Keynote Address by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bhutan at the Inaugural Session of the Fourth Meeting of SAARC Ministers on Poverty Alleviation 29thJuly 2015, Taj Tashi, Thimphu

Hon’ble Ministers of the SAARC Nations,

Hon’ble Secretary General of SAARC,

Distinguished Delegates,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of His Majesty the King, the people, and the Government of Bhutan, I welcome you to the Fourth Meeting of SAARC Ministers on Poverty Alleviation.

I need not stress the importance of this conversation, held in the interest of more than one and a half billion people, too many of whom live below or close to the globally recognized poverty line.

We all know that South Asia has achieved significant overall development and economic growth in recent decades. Some of our countries and citizens have become world leaders in fields as powerful and dynamic as Telecom and ICT, in Literature and the Arts, in cultural and spiritual practices, in the culinary traditions, tourism, and many other areas. The SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November last year, noted that, despite natural and man-made disasters, South Asia had indeed come a long way in improving the lives of its citizens.

But, with nearly one-third of South Asians still living on less than a dollar and half a day, we have a long way to go. Eradicating hunger and food poverty remains an important objective given that this extreme form of human deprivation is deeply inimical to the notion of human happiness and well-being. And it is very telling that the Millennium Development Goal targets have been met everywhere except in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Hon’ble Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Even as we are awed by the dozens of South Asians who are listed in the top global lists of millionaires and billionaires, let us not forget the hundreds of millions of our people who are close to starvation. It is in their interest that programmes and projects to alleviate poverty must be incorporated in the national planning processes to increase agricultural production, create jobs, connect the unreached through e-Governance including intelligent transport systems, distance learning, and telemedicine.

When we talk about raising living standards and improving the quality of life, we are talking about the nearly 870 million people in the world who suffer from chronic undernourishment, mostly in developing countries. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro pointed out that, with the world’s population projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, and with an estimated two thirds living in cities, mankind needs to increase the efforts to achieve sustainable development and in particular, eradicate poverty and hunger and preventable diseases.

According to the 2014 World Bank Development Indicators, the proportion of people in the developing living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 43.1 percent in 1990 to 20.6 percent in 2010. The MDGs aimed to halve extreme poverty and the post 2015 development agenda, through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is expected to reinforce efforts in eradicating poverty and ending hunger. These are welcome achievements but we cannot ignore the fact that the eradication of poverty is still a distant aspiration.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I request your permission to share a brief insight into Bhutan’s development and some of the achievements that we have made under the guidance of our enlightened Kings. The developmental planning framework is inspired by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness which acknowledges the importance of sustainable economic development, particularly to bring people above the poverty level, and then emphasizes that material and physical well being must be harmonized with environmental, cultural, spiritual, and emotional well being.

We interpret Gross National Happiness, not as a guarantee or promise of happiness, but as the mandate given to the government to create the right conditions for citizens to achieve contentment and happiness. In this, we are continuously guided by His Majesty the King’s vision for the country and the development values that are consistently underscored in His Royal Addresses to the nation.

In addition to local and national policies, strategies, and initiatives of the Government to alleviate poverty, His Majesty the King travels the length and breadth of the country to ensure that people in the most remote areas have adequate land to sustain themselves, health facilities, educational opportunities, access to spiritual institutions and teachings, and especially, the will and the spirit to improve their living standards and the well being of their families.

This year, we are celebrating the 60th Birth Anniversary of our beloved Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck who gave us the legacy of Gross National Happiness, a paradigm for human development. It is an occasion for us to pay tribute to a selfless Leader who devoted 34 years of his life to improve the social and economic well being of the country.

Hon’ble Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to inform this important gathering that Bhutan has successfully aligned the MDGs, SDGs, and the SAARC objectives with national priorities and integrated them into the national development-planning framework. The Tenth Five-Year Plan (2008-2013) had poverty reduction as the overarching goal and cross-cutting theme, and adopted a targeted poverty reduction approach with the National Rehabilitation Programme (NRP) and the Rural Economy Advancement Programme (REAP) as two major initiatives. The NRP targeted the landless and socio-economically disadvantaged while the REAP focused on securing sustainable livelihoods for the poorest villages.

In the Eleventh FYP (2013-2018), the overall goal is ‘Self-Reliance and Inclusive Green Socio-Economic Development’, with particular focus on reducing multi-dimensional poverty, income inequalities, malnutrition and growing urban poverty. In addition to the NRP and REAP, a new program targeting the poorest households has been initiated – the Targeted Household Poverty Programme (THPP). Under this programme, 3154 poorest households have been identified based on multidimensional poverty selection criteria and surveys are underway to re-validate the households, develop need-based interventions and establish a comprehensive poverty database in the country.

Over the past three decades, real GDP has grown at an annual average of over 7% and we have been able to reduce the poverty rate from 23.2% in 2007 to 12% in 2012 and Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) to 12.7% in 2012 from 25.8% in 2007. Bhutan remains on track towards achieving most of the other SDGs and MDGs, with varied progress on the multitude of goals and targets.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by reminding you of a moment in SAARC’s evolution when poverty was powerfully and pragmatically emphasized by the leaders of our region. More than 10 years ago, the Heads of State or Government of the SAARC countries declared their commitment to the goal that even the poorest person in South Asia must have at least a good square “Dal Bhat” meal. This simple but profound South Asian expression of our true goal must continue to ring through our minds, through our development policies, and through SAARC’s journey to improve the lives of all South Asians.

I have no doubt that this meeting will be yet another great stride on this journey.

Thank you and Tashi Delek!

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