Founding father of Bhutanese state in 16th century (1594–1651)
LEARNING AND REFLECTING
Student Intern, RIGSS
There I was, standing in the corner of my high school atrium, fascinated by the diverse faces of students as they talked animatedly amongst themselves. Never before had I found myself amidst such a crowd, and to say that I felt out of place was an understatement. I found myself moving deeper into the corner when suddenly, a tall man adorned in small hoop earrings and polarised cycling shades introduced himself as my homeroom teacher. His flamboyant appearance was a stark contrast to the modestly-clad teachers I was accustomed to. Soon after, he ushered us to our homeroom, where I was formally introduced to my classmates. During my two years at Prem Tinsulanonda International School, I experienced many things for the first time in my life: living away from home, interacting with people from various countries, and learning about their culture and communities. Likewise, my friends learned to say kuzuzangpo and kadrinche, they grew to love kewa datshi and waiwai with shakam ezzay, and some even visited Bhutan after high school. Gradually, I started to find my place at Prem.
My study abroad experience was culturally and academically enlightening. I was able to see our education system from a different angle. For instance, in my Dzongkha class, we did a literary analysis of Dzongkha literature, namely Gyalsey laklen and Ashi Nangsa. We also read works by foreign authors and analyzed them in Dzongkha. I had never taken these approaches in my Dzongkha classes before and it made me see these works from more than just a moral standpoint. My courses were challenging, but they prompted me to think critically and creatively; I was encouraged to become more inquisitive and open-minded. Prem's progressive pedagogy employed laboratory research, online simulations, and graphical analyses that facilitated theoretical learning and prepared me for college in the US.
In high school, additional courses in the Arts and Foreign Languages were also offered. I regret not taking this opportunity but instead confining my options to STEM. Back then, I was under the notion that a successful future was restricted solely to a career in medicine, engineering, or the law. However, when I started my undergraduate degree at Hamilton College, I was unsure if I wanted to continue pursuing STEM because I felt that I had not explored any other options. My college's open-curriculum and liberal arts program allowed me to explore and finally decide on a major in chemistry and a minor in digital arts. I recognize now that the opportunities and possibilities are limitless in the 21st Century. The future is digital, and we need to evolve to adapt and thrive constantly.
I am now in my final year of college and I often find myself reflecting on my learning journey. As I do, I realize that the global and social awareness that I have gained from diverse academic and cultural exposure has prepared me to set forth a firm footing into the future with confidence. I recognize the strong values ingrained in me by the Bhutanese education system, which has taught me to treat every individual equally. Through this outlook, I gained some special relationships with people I have met so far. One such experience I recall is with my late dorm custodian, who made me a meal over summer break and said that I reminded him of his grand-daughter.
In the Royal Kasho on Education Reform, His Majesty relayed that education is an indispensable national priority. In Bhutan, free education up to the tenth standard is a constitutional privilege for every Bhutanese. One of the revelations I had, while I was abroad was that quality public education is not a norm elsewhere, and as Bhutanese, we must be grateful for this opportunity and make the best use of it. Our education system perfectly incorporates cultural and moral values, and Bhutanese traditions; however, we need to integrate technology and research-based learning in classrooms. I was beyond grateful to His Majesty for his extraordinary vision in recognizing the shortcomings in our education system. The reforms suggested would ensure an education system that is equally reflective of the progressive and competitive world. I pray that His Majesty’s vision translates into reality to take Bhutanese students to greater heights in the future.
NATIONAL SECURITY- SITUATING COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN BHUTAN'S SECURITY CONCERNS
Masters Student, LSE, Former Asst. Integrity Officer, ACC
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc, some Bhutanese have treated national efforts parallel with the low-intensity military operation of 2003. Some urge compatriots to make amends for failing to respond to the nation's call during the 2003 operation. The duty might be different, but both have implications on national security. Bhutan's general rhetoric and understanding of security appear to confine to traditional security threats of being 'flanked' between two populous countries with military and economic power. This directly impinges on essential values of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and statehood. Non-traditional security concerns, which can pose threats to the survival and development of a sovereign state and humankind as a whole, aren't as necessarily pronounced as they should be. These include – pandemic, natural disasters, and cybersecurity.
On the eve of our democratic transition, His Majesty The King signed the revised Bhutan-India Friendship Treaty in 2007. Four years earlier, in 2003, His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo successfully handed over Indian militants residing in Bhutan's southern stretch to the Indian government. The former strengthened Bhutan's sovereignty while the latter ensured her security. Coming to the present time, His Majesty The King commanded the sealing of the international border to keep His people safe and the country secure as the COVID-19 caseload increased globally.
Now, in the reign of the third democratic government, COVID-19 is an ongoing test of how prepared we are in the wake of uncertainty. Did we live up to the expectations of our Monarchs? Are our actions commensurate with the trust bestowed on us?
