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How can digital technology transform lives and improve opportunities in Bhutan?

Yoichiro Ishihara's picture
Tech Park
The recently opened Thimphu tech park – Bhutan’s first IT park -

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country located high in the eastern Himalayan mountain range with its population 760,000. Up until about 20 years ago, the country was isolated from the world; Bhutan’s first ever television broadcast occurred in 1999. Since then, information communications technology (ICT) has made rapid advancement. Mobile subscriptions increased from 0.4 per 100 people in 2003 to 87 in 2015. The proportion of people using the internet have increased from 0.1% in 1999 to 40% in 2015. Today, all 20 districts and 201 (out of 205) sub-districts are connected through fiber optic cables.

The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report on “
Digital Dividends” argues that digital technologies have boosted growth, expanded opportunities, and improved service delivery. Use of ICT for development is especially applicable to small states with populations of less than 1.5 million. Another report, “World Bank Group Engagement with Small States” finds that ICT investments can help reduce economic isolation, lessen barriers to trade, promote tourism, and improve mobility. These messages are highly relevant to Bhutan today.

The Government has enthusiastically adopted the use ICT to improve its services to its citizens as described in Bhutan ICT Roadmap and Bhutan E-Government Masterplan. The Government to Citizen (G2C) program, launched in 2005, provides a one-stop-shop for more than 100 services such as procuring a passport. The national ePayment Gateway Infrastructure, established by the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA), the central bank, has enabled citizens to pay for some public services online. Recently, the National Land Commission (NLC) launched eCitizen Portal - an online one-stop shop for transferring property titles online. This has reduced the number of days to transfer ownership of a property from 90 days to 62 days in the capital, Thimphu. More importantly, the NLC is reaching out to the private sector to seek feedback on how to improve its usability by piloting a feedback survey using an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tool for the first time in Bhutan. The government has also introduced an electronic government procurement system (e-GP) to make optimal use of resources. Given the size of the budget (exceeding 30 percent of GDP), the adoption of e-GP will contribute to effective use of public resources. The World Bank Group has been supporting these efforts through various instruments such as the second Development Policy Credit: Fiscal Sustainability and Investment Climate, which helped get the eCitizen Portal off the ground.

There is, however, still room for greater advancement and innovation as we look to the future. The 2016 ICT development index placed Bhutan 117th among 175 countries. Among the three sub-indexes of ICT access, use and skills, Bhutan has further progress to make. It still has a comparatively low percentage of people using the internet and there’s much to be done on improving digital literacy as well as professional training and opportunities for ICT to create jobs. The country’s first ICT college established in 2017 is an encouraging sign. 

Making the most of training the next generation of ICT professionals also require expanding access to affordable, reliable, and secure broadband connectivity. Existing IT companies in Thimphu Tech Park – Bhutan’s first IT park - currently face important constraints of high price and lack of redundancy from international broadband connectivity. The price of international broadband services in Bhutan is nearly ten times that of India and double that of Nepal. Building on the successful initiatives to date, addressing these challenges will bring Bhutan to the next stage of development.

Comments

Submitted by Tribhuwan Narain on

As discussed at the time of designing and studying feasibility of the IT park operations, Bhutan's excellent dark fiber needs to be exploited fully with IP protocol business applications countrywide. To provide a domestic WAN portfolio of IT businesses. The park operators need incentives for hiring and raising next gen skill with smaller IT gigs till such time when international broadband prices drop. Diversifying connectivity from satellite to and gradually adding cross border BSNL - Bhutan fiber infrastructure optional supply at Phuentshiling (?) could make for a great Bank-IFC public-private venture. Good luck!

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