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A bridge to the world - Bhutans disapora.


Bhutan bridge

A bridge to the world - how can Bhutan maximise the positive impact of its international diaspora?


As at 2024 Bhutan's population is approximately 790,000 based on recent United Nations data. The population density in Bhutan is around 21 per Km2 with 48.5 % of the population living in an urban environment and a median age of around 29 years.


In recent years however, Bhutan has seen a steady stream of its working age population leaving the country for new opportunities. From 2015 to 2022 an average of 245 Bhutanese migrated per month, however from July 2022, the monthly migration averaged 3,120 and reached a high of 5,542 in February 2023. Overall, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 65,000 Bhutanese have migrated over the last eight years. The median age of Bhutanese at the time of exit is around 29 with the majority being below 35 years of age.


Bhutan is facing what is commonly referred to as a 'brain drain'.


A definition of the phenomena of a 'brain drain' from the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) describes the “loss of highly skilled or educated persons from one country, region, institution, or job sector to another, based on better pay, improved living conditions, expanded opportunities...”


For a small nation like Bhutan, such an exodus creates significant workforce and social challenges - particularly when immigration levels are low. Departures from across Bhutan's civil service are notable with resignations undermining government capability and wider economic productivity.


The Bhutanese Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) recorded that as of June 2023, there were around 29,241 civil servants and in FY 2021-22 and FY 2022-23, resignations increased by 233.6 percent, jumping from 1,023 persons to 3,413 persons in a year. This amounted to an attrition rate of around 16 percent overall within which 10 percent was attributed to voluntary resignations. Other areas impacted by the resignations include the likes of State owned enterprises such as the Bhutan Power Corporation, and the education sector which have also have numerous resignations.


The resignations of thousands of public servants who were also members of a national pension fund led to the withdrawal of around Nu 1.944 billion from the National Pension and Provident Fund. While this short term capital flight from Bhutan is manageable, the loss of future wealth from these productive individuals is of more concern.


Why are young Bhutanese leaving the country?


The young Bhutanese leaving the country frequently cite the lack of opportunities in Bhutan. Bhutan’s youth unemployment currently rate stands at around 29 percent (World Bank), with economic growth only averaging 1.7 percent over the last five years. Not surprisingly, a number of young Bhutanese have sought employment opportunities out of Bhutan.


The Center for Bhutan and GNH Studies (CBS) survey of 181 Bhutanese about why they were leaving showed the dominant reasons to be 'to seek a better income, opportunities, avoid inflation (in Bhutan), jobs and a 'better future'.


A number of Bhutanese youth have also been given the opportunity to undertake tertiary level study overseas. Australia has been a particularly popular destination with over 7000 Bhutanese estimated to have studied there. While this access to higher levels of education has undoubtedly been positive for the individual, the limited opportunity to utilise this education in Bhutan has resulted in many of these individuals not returning to their home country.


Other reasons emigrants have left Bhutan include the perception that other countries simply have 'more to offer'. This may include employment opportunities, historical, cultural and linguistic ties, and the perception of the prosperity of the destination country. At a more practical level, existing migrant networks that can facilitate the transition make some destinations attractive. Australia is an example of a destination that encapsulates many of these factors and/or perceptions.


It is important to note that most emigrating Bhutanese stress how much they love their country and want the best for it - but feel the necessity to navigate to what they see as a more promising future for themselves elsewhere.


Other factors impacting Bhutan 


There are a range of other factors that are likely impacting Bhutan emigration levels:


  • Rapid urbanisation. Like many countries, the Bhutanese population has shifted from rural to urban centres. In 1980 the urban population was around 10% and by 2024 it was around 50%. This kind of shift brings with it a range of different expectations relating to economic, political, social, technological, legal, and environmental conditions. The question is whether this urbanisation is or is perceived to have met the expectations of the 'migratory at risk' population groups within the country. In other words - do the urban environments in Bhutan satisfy the needs of the groups of Bhutanese who have the option to migrate to other countries?

  • Levels of migration into Bhutan. Inwards migration has always been historically low and in 1990 the level of migration as a percentage of the population was around 2.88%. The level of migration has tracked generally lower than this over proceeding years, hovering around the 0.66% level between 2020-2024. Compounding this challenge, the population of Bhutan has also been impacted by declining fertility with an estimated fertility rate of around 6 in the 1980's that is now around 1.39 in 2024. Whereas some countries receive a steady stream of personnel and associated capability and investment, Bhutan has not had this advantage.