Into the second year of the pandemic, Minister for Agriculture and Forests tells residents of an agrarian country to 'change the dietary habit to address the chilli shortage.' After the second lockdown, three women walked for almost an hour to refill liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder in Nganglam. With one death from 859 confirmed cases [as of 05 February 2021], the figures suggest Bhutan's fight against the pandemic as exemplary. However, overall responses could have been better. For example, as Phuntsholing witnessed positive cases every day in August 2020, BBS's panel discussion was mostly on zoning in Thimphu. While it must have helped prepare for the second lockdown, Phuntsholing required more coverage than a normal news story. As Thimphu residents ran out of vegetables, farmers in villages were said to have let rot their farm produce. The aggregate of individual household security forms the national security, including economic security.
Are we doing better in other non-traditional security threats? Our responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), and fire appear to be more prepared. The Disaster Management Act of Bhutan 2013 provides a clear line of responsibility, including at the Local Government as the establishment of the Dzongkhag Disaster Management Committee indicates. Considering that COVID-19 [as it stands today] did not spread across all 20 Dzongkhags, would it have been better coordinated through Dzongkhag specific response with similar legislation? The second lockdown saw coordination headed that way. Perhaps experience is important. Bhutan witnessed the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, which was, of course, of insignificant number? The practice of 'yulsung' was implemented as early as 1949. Didn't we learn enough lessons? In the absence of specific legislation, the Penal Code of Bhutan has become the principal legislation to deal with breaches of COVID-19 protocol. For example, a man in Samtse has been prosecuted for crossing the border to fetch water for his five-year-old son. Trespassing the international border during such times is one grave concern, but trespassing to drink water paints a different picture, particularly on the level of awareness on the ground and access to necessities such as water.
As disease outbreaks become more likely attributable to ecological disruptions, and drugs and pharmaceutical companies become more inclined towards profit than ethics, we can never rule out epidemics and pandemics in the future. Legislation with a clear line of responsibilities might help coordinate region-specific responses. Schools in Lhuntse need not have to close because of cases in Thimphu. Road construction in Trashi Yangtse can continue even when Phuntsholing sees infections. A tiered system coupled with proper coordination is expected to reduce economic disruptions, thus lowering recovery costs. Retrospective commentary is quite easy, though.
Information technology opens unrivalled opportunities. Bhutan e-Government Master Plan 2014 is one such acknowledgement. It is also accompanied by certain risks. As much as territorial integrity and national boundary, information and data integrity are important in securing national sovereignty. Digital sovereignty will be tested as the reach of information, communications and technology (ICT) deepen. Information, Communications and Media Act of Bhutan 2018 authorises interception, monitoring, decryption and blocking of information received or stored in any ICT system if it threatens the interest of the country's sovereignty, security, and harmony and defence. The National Cybersecurity Strategy (NCS) of Bhutan is also said to have been drafted. As technology giants in the U.S. face Congressional hearings, in Bhutan, social media such as WeChat is one medium in which some official documents are being circulated. Perhaps these are ordinary documents?
In pursuit of e-Governance, data and information are being migrated online. To this effect, 'Application Development Guidelines' are put in place. Unless the specific project proposal document covers security protocols, the guidelines eligibility criteria about 'sensitivity to security concern' in developing one such database or system are silent. Government's e-governance database and application such as 'Management for Excellence (MaX) System' covering entire civil service, 'Government e-Payment System' and 'Government Payroll System' have been built by expatriates and foreign companies. Apparently, expatriates have been trusted with the government's entire personnel and financial flows. Perhaps, code of conduct and audit mechanism is resilient enough. Was it because of a lack of Bhutanese expertise? Some Bhutanese are said to be working in Silicon Valley while some are plying their business in technology companies in Singapore. Cannot Bhutanese build their own security system, including data and information management systems?
As evident, concerted efforts are being put at varying degrees. However, our preparations are supposedly short of the imminent challenges. What would have been the status of those laid-off employees had it not been for Druk Gylapo's Relief Kidu? Into the second year, neither the executive nor the legislature has indicated a long-term solution for such redundancy. Does the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007 cover such redundancies? The question remains as to what the concrete recovery measures are. Come 2023, Bhutan will be graduating from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDC). By that effect, access to finance will possibly be reduced.
Currently, different security threats are subsumed under different legislative instruments. Attributable to such an arrangement, it appears that the security component didn't receive much attention as it should. Has the time come for Bhutan to develop a comprehensive security framework covering both traditional and non-traditional security threats? Or is such a fusion incompatible?
As we commemorate His Majesty's auspicious 41st Birth Anniversary, can we commit both in words and actions to maximise and deepen our efforts to strengthen Bhutan's security and sovereignty which we know is amongst His Majesty’s top-most concerns and priorities.
[Disclaimer: The author claims neither authority nor expertise on the subject matter of security.]
An alumnus of Foundational Leadership Programme-2, Dechen hails from Mongar. His occasional posts and commentaries are available at his personal website, www.dechenrabgyal.com.
OF HARDSHIPS AND HOPE
The Journey of an Entrepreneur
Founder, iHub Bhutan
I feel the real struggle in life begins after we graduate, especially on this side of the world, where students are unaware or have not planned about where they are headed. Unlike many others, I had a smooth start at first because I knew what I wanted. But the journey has been a rough ride and continues to be so even today. After graduating in 2013, I had the opportunity to work in one of the associations in the country and got a job in Singapore.
