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Bhutan steps lightly towards global village

Bhutan’s trade department Director General, Sonam Wangdi (right), meets Cambodian Craft Cooperation Executive Director Seung Kimyonn on Friday.

A Bhutanese delegation travels to Cambodia to study the Kingdom’s trade strategy in the hope of joining the WTO.

For bhutan, whether you join or not, you’re already impacted internationally with globalisation.

THOUGH sandwiched between emerging superpowers China and India, Bhutan is a country that has proceeded with extreme caution on the path to globalisation. Television and the Internet did not arrive until 1999, and traffic lights in the capital were removed after the public deemed them a nuisance. Tourism is limited to high-end tour groups in which individials pay upwards of US$200 per day, ensuring that the backpacking hordes that descend annually upon neighbouring India and Nepal do not trample Bhutan as well.

Most notably, Bhutan eschews gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of national well-being, subscribing instead to GNH – gross national happiness – a concept first articulated by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1972.

It may have seemed peculiar, then, when a six-member delegation from Bhutan, a nation so careful about controlling international influences, arrived in Cambodia last week to meet with government officials and business leaders to learn about the Kingdom’s experience as a member of the World Trade Organisation. After 11 years as a WTO observer, however, the hermetic Himalayan nation is now hoping to secure full membership for itself and extend its international ties.

Sonam Wangchuk, a delegation member with the Bhutanese trade department (no relation to the royal family), said that although Bhutan is mindful of preserving its traditions, ascension to the WTO is a necessary and inevitable part of sustaining the nation’s well-being in the long term.

“For Bhutan, whether you join or not, you’re already impacted internationally with globalisation. You’re dealing with the international community,” he said.

Wangchuk explained that Bhutan hopes the WTO framework will provide the predictability desired by foreign investors to a country whose private sector has been described by observers as disorganised. It could also spur the sector’s development, an essential element of poverty alleviation for Bhutan, said Tom Maxwell, a professor at Australia’s University of New England and programme director of the school’s Bhutan Project.

Though Bhutan performs very well against other UN-termed least-developed countries (LDCs) in measures such as political transparency, public health and education, youth unemployment and rural poverty are pressing concerns.

“Urban drift is already occurring as students get educated, but the private sector has not taken up the challenge,” Maxwell said.

Learning from Cambodia
After meeting with officials from the government and the UN Development Programme on Wednesday and Thursday, the Bhutanese group took Friday to tour Cambodian small businesses that might serve as models for prospective Bhutanese exporters.

First up was the Cambodia Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA), where the delegation discussed plans to expand Bhutanese agriculture into the organic export market.

“Seventy percent of our people are still in subsistence farming, but we’ve made a lot of progress in cash crops,” said Sonam Wangdi, director general of Bhutan’s department of trade, citing his country’s cultivation of apples, oranges and potatoes.

“You’re small, you’re specialty – I’d target the high-end consumers,” Andrew McNaughton, the CEO of Mekong Rain Natural Foods, advised the group.

From COrAA it was on to the offices of Cambodian Craft Cooperation (CCC), which manages exports of silk and handicrafts. There, CCC executive director Seung Kimyonn discussed the challenges of ensuring quality control among small-scale producers and establishing reliable supply lines to developed world markets.

Looking ahead
Sonam Wangchuk praised Cambodia’s trade development, saying the government is “really gearing up” for an increase in and diversification of exports.

In Bhutan, the delivery of hydropower to India is the main source of export revenue. Although there is potential now for growth in agriculture and handicrafts, Wangchuk said that in the future, he hoped to see Bhutan develop an information service sector on the model of India, the destination for many outsourced Western IT jobs in recent years.

“That is a new phenomenon, but we feel like we have the advantage in that area because firstly our education system, the medium of instruction is English, and then in the West, when the West is sleeping we are awake, so the business can continue 24 hours,” he said.

Though Bhutan’s measured approach to globalisation and its reliance on gross national happiness have been oft-praised by Western commentators and academics, the country is not exempt from the problems of modernity. A refugee crisis that displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan during the early 1990s remains unresolved, and recent reports indicate that crime and drug use are on the rise.

Wangchuk said, however, that Bhutan recognises that resisting the tide of globalisation is an impossible endeavour.

“We have always been following, we call it our middle path,” he said. “Not too extreme – we are not saying development is not good, globalisation is not good – no. This is something which happens and which will happen. You just have to move along with that, but then you try to manage it in a way that is comfortable to you.”



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