  • Bhutan's geopolitical context almost certainly shapes its trajectory as a nation. Surrounded by the two most populous countries in the world, China and Indian, Bhutan needs to tread a careful line between both. This careful navigation has necessitated Bhutan limiting the extent it 'invites' either neighbour in, as well as other powers - so as not to create unwanted instability.

  • Finally, Bhutan's geography and natural environment significant defines the country. The Himalaya mountains sit in the north of the country, with mountains reaching 7,000 metres (22,966 ft) with the highest point being Gangkhar Puensum at 7,570 metres (24,840 ft). Living in such a mountainous country led to Bhutan being known locally as the "Land of the Thunder Dragon" in reference to the powerful storms coming from the mountains. Temperatures across Bhutan vary according to elevation with the capital city Thimphu ranging from 15 to 26 °C (59.0 to 78.8 °F) from June through September but dropping to between −4 and 16 °C (24.8 and 60.8 °F) in January. The central regions of the country has a cool, temperate climate year-round.


Challenging the drain of talent ('brain drain').


Bhutan is not unique in facing the challenge of losing its youth and workforce more generally from the country. Countries as diverse as Samoa, Jamaica, Micronesia, New Zealand, Ireland, as well as numerous other countries and regions have all faced varying level of emigration that have challenged their economies and general capacity. The underlying reasons for the 'brain drain' from each country often have commonalities such as economic opportunities, employment, higher standards of living, access to housing and health care and political stability. Each country will, however, also have its own characteristics driving its 'brain drain' that need to be understood.


The question is what each country can do to manage its 'brain drain' phenomena in such a way as to reduce its downsides but also conversely generate possible upsides.


In Bhutan's case - are there ways the small nation can harness its diaspora in a positive way?


Boyle and Kitchin (2013) suggest that it is possible to proactively build and create opportunities for, the design, finance, and growth of diaspora-homeland projects. They question how talent abroad can induce development at home in an advantageous manner through public policy [framing] referred to as diaspora strategy. Boyle and Kitchin suggest a range of areas that could contribute to this strategy including:


  1. Diaspora advocacy: Leveraging diaspora communities for peace and security, utilizing their knowledge, contacts, language skills, and cultural insights to enhance strategic objectives of homelands, impacting social movements, political parties, government departments, and Non-Government Organisations (NGO's).

  2. Diaspora investment: Fostering homeland investment through diaspora executives in transnational corporations, venture capitalists, and outsourcing contracts to Small, Medium sized Enterprise (SME's), affecting government-inward investment agencies and domestic supply chains.

  3. Diaspora networks: Assisting in sending countries' companies by sharing knowledge, contacts, mentoring, training, and joining think tanks, impacting SMEs looking to expand and globalize.

  4. Diaspora philanthropy: Providing private and voluntary donations through Private Voluntary Organisation (PVOs), religious organizations, corporations, foundations, volunteer citizens, and alumni associations, influencing civil-society NGOs and universities.

  5. Diaspora remittances: Facilitating private transfers from migrant workers to homeland recipients, affecting extended family networks and community organizations.

  6. Diaspora migration: Promoting agreements to restrict recruitment, increase accountability, establish protocols, and facilitate return migration, impacting recruitment agencies and institutions seeking specific talent.

  7. Diaspora corps: Establishing volunteering schemes for short-term visits to support vulnerable populations, administer aid, and address skills shortages, affecting domestic NGOs and public service institutions.

  8. Diaspora tourism: Generating revenue through visits, including medical, business-related, heritage, education, VIP, and peak experience tours, impacting tourist infrastructure, travel companies, and marketing firms.

  9. Diaspora capital: Driving capital markets through deposit accounts, transnational loans, diaspora bonds, and mutual funds, influencing banking institutions, pension funds, insurance companies, and government treasuries.

  10. Diaspora human-capital: Maximising the value from' human capital' in the transitory process as prospective migrants upgrade competencies pre-departure including the labor market, training agencies and universities.


What approach could Bhutan consider adopting?


Boyle and Kitchin propose that the role of global diasporas in the development of countries of origin is influenced by four mediators. These 'mediators' include:


Diaspora strategy in sending states: The development of an effective diaspora strategy in sending states, employing a mix of direct and indirect, decentralized and centralized initiatives, and creating an emigration state apparatus suited to implement the strategy. To give effect to this Bhutan could consider:


  • Developing and/or refreshing its existing [Bhutanese] diaspora strategy as required

  • Including in the diaspora strategy a mix of Thimphu and (overseas) community led initiatives

  • A new dedicated function be created within the Bhutanese government focused on opportunities emerging from the diaspora community


Capacities and competencies of partners: The capacities and competencies of partners, stakeholders, and strategic allies in sending states, and whether programs exist to mobilize key enablers. To give effect to this Bhutan could consider:


  • Undertaking further research in key diaspora communities (such as Australia) to understand the capacity and competencies of (possible) partners for the diaspora strategy

  • Undertaking a review across all Bhutan government and State Owned Enterprises (SOE) and wider to see what Bhutanese based entities could be partnered with to give effect to the Bhutanese diaspora strategy


Diaspora-homeland relations: The existing scale, history, geography, and nature of diaspora-homeland relations, including lobbying, advocacy, capital markets, investment funds, knowledge networks, philanthropy, remittances, return migration, diaspora corps, tourism, and human-capital effects. To give effect to this Bhutan could consider:


  • Utilising data and information collected and analysed from a wide range of sources to provide Bhutan with a sound understanding of where the best opportunities exist for the diaspora strategy. This intelligence could also be used in an ongoing manner to monitor the ongoing success of the diaspora strategy.

  • Establishing targets for the diaspora strategy - quantitative and qualitative, that support the achievement of the Bhutanese diaspora strategy goals.


External priorities of destination states: External aid, trade, diplomatic, security, and immigration priorities of partners, stakeholders, and allies in destination states, particularly powerful states and supra-national political institutions. To give effect to this Bhutan could consider:


  • Being highly cognisant of the wider national, regional, and international context within which it is seeking to undertake its diaspora strategy through ongoing monitoring. For the purposes of achievability, the focus should initially be upon the highest priority Bhutanese diaspora recipient countries. This could involve undertaking analysis of specific countries international context and priorities and understanding its views of Bhutan within this.

  • Partnerships with diaspora recipient countries where there may be opportunities for 'win-win' scenarios (for example the diaspora recipient country see value in building stronger multi-track partnerships with Bhutan).


Boyle and Kitchin suggests that the interplay of these 'mediators' creates a unique nexus that will influence the contributions of diaspora groups to homeland development. It is noted that successful diaspora schemes require strong collaborative alignment between all four mediators and that no one area should be prioritised over others and all should be undertaken in a collaborative manner. Boyle and Kitchin also warns against allowing diaspora recipient countries to dictate terms to home nations and to avoid the 'temptation' and risks associated with exploiting or aggressively pursuing diaspora populations.


Conclusion


Many countries are facing the challenge of a 'brain drain' but for smaller nations like Bhutan, the impact from the loss can be disproportionately detrimental. The current number of citizens leaving Bhutan is undoubtedly concerning. The question is whether Bhutan can find ways to turn the 'brain drain' into something positive that is not a zero-sum game?


Adopting a new diaspora strategy based on effective partnerships between Thimphu, citizen and non-government stakeholders, diaspora populations, and destination states could help provide a structure within which the (positive) opportunities of the situation could be exploited. This will require a collaborative, pragmatic, and mixed model approach.


If Thimphu and other stakeholders can find the right balance - the Bhutanese diaspora could become its strategic bridge to the outside world and a key mechanism to improve the lives of Bhutanese living both in and outside the country.







References:



Barker, J. (2022). How the Kingdom of Bhutan played the Australian Government-and won. Australian Universities' Review, 64(2).


Boyle, M., & Kitchin, R. (2013). Diaspora for development: In search of a new generation of diaspora strategies. How Can Talent Abroad Induce Investment at Home? Towards a Pragmatic Diaspora Agenda, 315-345.


DiDHA, R. (2010). Future potential and the invisible diaspora. Wellington: Asia New Zealand Foundation.


ERIC Thesaurus. Available online: https://eric.ed.gov/ 


Kaul, N. (2022). Beyond India and China: Bhutan as a small state in international relations. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 22(2), 297-337.


Koyama, I. A. (2016). Portraits of Bhutanese Identity in America: Family, Belonging, and Hope in the Diaspora.



Lewicki, S. (2011). One Community, Many Identities: Language, Ethnicity, and Nationality among Bhutanese Refugees in South Philadelphia.


Neikirk, A. M. (2015). Learning to be Refugees: The Bhutanese in Nepal and Australia.


Norbu, K., & Wouters, J. J. (2020). Tertiary Education, Students’ Experiences, and Future Imaginations in Bhutan. Rig Tshoel-Research Journal of the Royal Thimphu College, 3(1).


Rizal, G. Bhutan’s Foreign Policy and its Strategic Handling of Big Nations. Walking among Giants, 141.





Tshering, D., Berman, J., & Miller, J. (2020). The Educational Relationship between Bhutan and Australia. Bhutan Journal of Research and Development, 9(1).file:///C:/Users/P%20W/Downloads/I-Spring-2020-68-86+(5).pdf


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