During my stay there, I learnt about the concept of co-working and incubation for aspiring entrepreneurs, which was (and still is) new for Bhutan. With excitement to bring this concept back home and hoping that things would be convenient like that in Singapore, I left my job and returned. Within days, the dream of bringing change almost got shattered. This began when I had to wait for about a year to get a business license. We talk about the ease of doing business in Bhutan, but many startups give up before even trying because of such lengthy processes.
Four years have passed since I joined the entrepreneurial world with my dream startup iHub. I built this startup to help other startups through pre-incubation programs and co-working space. Many of them struggle in their early days because they do not meet the right mentors to guide them. And for a young startup, co-working space is essential as it creates an open, collaborative space where we could rent a desk at an affordable price and create a network to connect.
It has been a lonely journey so far. I learned from my mentors, who are experts, and I share what I know to aspiring startups with the little knowledge I acquired about the entrepreneurial system. I am always grateful to my friends who have always stood by and supported me. They have been my guides in this journey, and without them, I am certain I would not have made any mark in the entrepreneurial community.
Although iHub was able to create some positive impact in the lives of some startups, it has been a continuous challenge for me all along.
Looking back from where I started, I realize that it was never easy. In building a startup ecosystem, I had less or no time for my family, friends, and myself. There were times when I was without a single penny for months and had to sell off personal belongings to sustain myself. And I did all these because I had decided to take that risk in life, knowing the challenges of the entrepreneurial world.
iHub so far has not made any profit because that was never the intent. I aspired to build substantial social capital and meaningful connections. What has given me joy is that through iHub, three startups established their businesses. They began by hiring mere tables and chairs from our co-working space and now have their own offices. They have raised more than Nu 37 million and created employment opportunities for more than 20 people. Happy Delivery, an online delivery and logistic business, Sadone Design, which specializes in modern designing of traditional arts and crafts, and Chechay Sanitary Pad, the only female-led business in the group, are some of the startups that have fared well so far.
Amid all these experiences of happiness and struggle, for me, RIGSS came as a blessing. Through RIGSS, I understood the importance of "self-love" and the ability to look at things differently. Very few of us from the private sector can afford to attend the RIGSS programs. This Royal Soelra is something I would cherish throughout my life. The process of reflection and finding purpose made me realize how much I had missed in life while chasing my dream. After RIGSS, I immediately adopted a core value for myself and iHub - "Possibilist" and "Doing Business with Values," respectively.
In the modern business world, we are mostly profit-driven and forget the real principle that binds and makes us unique. So through the iHub program, I have always tried to integrate doing business with values. And since I follow the principle of possibilist, no matter what, I always find ways to keep myself and iHub going. The year 2020 was a challenge for everyone. Even my business got disrupted, and I had to join one of my startup friends who kept us busy and earned a minimal amount to sustain through these challenging times. Before that, we planted trees on behalf of others and made our living during the initial days of the pandemic.
Now with my personal core values, I can explore markets beyond Bhutan. We are currently partnering with agencies abroad to provide entrepreneurial training both within the country and overseas. I always believed in social capital, and now I have an extended network of friends and experts from my RIGSS days, on whom I can always rely.
2020 taught us that together, we could do a lot. And that we are too complacent and have never explored things that we can do. This will be over soon. And I have learnt that what doesn't kill you makes you even stronger.
Before joining RIGSS, I had a different perspective of our system or government. Now that I had the opportunity to interact with my cohort and attend impactful lectures and immersion programs, I have learnt that my friends are young and smart, with the potential to make a difference in our system. I learnt to place national priorities ahead of personal interests and work towards national goals no matter where and which agencies we are in. I have discovered my calling, and my place in the nation-building process.
BHUTAN'S FOREIGN POLICY
Asst. Desk Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Author's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not, in any way, represent the views of the organization with which the author is associated with.
A brief introduction
Bhutan's foreign policy evolved gradually after Zhabdrung Rinpoche unified the country as a nation-state in the 17th Century. Before the unification process, Bhutan was heavily engaged in fighting back several invasions from the Tibetans and a few from the Mongols. Back then, Bhutan's engagement with the outside world in terms of people-to-people relations, trade, commerce, political discourse, international relations, etc., was never a national priority. This article assesses the crucial milestones in Bhutan's external engagements. It presents the context in which our visionary Monarchs administered Bhutan's foreign policy and its contribution towards maintaining a sovereign independent state.
How and when did it evolve?
Fast forward to the late 18th Century, having fought several battles with the British forces, Bhutan had to cede its territories (duars) in the south. The Bhutanese lacked military strength and capacity and were no match for the well-equipped British troops. Following the Duar War, Bhutan signed its first treaty, the Treaty of Sinchula, with the British government in 1865. In return for territories that Bhutan ceded, the British agreed to pay an annual subsidy of Nu. 50,000. The treaty promised a peaceful coexistence between the two countries and assured Bhutan's sovereign status as a signatory to the treaty.
