Conversation Report: Civil Society

9 February 2018

With democratisation, the discussions on civil society are picking up. More so after 21 CSOs received the National Order of Merit (Gold) from His Majesty The King in December 2016. This signifies the acceptance of the importance of civil society as the “third” sector in democratic governance, besides the government and the private sector. Civil society needs to be recognised as a major partner in nation-building.

When non-government organisations first emerged in Bhutan most people, including those who worked in them, did not know civil society. It was a time when Bhutan was suspicious of non-government entities, partly because non-government was perceived as anti-government and largely because NGOs in the region had become synonymous with corruption.

With the process of planned development traditionally interdependent communities broke down and Bhutan experienced the gaps in governance that the government and the business sector could not fill. Rural–urban migration and the emptying of villages is just one of many trends related to development. It is also projected that over 50 percent of the population will live in towns by 2020. With the introduction of democracy, civil society became critical for governance, which means the functioning of society.

In many developing countries, governments had to initiate the growth of civil society by funding NGOs. In Bhutan the government – a Monarchy – also began the shift from the formal government structure. Government departments like the financial institutions were corporatised and then came the licensing of private organisations including the media.

Not surprisingly, the early CSOs were established or patronised by members of the Royal family who had the responsibility to enable society to function and the standing to run organistions alongside the government. With the Act passed in 2007, around 50 civil society organisations were registered by 2017.

The Druk Journal Conversation

Following The Druk Journal issue on Civil Society in 2017, BCMD organised a Conversation that was attended by more than 40 people from Bhutanese civil society. The vibrant discussion saw a number of issues raised and discussed:

  • Society should take direction from His Majesty The King’s Royal addresses.
  • His Majesty The Fourth advised self-reliance and self-sufficiency to secure sovereignty, peace, and well-being. Don’t develop an “orphan” mentality. Develop national self-respect – we have to take responsibility for ourselves.
  • Do not depend on the government all the time. Develop a sense of pride. Benchmark against government standards.
  • It is an opportunity for government and others to learn more about society – feedback in a hierarchical society.
  • The CSOs are currently guided by a government-led authority. Thus the tendency for the CSOA to be more authoritative than consultative.
  • CSOs must keep up with development and change.
  • Also position yourself where donors thank you for involving them.
  • Civil Society should be “civil” at all times. Democracy can be unruly and we’re losing a sense of courtesy and civility.
  • Be clear on what you bring to the table.
  • Build partnerships, evolving as your own organisation and also partnerships with each other. Like-minded people get together and put in more time and effort with a common sense of purpose.
  • Need passionate belief so it carries you through difficulties. Some oranisations have a life span.
  • Engagement with youth. Help nurture them. The young candidates. Groom our children to fit into our society and give back. Start at grassroots level. A leader of self. Enable or children to become future leaders.
  • Leverage your political capital.
  • Be creative.

Sustainability and survival is a major concern and, on this, there were some important points made:

There is money out there. We have to learn to tap it.

  1. Fundraising is a science – requires skills.
  2. Bhutanese do not write compelling proposals.
  3. A good proposal should be a very persuasive story.
  4. We also need to learn how to keep in touch and to thank donors. For example, Bhutan Foundation writes personal notes to all contributions no matter how small they may be.
  5. Take donors to the project sites. Bhutan is fortunate because this can be done. Do not depend on a PowerPoint presentation at a conference.
  6. Look at Bhutanese sources of funding.
  7. Keep decent books and accounts to show legitimacy.
  8. Always about prioritising.
  9. It’s not charity.
  10. It’s everybody’s Gyenkhu (responsibility).