Exclusive | UNDP Bhutan head: Bhutan is already ahead of the 2030 agenda

By Laxman Datt Pant

Exclusive | UNDP Bhutan head: Bhutan is already ahead of the 2030 agenda

Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom with a population of approximately 0.8 million, is the world’s only carbon-negative country. Having centered its development philosophy on collective well-being and public good, Bhutan is already ahead of the 2030 agenda on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and just two years away from graduating from the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries. Many of these achievements are due to its ‘visionary monarch’ Azusa Kubota, the Resident Representative (RR) of UNDP in Bhutan, said during an exclusive interview with DevelopmentAid journalist for South Asia, Laxman Datt Pant.

Having served as the head of UNDP Bhutan since March 2019, Azusa Kubota shared the UNDP’s development partnerships in Bhutan that focus on efforts towards the attainment of the SDGs, climate change, COVID-19 and emergency preparedness, social security mechanisms, and aspects of gender equality and social inclusion.

DevelopmentAid: It has been more than two years since you joined Bhutan as the RR of UNDP. How do you analyze the efforts of the cooperation between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the UNDP towards achieving the development goals?

UNDP Bhutan RR: I have served many countries around the world, but I believe that Bhutan is a very special place for development practitioners working for the United Nations. The development philosophy of Bhutan valued under the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept is very much aligned with the ethos of the SDGs. I would even say that the GNH preceded and has surpassed the SDGs because it goes into the area of spiritual contentment and time used that are not covered in the SDGs. In a way, Bhutan is already ahead of the 2030 agenda. Hence, working with the government, civil society, and the people of Bhutan, our interests naturally converge. UNDP finds itself in a very privileged situation in Bhutan to advocate the SDGs, policies, and programs that make sure no one is left behind.

This year is a very special year for the UN because we are marking 50 years of Bhutan’s membership of the UN. UNDP was obviously one of the first agencies that established in-country presence. Over the last four decades, we have actually supported the foundation of the modern nation in Bhutan starting from the establishment of the airline and environmental trust fund and we are now working on accelerating efforts to strengthen the climate agenda and recovery from the COVID-19. Our recent launch of the Accelerator Lab in Bhutan is very timely because it offers different platforms for the government to try new ideas in the risk-sharing environment and to accelerate the rate of learning to keep pace with the world.

DevelopmentAid: Bhutan is known for its focus on individual well-being through its Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI). What are your views on the complementarity of UNDP in this respect?


UNDP Bhutan RR: Yes, there has been a great focus on individual well-being. However, this is distinctly different from being individualistic. Bhutan is largely a society that values collective well-being and the public good and I think this is one of the reasons that has largely contributed to the containment of COVID-19. It’s really about the collective well-being.

The COVID crisis has taught us the importance of individual inner resilience to cope with uncertainty − individuals having coping mechanism at the time of an unforeseen crisis. There are various social protection mechanisms in Bhutan, notably His Majesty’s Kidu (welfare) program to ensure that no one suffers from the sudden loss of income and economic downfall. The COVID crisis has really emphasized a life-cycle system for social security.

  • 2,324 – total number of COVID-19 cases confirmed in Bhutan
  • 1 death reported so far
  • 905,850 vaccines received so far
  • 200,000 vaccines to be bought by the end of 2021

We worked with a civil society organization called the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD) and organized a series of dialogues last year that provided a platform to really think about reimagining Bhutan. One of the topics we discussed was ‘reimagining the social protection system’ of all the people, people with a disability, where we discussed the picture of Bhutan beyond the COVID crisis. We also discussed how Bhutan would look differently after the pandemic. I hope that the COVID crisis will give some impetus to think through a sustainable, self-financed life-cycle-based social protection system to help individuals to build resilience against these unforeseen crises.

DevelopmentAid: Could you also share with our readers the UNDP’s priority areas in Bhutan? How are you collaborating with the government and other stakeholders to meet the targets set within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?


UNDP Bhutan RR: Our support in Bhutan is very much aligned with and focused around supporting the country to attain the SDGs which are all interconnected. We cannot push just one button, we have to press several buttons to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement as the global climate champion and, obviously, these goals and targets are infused in the country’s Five-Year Plan. Broadly, we have three program areas: a) climate change adaptation and mitigation, the largest in terms of the budget where we are supporting the introduction of electric vehicles, energy and agriculture adaptation to climate change, b) governance, a very strong backbone of all our programs, where we work with all three arms of the state and with civil society organizations as an indispensable mechanism to reach out to the most vulnerable, and c) the newly established unit focuses on innovation and policy and engages in economic analysis and SDG analysis, this will give us the flexibility to spearhead new ideas.

One lesson that the COVID-19 crisis has taught us is that everything is interconnected and, in order to address the very complex development challenges, we must be able to press various buttons at the same time, various SDGs at the same time and observe how they are interconnected. Unlike some of the agencies that are very much focused on certain areas, UNDP’s strength really lies in understanding the systems and complexities. Although we are looking at the climate change agenda, poverty reduction, and gender equality, we have to really understand that it is just impossible to focus on a single goal because, exactly as it is in life, everything is interconnected.