Later in the early 20th Century, and a few years before Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned as the first King, he engaged in the Younghusband expedition in 1904. He proved to be a successful and indispensable mediator between the British government and the Tibetans, which gained him huge attention from countries in the region and beyond. Such skills and talent of an individual Bhutanese helped shape the image and reputation of the entire country. An interesting excerpt quoted in Dr. Sonam Kinga's Polity Kingship and Democracy reads:
"One character that did well out of the Younghusband Expedition was that tough, sharp Bhutanese go-between, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck. If answering devotion to national self-interest is the hallmark of the good diplomat, he can scarcely be faulted."
Fifty-five years later, the Treaty of Sinchula was renewed, and a new treaty known as the Treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910. The main revision was on the annual subsidy, which was doubled to Nu. 100,000 and an additional clause was included as reproduced hereunder:
"The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British government in regard to its external relations."
The clause above served two purposes: firstly, it is a projection of Bhutan's existence as a sovereign independent state. Therefore, the Bhutanese never entertained foreign interference in its internal affairs. Secondly, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck sensed the threat of being controlled by the other dominant countries in the region. Thus, Bhutan agreed to be guided by the advice of the British.
Embracing a new neighbor
A huge turnover in the region's geopolitics was when India gained its independence from the British empire in 1947. This also marked an important milestone in the conduct of Bhutan's foreign policy. Two years after India gained independence, the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1949 with the Government of India. The treaty marked an important step in formalizing our bilateral relations with a new neighbour - India. The main revision was an increase in the annual subsidy to Rs. 500,000 and retention of Article 2 of the earlier treaties replacing "the British Government" with "the Government of India."
It was then followed by the historic exchange of visits by the leaders of the two countries. The third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, visited New Delhi at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's invitation as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day of India in 1954. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi, also visited Bhutan in 1958. The visits indicated a breakthrough for Bhutan to end the self-imposed isolation and engage with the rest of the world.
The signing of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty between His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Hon'ble Foreign Minister (of India) Pranab Mukerjee in 2007 is also a direct outcome of those inherent diplomatic skills exhibited by our visionary Monarchs. The treaty reflected the growing Indo-Bhutan relations, reaffirming trust, confidence, and respect between them. It did away with Article 2 and the clause on the 1865 and 1910 treaties' annual subsidy. The new Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty states:
"In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of it's territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other."
On the regional and international fora, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan in 1962 with a primary objective to garner support for development plans. Later, in 1969, Bhutan's membership in the Universal Postal Union was a crucial step towards informing the rest of the world about our existence as a sovereign independent state. The postage stamps were sent out as "Little Ambassadors" to promote Bhutan's sovereign status and independence. By then, Bhutan had gained huge recognition and attention from the international communities. There was no single objection from the UN Member States, including the UN Security Council, to Bhutan's membership in the United Nations in 1971. Another proactive measure was joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1973, which safeguarded Bhutan against the major power bloc's dominant ideologies. It was also an important step that assured Bhutan as a responsible member of the international community and, more so, in furthering our relations with like-minded countries.
A bold decision and enhanced relations
An extraordinary move in Bhutan's external engagement was when it recognized Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971. The decision was taken when the region was ostensibly getting highly volatile due to the unrest in the northeastern states of India. Bertil Lintner's Great Game East has a lot more on issues concerning Asia's most volatile frontier. Bhutan continues to receive due regard and appreciation from the Government of Bangladesh for being the first country to recognize its independence. As a result, Bangladesh became the second country with whom Bhutan established bilateral diplomatic relations in 1973 after India in 1968. It truly gives a sense of how Bhutan chose to conduct its foreign policy across time and space.
On a similar front, during the coronation of our Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1974, the Presidents of India and Bangladesh, the King of Nepal, were invited to be the honoured guests. Other invitees included Heads of Mission, based in New Delhi, of the P5 countries, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Burma, Singapore, Japan, Sri Lanka, Canada, and UN agencies' representatives, including the UN Secretary-General. One could imagine the time and resources the Bhutanese had to acquire to extend excellent arrangements and hospitality in the early 70s for the visiting guests. The country's development in terms of accessibility (transport and communication mostly) and other infrastructure was still at a very nascent stage. Nevertheless, Bhutan has never failed as a nation.
To diversify and broaden the external financing windows, Bhutan joined the World Bank and IMF in 1981 and ADB in 1982. Bhutan was a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the six other South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 1985. Afghanistan joined later in 2007. Here, it is important to understand that regional organizations such as SAARC were established when the big and powerful countries were actively engaged for regional supremacy. In other words, external threats to Bhutan's sovereignty and security continued even in the '80s. And being a founding member of SAARC, a regional organization based on equal footing, gave an additional space to project our sovereign status.
A gradual shift in Bhutan's foreign policy
While Bhutan plays an active role as a responsible member of the international community, His Majesty's vision for multilateralism has further strengthened its standing and prominence in the international fora. A notable contribution to international peace and security is Bhutan's long-standing commitment and participation in the UN Peacekeeping Operations.
