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Bhutan Country Overview

April 2010

Overview | Development Challenges | World Bank Assistance to BhutanLooking Toward the FutureGross National Happiness


The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small landlocked country in South Asia, located in the eastern Himalayas, and bordered by India and China. The Kingdom is home to a population of about 687,000, spread over an area of approximately 47,000 sq. km., with about 70 percent of the land area under forest cover. Much of the population lives in the central highlands, and almost two-thirds are classified as rural inhabitants. The terrain is mostly hilly, with alpine peaks in the north, and some sub-tropical plains in the south. Per capita gross national income (GNI), one of the highest in South Asia, has consistently risen from $730 in 2000 to $1,900 in 2008.

The country has seen significant political changes and transitions in recent years. Bhutan’s political system has evolved from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, following a decade of planning and consultations. After 34 years on the throne, the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, stepped down on December 9, 2006, in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The Constitution was prepared, following a process led by the Chief Justice, and involving widespread public consultations within Bhutan, and with the international community. The new democratic system comprises a National Council and a National Assembly, the latter based on political party affiliations. Elections for the National Council were held on December 31, 2007, while elections for the National Assembly were held on March 24, 2008.

For the first time, Bhutan will host the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit at the end of April. The leaders from the eight South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) will gather in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. The overarching theme of the Summit this year will be climate change, and the heads of state from all the SAARC countries are expected to attend.


Bhutan’s development has been rapid. Until the 1950s, Bhutan isolated itself from the rest of the world, and its dispersed rural population depended on subsistence agriculture. Once it opened to the outside world in the 1960s, Bhutan embarked on a far-reaching development strategy that has been articulated in 10 Five-Year Plans. The Tenth Five-Year Plan (2008-2013) is currently under implementation, and constitutes the basis for the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. The Plan’s overall objective is to reduce poverty from 23.2 percent in 2007 to 15 percent by 2012-13.

The Kingdom is characterized by good progress in human development, particularly in urban areas, and the increasing availability and use of public services throughout the country. However, these changes have been slower to reach the more remote, hard-to-reach areas due to the rugged terrain and limited trained human resources. The expansion of infrastructure is an absolute requirement for the broader economic and social transformation of the country. Despite the rapid expansion of the road network, more than 50 percent of the population lives half a day’s walk from the nearest motor road.

Only 57 percent of the population in rural areas has access to electricity. The country has a significant feasible hydropower potential of around 23,760 MW, of which just a little over 5 percent has been tapped so far.

Over the past decade, social indicators have improved. Life expectancy at birth has risn from 65 years in 1990 to 69 year in 2008. Infant mortality per 1,000 live births has been reduced from 59 in 2005 to 54 in 2008. Maternal mortality rates in 2005 were estimated at 440 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 500 in the South Asia region as a whole. Literacy and education enrollment rates have also risen with a net enrollment rate in primary schools of 83 percent in 2008. Unlike much of the rest of South Asia, primary school enrollment among girls is higher than boys in many urban areas, and nationwide almost half of primary school students are girls. Property rights are also much more equal than in most of South Asia, with women rather than men inheriting property in some areas. However, there is a growing incidence of youth unemployment. As youth comprise almost 59 percent of the population, adequate job creation will depend on robust private sector development, combined with initiatives to increase skills and employability.


Bhutan became a member of the World Bank in 1981. Through the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s concessionary lending affiliate that provides interest-free loans, the Bank began its program of assistance in the early 1980s.

There are currently seven ongoing projects for a net commitment of $73 million. The current project portfolio is focusing on education, health, private sector, and rural development. In addition, a Development Policy Financing for Institutional Strengthening (DPFIS) was disbursed in June 2009 in the amount of $20.2 million. Building on two previous operations, the main objectives of the DPFIS were to strengthen institutions by promoting good governance through sound fiscal and public financial management and procurement and strong accountability institutions; fostering dynamic labor markets, ensuring skills match, and generating employment; and expanding access to infrastructure in an environmentally sustainable manner.


Name of Project





Closing Date

Institutional Capacity Building Project for Procurement


$1.5 million


Decentralized Rural Development


$7.0 million


Sustainable Land Management


$7.7 million


Second Rural Access Project


$10.0 million


Private Sector Development


$8.0 million


Education Development Project


$32.6 million


HIV/AIDS and STI Prevention


$5.8 million


There is growing global focus on the Millennium Development Goals, including ensuring environmental sustainability and achieving universal primary education by 2015. Bhutan has already achieved some of the goals and has concrete plans and the commitment to achieve the others.

Bhutan became a member of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector development arm, in December 2003. The IFC has a total committed investment portfolio of $8.8 million. The advisory portfolio includes corporate advice and access to finance service. IFC is in the process of opening an office in Bhutan and is interested in exploring opportunities to provide to the government and expanded investment support to the private sector.

A Threat to Development:
HIV/AIDS in Bhutan

L:aidsribbonsmall.gif  The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, though isolated geographically, is not impervious to HIV. Increasing cross-border migration and international travel, combined with behavioral risk factors, mean Bhutan could face increases in HIV infections. With HIV prevalence currently very low, there is still time to stop its spread.

Visit the Bhutan HIV/AIDS Brief.


The World Bank has appointed a Country Representative who will take up permanent residence in Bhutan in November. The Representative will better support implementation of the Bank-financed program in the country and strengthen dialogue across a range of issues.

Currently under preparation for Fiscal Year 2010, which ends June 30, 2010, is an $8 million investment in an urban development project. In addition, a new Country Assistance Strategy is under preparation and will build on the government’s Tenth Five-Year Plan and serves as its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.

The Bank’s program of analytical and advisory activities (AAA) will aim to be responsive to the country’s needs and focuses on capacity constraints. The CAS includes a flexible AAA program characterized by a limited number of formal activities, programmatic non-lending technical assistance in selected areas, and just-in-time AAA to respond to emerging demands of the government.

All dollar figures are in US dollar equivalents.


While economic growth is considered important, the Royal Government of Bhutan is concerned with preserving its culture, environment, and identity. Thus, creating an atmosphere where every individual can seek and achieve happiness has been chosen as a major goal. Accordingly, the government is pursuing a holistic path of change framed by a unique and homegrown development vision: Gross National Happiness. This political philosophy is underpinned by four pillars that further define the effort to balance spiritualistic and material advancement: sustainable socioeconomic development, conservation and sustainable use of the environment, promotion of culture, and good governance.

All policy and planning documents, projects, programs, and legislation strive to make the concept of Gross National Happiness operational. Bhutan’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper—underpinned by the Tenth Five-Year Development Plan—reflects this vision through concrete objectives and strategies, including improving quality of life and income, especially for the poor; promoting private sector growth and employment; strengthening governance, particularly at the decentralized level; and promoting culture and environmental conservation.

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