DevelopmentAid: In 2023, Bhutan will graduate from the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) category which coincides with the end of the 12th Five Year Plan. What needs to be done to ensure Bhutan’s smooth transition from the LDCs category?

UNDP Bhutan RR: The timing is sort of interesting because it also coincides with the COVID crisis. Bhutan is firmly committed to graduating from the LDC category according to the agreed timeline of 2023. It has met the graduation criteria by meeting the indicators on gross national income per capita human capital. But, even before the pandemic, the economic vulnerability was a weak factor, indeed a very tricky factor for Bhutan because of the geographical location. And, with the pandemic, vulnerability has multiplied and the impact has been felt harder. The recovery, therefore, has been quite challenging.

Previously, we supported some analysis of the impact of graduation. Because of Bhutan’s economic structure, the impact on trade would be minimal. In terms of aid, Bhutan has a very strong friendship with India and the UN support would not be much affected. However, the revenue base has been reduced. Hence, I think for Bhutan to ensure a smooth transition depends on how wisely it uses the available resources. This is an opportunity for Bhutan to take a bold and innovative decision that matters for the future. Because of the limitations of economic diversification, Bhutan needs to invest in long-term gains such as the green economy, reforming the education system to build skills for young people, and engaging in economic activities. It is difficult for the government to make decisions yet this is the right time to make the right decisions.

DevelopmentAid: Does Bhutan need to review its national plans and actions to achieve the SDGs?


UNDP Bhutan RR: The government has been proactive in programming, it is important to have a long-term vision to understanding the consequences now for the future, not just focus on short-term vision. This is really the time for Bhutan to realize the catalytic impact of the return of investment such as innovation and investing in technology.

We learnt from COVID-19 that we cannot predict the future, we can only predict the options for the future. In order to navigate this kind of world, civil services need to be reformed. I know that the government is even thinking about revising the five-year planning as is the case for many governments around the world. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, what sort of planning, tools and systems would be fit for the purpose, is an important question to ask.

DevelopmentAid: What aspects of Bhutan’s commitments to a low-emission and climate-resilient development path should be considered in order to further strengthen national efforts to tackle climate change?


  • US$ 2.5 billion – Bhutan’s GDP in 2020, up from US$ 0.44 billion in 2001
  • 129th – Bhutan’s ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index (out of 189 countries)
  • 11.2% – poverty rate in 2020, up from 10.7% in 2019. Extreme poverty has been liquidated.
  • 3.7% – unemployment rate in 2020, up from 2.3% in 2019
  • 12% – unemployment rate among youth in 2019
  • Main economic sectors: hydropower, cottage and small industries, mining, tourism, and agriculture.

UNDP Bhutan RR: Bhutan has already been a global climate leader by being the only carbon-negative country in the world. A lot has been achieved, all thanks to the visionary monarch. But recently, UNDP has been working with the government to look at the extent of climate change and some of the modeling for the near future. This already indicates that, with rapid urbanization and the growing number of cars in cities, the transport sector, in particular, requires bold investment right now.

Between 1994 and 2015, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 126% with a significant rise in the energy sector comprised of 86% from transport and 79% from the manufacturing sector. We cannot be complacent; we are supporting the introduction of electric vehicles for instance and the long-term roadmap is being formulated but it does require a review of the system for incentives.

DevelopmentAid: With the support of UNDP, Bhutan has recently launched an integrated online platform to monitor and track the progress of the SDGs, the GNHI, and the Five-Year Plans. How does this platform work to ensure effective planning, monitoring, and evaluation in order to achieve the SDGs?

UNDP Bhutan RR: This online platform is very unique in the sense that it not only focuses on the SDGs, you can also see progress against the Five-Year Plans and the GNHI. It puts everything in one place which is unique to Bhutan although many governments across the world have similar platforms this only focuses on the SDGs.

I think such platforms become useful only when the data is used for the monitoring and evaluation of national programs, budget allocation, and policymaking. We hope that the platform is best utilized not only by the planning commission but also by oversight institutions such as parliament and civil society organizations making full use of the data. There has to be a clear linkage between the database and planning and budget allocation which is happening to some extent but it needs to be used for evidence-based planning and policymaking.

DevelopmentAid: What are your views on investing in emergency preparedness and how do you ensure that aspects of gender equality and social inclusion are considered when investing in such programs?


UNDP Bhutan RR: Bhutan embodies social inclusion in terms of gender equality and leaving no one behind but, as it is the case with many countries, the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated existing gaps and inequalities. I know it was quite disturbing to find that in some corners of society more women are exposed to violence at home. It is important during this crisis to have very well-timed, up-to-date knowledge of who they are, where they are, and what their needs are.

DevelopmentAid: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers that we haven’t covered?


UNDP Bhutan RR: Many thanks to DevelopmentAid for providing us with this wonderful opportunity to share our work and activities. The United Nations’ partnership in Bhutan is at a crossroad in a way that we are often seen as an institutional financing donor. The nature of our partnership has to be really changed, we must continue to ensure that we can offer what the country needs, and also our partners need to think through how they would like to be made more aware using the UNDP’s vast network of knowledge and experiences. I just want to say that this is also time for both parties and for all of us to reflect how UNDP can continue to be of relevance at this time of critical juncture for Bhutan.