Drawing inspiration from His Majesty's 112th National Day Address, the government has already launched the process of formulating the 21st Century Economic Roadmap. Economic diplomacy - enhancing trade and commerce, creating a conducive environment for foreign direct investments, and exploring external financing windows to meet domestic priorities - will become an important foreign policy objective.
With rapid technological advancement, His Majesty The King has always emphasized science and technology diplomacy. In the future, Bhutan needs to actively leverage its diplomacy and tap into the growing science base of more advanced countries. It will help develop our human resource capacity and stimulate innovation.
What kept us moving?
The main element of Bhutan's foreign policy pursued by our successive Monarchs was building genuine trust and friendship based on mutual respect with all countries. The exemplary Indo-Bhutan relations nurtured for more than five decades are a direct outcome of such policy. There is also an interesting anecdote, although not widely spoken - the Fourth King's visit to Japan in February 1989 to attend the state funeral of the Showa Emperor. Many foreign dignitaries stepped forward, paid tribute, and left the place. However, unlike them, the Fourth King returned to his seat after paying tribute and waited until the funeral rites were over. Such genuine acts have gained immense goodwill and the people of Japan still vividly talk about them.
Our engagement with the rest of the world had always been, as Kishore Mahbubani wrote, "the minimalist approach." Every single step that our Monarchs took was well-thought-out, timely, and calculated. For instance, our persistent efforts towards maintaining good relations with the P5 countries are paying off even without formal diplomatic relations. Such policy measures allowed Bhutan to focus on domestic priorities like socio-economic development and, more importantly, maintain its sovereignty. As a small and landlocked country, Bhutan had never exhibited its smugness over the inherent superiority in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Centre for Bhutan Studies. Final Programmes for the Coronation, June 1974 and the Silver Jubilee Celebrations June 1999 of His Majesty The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Thimphu. (1999). http://crossasia-repository.Ub.uni-heidelberg.de/315/ 1/Coronation.pdf
Das, B.S. Mission to Bhutan: A nation in transition. India. Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. (1995).
Wangchuk, Dorji. Letter from Japan. (2016). https://dorji-wangchuk.com/2016/11/11/letter-from-japan/?fbclid=IwAR0mGO8L_ajSaLL3fEidPATEXQyxDczXuAX9UmzhdOLSIcQjar_qr-ceu9Q
Institute of Developing Economies. Sub-regional Relations in the Eastern South Asia: with special focus on Bangladesh and Bhutan. (2004). Japan. http://www.ide.go.jp/ library/English/Publish/Download/Jrp/pdf/1323.pdf
Kinga, Sonam. Polity, Kingship, and Democracy: A biography of the Bhutanese States. Thimphu. Bhutan Times Ltd. (2009).
Lintner, Bertil. Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia's most volatile frontier. India. HarperCollins Publisher. (2016).
Mahbubani Kishore. Has the West Lost It? A Provocation. The United Kingdom. Penguin Random House. (2018).
Marshall Tim. Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that explain everything about the world. The United Kingdom. Scribner-Simon and Schuster, Inc. (2016)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. https://www.mfa.gov.bt/?page_id=59
Tobgye, Sonam. Kuensel. The development of Bhutan's relations with India. February 09 2019. https://kuenselonline.com/the-development-of-bhutans-relations-with-india/
Economic Roadmap for the 21st Century. https://economicroadmap.gnhc.gov.bt/ neighbor
CIVIL SERVANTS’ MINDSET FOR 21ST CENTURY BHUTAN
Bhutan is at a crossroads, in every sense – rebuilding an economy crippled by the pandemic, reforming the civil service to better cater to the changing demands of the 21st century, and revolutionizing the education system to produce future ready citizens. His Majesty The King’s vision for the foreseeable future is crystal clear – for Bhutan to become self-reliant and a fully developed country within our lifetime. And so much of it all lies in the hands of our civil servants.
With over 31,000 employees, Bhutan’s Civil Service is by far the largest employer in the country, and by that account, the largest pool of know-how and talent. There is roughly one civil servant for every 24 Bhutanese, an astounding civil servant to population ratio which must be amongst world’s best. South Korea’s is about 1:50 (Edge Weekly, Oct. 2019). From our GDP of about Nu. 200 billion, we spend close to Nu. 20 billion annually on civil servants pay and allowances. Given such statistics, one will be tempted to believe that Bhutan’s planning, policies, strategies, infrastructure or services are of the highest standards or amongst the most efficient. The biggest question is “Are they”?
The civil service worldwide is ideally a dynamic institution, constantly evolving to meet the challenges of the changing times. In Bhutan too, we know our civil service has come a long way. From the erstwhile Department of Manpower instituted in 1973 by the Fourth King to the current Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC), our civil service has undergone numerous transformations. However, the call for change is stronger now because the change outside and around us today is more rapid and disruptive, and problems of the VUCA world are increasingly becoming more pronounced. Civil servants need to catch up faster than they did ever before to stay relevant and ahead of the curve.
In the Royal Decree on Civil Service Reform issued on 17 December 2020, His Majesty The King acknowledges the contribution of the civil servants in the nation-building process thus far, and calls for its reform in preparation for the future. “They have contributed immensely to the success of our democracy and in nation-building, becoming an admired corp of well-educated, highly trained, and committed officials in the process. Even as we celebrate their successes and achievements, we have to prepare for our future.”
