Letter from Thimphu

Resident Representative Mohammad Younus reflects on UNDP's 50 years in the Kingdom of Bhutan

August 22, 2023
Letter from Thimphu montage of photos



The sound of nuns chanting prayers reverberated around the glorious Memorial Chorten (Stupa) in the heart of Bhutan’s capital Thimphu. As usual, scores of people, young and old, circumambulated the stupa, while others prostrated, with great devotion and reverence. 

It was the 10th day of sixth Bhutanese month. An auspicious Buddhist day and a beautiful Friday morning as the government, led by the Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji, UNDP Bhutan family and UN Country Team gathered at the Memorial Chorten to offer a thousand butter lamps to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bhutan-UNDP partnership on 28 July. It is customary here in Bhutan to begin all good things with the offering of a thousand butter lamps. 

The Memorial Chorten—a key national landmark and an important place of worship—was built in memory of His Majesty the Third King of Bhutan under whose reign Bhutan secured its membership to the UN on 21 September, 1971. Therefore, it was only befitting that the Foreign Ministry chose the Memorial Chorten to celebrate our trusted, longstanding partnership with Bhutan.

On 4 March 1973, barely two years after Bhutan’s membership to the UN, the first general agreement between Bhutan and UNDP was signed, establishing UNDP’s programmatic presence in the country. Our partnership was further consolidated with the opening of our office on 14th May, 1979. The Bhutan office became UNDP’s 108th county office. I recently learned that 108 is an auspicious number in Buddhism. Blessed with an auspicious start, the partnership flourished over the past five decades. A partnership marked by many ‘firsts’ and stories of change, touching lives of Bhutanese from all walks of life.

The Bhutan-UNDP partnership is significant in more ways than one. As Foreign Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji said at the reception to commemorate the 50th anniversary later that evening, “as the first resident multilateral body to be established in the country, UNDP paved the way for the greater UN presence that Bhutan currently enjoys”. 

Bhutan was midway through its Third Five Year Plan when it’s partnership with UNDP started in 1973. Bhutan had then also just opened itself up to the outside world through tourism. Under the dynamic leadership of Bhutan’s successive visionary monarchs, the country went on to achieve remarkable socio-economic progress while keeping its environment, culture, and traditions intact. This is a balanced development feat only few countries have achieved. 

Today, Bhutan is preparing to rollout the 13th plan. The country will also graduate from the Least Developed Countries category later this year. We have indeed come a long way together. UNDP is humbled to have been an integral part of Bhutan’s incredible development success story.

“Without a doubt, we can say that this (LDC graduation) would not have been possible without the valuable support of UNDP, along with our many key partners,” Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji said at the reception co-hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade. It was attended by senior government officials, the diplomatic community, International Financial Institutions, representatives from the CSOs, the private sector, youth, journalist, and UN Bhutan family. 

Making the celebration more memorable, we had the UNDP Administrator and Regional Director joining us through a video message. Their messages were well received by the Foreign Minister and others in the room. 

“Bhutan’s inspiring development story has a resonance way beyond its own borders. That includes the Gross National Happiness Index, which pivots on the principle that GDP growth alone does not capture real progress and prosperity. Inspired by the groundbreaking Gross National Happiness Index, we must push boundaries as we reimagine the future of development together,” said the Administrator. A message that deeply resonated with everyone in the room. 

We also had 10 former UNDP Bhutan RRs joining us, reminiscing their most cherished Bhutan memories. Their messages brought special memories to many in the room who fondly recalled their interactions with each of them and were happy to learn they are all well and healthy. 

A legendary Bhutanese artist Jigme Dukpa performed a song dedicated to Bhutan-UNDP partnership. The song eloquently captures the essence, richness, and significance of 50 years of our partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan and its people. As our steadfast partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan continues to flourish, the 50th anniversary commemorative song will serve as a perpetual reminder of our purpose in Bhutan, instilling in us the passion and drive to serve Bhutan and its people even better.

Some of the key milestones from the early decades of partnership include launch of national airline Drukair in 1983, connecting Bhutan with the world; transforming Kuensel into Bhutan’s first newspaper in 1986, paving the path for growth of media; the establishment of Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation in 1991, the world’s first such trust fund

Touching lives for 50 years with many ‘firsts’ 

At the reception, we not only exchanged mutual appreciation of our trusted partnership, but also showcased the many ‘firsts’ and key milestones that Bhutan and UNDP achieved together over half a century. What caught the eyes of many was UNDP’s tremendous contribution towards Bhutan’s development that was deeply appreciated by all. Our footprint is everywhere—from poverty alleviation to environment conservation, climate action, women’s empowerment and gender equality, disability inclusion, access to justice, public sector innovation, innovative financing, digitalization and good governance among others.

Some of the key milestones from the early decades of partnership include launch of national airline Drukair in 1983, connecting Bhutan with the world; transforming Kuensel into Bhutan’s first newspaper in 1986, paving the path for growth of media; the establishment of Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation in 1991, the world’s first such trust fund,; developing Bhutan’s first Telecommunications Master Plan in 1996, heralding an era of connected lives and communities; and forging a path to corruption-free Bhutan with the establishment of Anti-Corruption Commission in 2006. In 2008, UNDP joined the government in its efforts to drain Thorthomi glacial lake in Lunana, preventing a potential devastating flood in 2008. The mammoth task carried out through the country’s first climate adaptation project marked the start of a series of collaborations in the climate space that continues to date. 

In the justice sector, our partnership focused on the strengthening the justice institutions and rule of law to enhance access to justice for all. Key milestones include the launch of the first Justice Sector Strategic Plan in 2018, introduction of e-litigation in 2021 and establishment of the country’s first Legal Aid Centre in 2022. The first Vulnerability Assessment launched in 2016 pushed boundaries of inclusion, leading to the launch of the first National Policy for Persons with Disabilities in 2019 and Gender Equality Policy in 2020. 

On 14 March 2019, the Administrator presented a Special Recognition Award to His Majesty in recognition of his leadership in advancing human development and the wellbeing of Bhutanese people. A milestone deeply cherished by Bhutan and UNDP alike. 

As COVID-19 hit, innovation, digitalization and green recovery formed a key part of our partnership. The Bhutan Vaccine System, the country’s first digital vaccine management system helped ensured safe and efficient roll out of COVID-19 vaccines. The country’s first grid-tied, ground mounted solar power plant helped prove solar as a viable alternate renewable energy source as Bhutan enhances energy security in the face of climate change. Bhutan-UNDP partnership on e-mobility is contributing towards strengthening the electric vehicle ecosystem. 

In response to the heightened need for agility and adaptiveness in governance—a lesson that the pandemic taught, the partnership continues to work on building strategic foresight capabilities in the public sector for anticipatory governance, including through strong emphasis on e-governance. 

Looking to the future

As we celebrate five decades of our partnership with Bhutan, we do so with an eye to the future. The Foreign Minister said there is much to be done to ensure that Bhutan can meet the multifaceted challenges it is faced with today. 

In the same vein, Kanni, in her video message, said, “Development never stands still and is never complete. As the world and the region now faces new challenges, so does Bhutan. So, Bhutan’s leadership and people must continue to find ways to address these current and future challenges and UNDP will continue to partner based on a foundational deep trust and accumulated shared experiences over these five decades.” 

Indeed, UNDP will continue to remain a trusted development partner, one that is attuned to Bhutan’s evolving developmental priorities, for many more years and decades to come.