The Royal Decree also highlights an area of concern, that indeed appears to be amongst the greatest grievances against the civil servants in Bhutan today. “We have to take on board legitimate concerns over the sense of complacency and indifference generated by guarantee of job security.” That civil servants, rather than facilitating, are becoming an impediment to development and progress, is a matter that merits deep introspection by individual civil servants and organizational leadership. Nobody would want to be in the right place for the wrong reasons, doing the wrong things.
As we embark on this important journey to reform the civil service as envisioned in the Royal Decree, I reflect on four mindsets that could be cultivated or promoted in our civil service. His Majesty The King once remarked that with the right mindset and attitude, an average man can move mountains.
The Servant-Leader Mindset
Civil servants are paid to serve the larger public or national interests, including policy formulation, planning and strategizing, policy implementation, resource mobilization and utilization, infrastructure development, monitoring and evaluation, public service delivery etc. Because civil servants are paid to do what we are expected or entrusted to do, the most undesirable mindset in civil servants will be to think that we are doing someone a favour. The work civil servants do is not charity.
But public service, in its true sense, is much more profound and transcends any monetary equation. Ideally, civil servants should be intrinsically motivated by the service we can render in the form of the work we do. We should be driven by the impacts that our sincerity and hard work will have on the wellbeing of fellow citizens and our nation at large. In the civil service, we (ought to) live more for others than for ourselves, that indeed is the true purpose of civil service. A doctor should be driven by the lives he can save or the pains he can mitigate. Similarly, a teacher should be driven by the possible impact of his students on the future of our nation. No quantum of money can buy such a level of inspiration and fulfilment.
The mindset we ought to have in the civil service is that of a servant-leader. Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader” wrote thus about a servant-leader: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…”.
With the loyalty of a servant and the competency of a leader, there is no doubt that Bhutan’s civil servants will serve our public better and navigate the complexities of the 21st century. But first, we need to discover the “servant” in the civil servant.
The Entrepreneurial Mindset
The draft 21st Century Economic Roadmap for Bhutan highlights how excessive regulation, bureaucratic red-tapism and indifference in the civil service are painful bottlenecks in our system, particularly for businesses. Many of us in the civil service know this. Perhaps we have a great opportunity now to change it, and change must begin with oneself.
If our country has to become self-reliant and a fully developed country during our lifetime as envisioned by His Majesty The King, civil servants will increasingly need to shift gear towards a more entrepreneurial mindset. Civil servants need not do business but we need to have the business acumen as a part of our competency. We have the potential to be more decisive, innovative and risk-taking. We need to graduate from the existing fail-safe mentality.
A robust and resilient economy, high income and high living standards are necessary imperatives of a developed country. If we have this realization, it won’t be difficult for our fellow civil servants in the Ministries of Agriculture or Economic Affairs, the Tourism Council of Bhutan or the Thimphu Thromde to formulate plans and policies that will help generate more revenues for our economy. These are random examples; civil servants across government agencies can do the same, one way or the other. If civil servants have an entrepreneurial mindset, we would see, or better still create, opportunities beyond the regulatory horizons.
Our development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has sometimes been seen as an impediment to growth. In a way, it is a necessary impediment to reckless, destructive and unsustainable growth. However, within the dictate of GNH, there is so much that we can achieve on the economic front that can still make us a developed country with high income within our lifetime. Becoming a developed country need not necessarily come at the cost of GNH and its principles.
If we are to become a developed country in our generation, it will be imperative to promote an entrepreneurial mindset in our civil service – a mindset that values time, innovation, efficiency, partnership, data, risk-taking and money. It is about time that we rethink the belief, or the myth, that we are happy with less.
A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful ways; a growth mindset thrives on the challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work (Carol Dweck).
Nobody knows everything under the sun. But today, we have the opportunity and the resources to know as much as we need to, or wish to. All we need is a bit of humility to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, the openness to learn, and the belief that we can get better through our efforts. In a recent RIGSS Podcast interview, the Resident Representative of UNDP Bhutan, Ms. Azusa Kubota, highlighted the need for “humility” as a part of building capabilities. She said “The first humility is to really admit that we all need to embrace the fact that we don’t know many things happening around us and we certainly don’t know our future; acknowledging this requires courage and also this will allow us to seek support in defining what it is that we don’t know”.
In the Bhutanese civil service, the assurance of job security irrespective of how much we know or don’t know, or how much we perform or don’t perform, seems to be one of the biggest inhibitors of the growth mindset. The inability of the system to differentiate civil servants based on merit leads to a perception of lack of recognition to those who invest time and effort to learn more and do better.
The world around us is fast changing; the only way the bureaucracy can catch up and stay ahead and relevant is by bureaucrats embracing a growth mindset. A growth mindset will help us know more, innovate, solve problems and dream bigger. It will help us achieve higher levels of motivation and performance. A growth mindset will allow us to embrace change. With a growth mindset, it’s not about how good you are, it’s rather about how good you want to be. And sky is the only limit.
The Problem-Solving Mindset
In a recent zoom conference, author and social entrepreneur Tami Simon was asked about the mindset of employees in her company that makes her company do so well. The mindset, she said, is: “You have a problem? Let me solve it.”
We are generally good at problem identification or definition, which no doubt is important. For example, most of us today can talk about the problems the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted upon us as a nation, such as unemployment, dwindling economic growth, food security etc. We now need to move towards finding solutions, which is most important.
Those with a problem-solving mindset embrace problems rather than shun them. They see opportunities. And embracing problems is perhaps the starting point to finding solutions. In times of massive uncertainty like today, problems are varied and never-ending, and the only way to move forward and do better is by discussing and discovering solutions to our problems. Our attitude towards problems, whether we embrace them or shun them, would make all the difference.
Bhutan’s civil service has the best of brains and a wealth of experience. We are solving a lot of problems, and we can do so much more. We are capable of taking that “dragonfly eye view” of problems so that we see threats and opportunities beyond the periphery of vision (McKinsey Quarterly, Sep. 2020). The ability to view things with a 360 degrees lens is crucial for each and every Bhutanese, particularly those of us bestowed with the trust of public service. If we realize that we can, and must, solve our own problems, then we can. If we have a problem-solving mindset, everything else towards finding solutions will follow.
We have so much potential in the Bhutanese Civil service, be it numbers, capabilities or experience. We are so many for a country so small that we can actually be amongst the best in the world in terms of public service efficiency and effectiveness, and the standards we set. The Royal Kasho on Civil Service reforms not only gives us the vision, it shows us the paths to get there. It is us civil servants, and the civil service system as a whole, who need to be amongst the first to acknowledge that we need to do better because we have the potential to do so. Potential unutilized is opportunity wasted.
As we embark on this milestone journey of civil service reforms, efforts towards transforming the civil servant mindset need to be accorded utmost consideration. We may have the best of systems but if we fail to re-engineer the civil servant mindset, much of what we have today will likely remain the same. The real thrust to change must always come from within, and we must do all we can to unleash that thrust.
14 YEARS OF GLORIOUS REIGN
Senior Analyst, DHI
With the blessings of the Triple Gem and our people's good fortune, Bhutan has always been blessed with selfless Monarchs. In 2006, His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo handed over the reigns of Kingship to His Majesty The King, expressing that the then Crown Prince had a genuine interest in serving the country and looking after the people's welfare. These prophetic words indeed came true, as His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has ushered in a new era of peace, prosperity, and happiness for all Bhutanese people. On 21st February, as the Nation celebrates our beloved King's 41st birth anniversary, here is a small reflection of what The Druk Gyalpo has accomplished in His 15 years of glorious reign.
In matters of foreign policy, our King has proven to be an impeccable statesman strengthening diplomatic relationships with all countries, and in particular with our closest neighbour and friend, India. From the very beginning, His Majesty declared that "Indo-Bhutan Friendship is indispensable for the future success of Bhutan." His Majesty made it a point to regularly visit India and invite Indian leaders to visit Bhutan, to strengthen the ties of friendship between the two nations. Bhutan is the only country to have been accorded four invitations for a head of state to grace India's Republic Day celebrations as Chief Guest. The fact that India chose Bhutan as the first country to provide the COVID-19 vaccine is a further testimony of the friendship between the two nations. His Majesty has always accorded topmost priority to fostering the Indo-Bhutan relationship.
Besides India, Bhutan’s immediate neighbour is China. Although there is no formal diplomatic relationship with China, His Majesty The King has maintained a good relationship with China. Sometime in 2015, all were pleasantly surprised to read an article in Kuensel by the Chinese Ambassador to India Le Yucheng, talking candidly about his admiration for our Kings and Bhutan's development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. With His Majesty’s guidance, Bhutan was able to play her part in peacefully resolving the escalating situation that arose in Doklam in 2017.
His Majesty has uplifted Bhutan's stature by leaps and bounds with His humility and diplomacy on the international stage. Our relationships with Thailand, Japan, and Singapore has become strengthened in the past decade and a half, especially after His Majesty visited these countries. In 2015, His Majesty dispatched a 52-member team to Nepal to assist in earthquake relief operations. This gesture of His Majesty immensely helped Bhutan build the goodwill of Bhutanese in Nepal. With His Majesty's intervention, Bhutan was able to join the UN peacekeeping missions to contribute in our small way to global peace and security. Out of regards and affection, a Japanese woman left about USD 150,000 in her will to be used for His Majesty’s noble Royal Initiatives in 2011. Such stories only reiterate that our King's leadership is admired beyond our borders.
In one remote village of Bhutan, a woman was condemned and isolated by her community. They were under the strong superstition that she was a "poison giver." During a Royal visit to that village, His Majesty intentionally took Ara from the woman to dispel this thought from her community. Everywhere we go, there are similar accounts of how His Majesty touched the lives of citizens from all walks of life. Immediately after ascending the Golden Throne, His Majesty initiated the nationalization of sand, stone, and timber to bring down the cost of these raw materials. His Majesty also began nationwide land reforms in 2007, and as of 2020, 131,801 beneficiaries were granted 137,745 acres of land across the country. Whenever natural disaster struck Bhutan, His Majesty’s personal guidance to relief efforts and the care and compassion for victims have enabled quick recovery. We have seen how His Majesty personally oversaw the rehabilitation works after every calamity. Through the Royal Kidu programs, His Majesty has directly helped hundreds of needy and vulnerable people by granting them a living allowance, land, citizenship, scholarship, medical assistance, and numerous other Kidu.
The impact of COVID-19 on our economy and people would have been entirely different if it was not for His Majesty's intervention. More than 35,000 people who lost their livelihood during the pandemic continue to be supported through the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu. Likewise, following His Majesty's command, commercial entities and individuals were given loan deferment and interest waivers as a means to support them in this difficult time.
Such is the greatness of our King that His benevolence has touched all sections of the society. The Civil Service Award system recognizes civil servants and employees of state-owned companies by granting them service medals and certificates from His Majesty the King. The King has always looked after uniform personnel and their families' welfare by providing them higher remuneration, good pension schemes, and other benefits through systems like project HOPE. The construction of affordable houses in Phuentsholing and Goensho Tshamkhang for the elderly at Wangsisina are other instances of how His Majesty supports economically disadvantaged citizens.
His Majesty started the Royal Highland Festival to improve the highlanders' economic condition and to showcase highland culture as Bhutan's pride. Based on the vision set by His Majesty, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan was able to bring about numerous initiatives to convert the country into a cashless digital economy, including improving access to finance and lowering interest rates of loans. In recognition of His Majesty’s exceptional leadership, UNDP presented the Special Recognition Award to His Majesty for advancing Bhutanese people's wellbeing.
In the last 14 years, His Majesty had set up several strategic institutions. From the efficient functioning of these institutions, we realize His Majesty's far-sighted vision in setting them up for our long-term benefit. The Druk Holding and Investments Limited (DHI) was established to undertake commercial activities on behalf of the government and bring about performance excellence and corporate governance. The Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing was established as a premier leadership institute and a think tank to promote leadership development and research. The Royal Academy in Paro is yet another visionary initiative to provide holistic education to enable students to realize their full potential to nurture successive generations of leaders. Similarly, the De-Suung program was introduced to instill the spirit of volunteerism and encourage all citizens to appreciate the sense of community, harmony, and cooperation. With their honor code of "Service before Self," the 18,000 plus Desuups today have become an integral support system, assisting different agencies during national events, celebrations, and disasters.
During the coronation address in 2008, His Majesty stated that the youth are the most important citizens of our country. His Majesty reassured, "I will not rest until I have given you the inspiration, knowledge, and skills so that you will not only fulfil your own aspirations but be of immense worth to the nation." His Majesty has worked tirelessly to fulfill this promise. Upon Royal command, various youth engagement programs and camps are held annually to engage our youth meaningfully. His Majesty often reminds our youth to make excellence and success a lifelong pursuit. During royal tours, His Majesty always makes it a point to meet students, spend time and engage with them. His Majesty grants an exclusive audience to the academic toppers every year. The King also awards personally signed certificates to all excelling students. His Majesty encourages students to read, telling them that by reading even ten pages a day they will have read at least 12 books a year. His Majesty also ensures to converse with students who are on the verge of entering the job market through the audience during the National Graduate Orientation Program and the RUB Convocation Program.
All the youth-focused initiatives taken so far have ultimately culminated into a special once-in-a-lifetime program called Gyalsung or the National Service. The Gyalsung program has germinated as a result of the deep love His Majesty has for the youth of our country. The year-long training for all youth will make them strong independent thinkers capable of better serving their family, community, and country. With His Majesty as the champion behind Gyalsung, a bright future awaits the youth of our country.
Symbol of Sovereignty, Unity, and Peace
The greatest gift that His Majesty has granted us is taking forward Drukgyal Zhipa's legacy of safeguarding our sovereignty and keeping Bhutan united and peaceful. Bhutan has experienced three elections so far. His Majesty is a symbol of unity for the people of Bhutan- the Bhutanese are able to remain as a single family through the otherwise divisiveness that comes with political differences.
In Royal addresses, His Majesty commands the public servants to render their cooperation to the elected governments to ensure continuity and fulfill the national objectives. In a close-knit society, any division on the grounds of politics, religion, region, language, or race can cause irreparable damage. But with His Majesty at the helm, we are confident that divisions and differences of any degree will be handled with the greatest of care. His Majesty has stated time and again that nothing can harm our country if we stay united like members of a closely bonded family.
The Guardian Deities of Bhutan had indeed answered the prayers of His Majesty Drukgyal Zhipa for Bhutan's bright future under the new King. Bhutan is today a happy, secured, and progressive Nation ever ready to reap the opportunities of the 21st century. On this auspicious occasion of His Majesty’s 41st Birthday, we would like to offer our deepest gratitude to His Majesty for His wise leadership and unconditional love, and our humble prayers and good wishes for His long life, good health, and happiness.