GNHC officials with donors

Doing away with GNHC is fine but planning and policy vetting should be maintained: Experts

The doing away of the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) and the transfer of its various divisions to the Cabinet, Ministry of Finance and Center of Bhutan and GNH Studies has raised questions on how these agencies will play the key planning, policy vetting and coordination role of the erstwhile GNHC.

A former senior official said that people should not worry about the changes, as when it comes to the planning commission, it has always been a circular process with periods with a planning commission and periods without one.

The former official said that people should give the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) a fair chance, and it could even be better with the PMO leading the plan formulation and monitoring.

The dangers of abandoning planning

“I would not worry unless the whole idea of planning is abandoned. As long as Bhutan is aid dependent, we need to plan our national development, otherwise there are African countries without five year plans and there they end up doing what the donors want. With plans we know what to focus on and channelize the aid of donors,” the official said.

One concern with the aid and debt management, going back to the Ministry of Finance (MoF), is that before GNHC, the MoF was responsible for raising funding for the plan with donors, and at one point it was found that around 60 percent of the activities were non-planned, which meant it was being driven by donors.

This was because MoF was much more focused on annual budgets, and there was lack of coordination, in terms of adhering to the plan. The former official said that PMO must ensure that this is not compromised.

The retired official said that it is important to adhere to the plan, as it has the blessings of the population, and in the past His Majesty The Fourth King even traveled dzongkhag-wise to draw up the plans.

Again before GNHC came into being in January 2008, even the developmental issues for local governments were handled by the Department of Local Government under the Home Ministry.

The problem here was that given the priorities of the ministry, the whole thing was seen from a highly securitized angle.

GNHC took over the development planning aspect of local governance, and started helping by capacity building, involving gewogs and dzongkhags more in the planning process, and also came up with a grant formula, which determined how much each dzongkhag was entitled to.

The former official said that by taking everything into the ministries, it indicates the feeling was that with too much check and balance and agencies in a small country, nothing was getting done.

Vetting policy making

According to feedback from sources, it was felt that the biggest potential danger in doing away with GNHC is the danger of un-vetted policy making.

GNHC had instituted a thorough due diligence in policy making, right from the ground level where it required justification, consultation, the policy was put through a GNH screening tool, and the whole Commission with all the ministerial secretaries, NEC Secretary, PM and FM sat on it and deliberated, and so a lot of wisdom and experience flowed into the policies.

A source said, “It was such a thorough process that a policy that went through the GNHC till date was never overturned by the Cabinet.”

The worry now in the absence of GNHC is ad-hoc policies being framed and announced by political leaders without going through the rigorous GNHC process.

The source said that in the past, there were two examples of such ad-hoc policies that still continue to haunt the government.

The first was the BBIN or Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal transport Agreement, which raised a lot of controversy and could not be passed through the Parliament.

The second was raising the minimum age of admission from 6 to 5 years by the current government in response to pressure by some urban parents.

This ended up going, against international best practices and even medical advice that says that children are only physically and psychologically ready to enter school by the age of 6, and putting them in before that leads to long-term negative health and psychological consequences.

It also led to problems of class room crowding as there were not enough classrooms. 

A survey by the government also found that only around 20 percent of parents want to send kids to school early, and these were mainly in Thimphu, with one of the main motivations being that there is not someone to look after the child.

In rural areas and other places, parents still prefer sending their children later to school with many rural parents sending them even by age 7 or 8 and so the age 5 rule made little sense to them.

“In the case of the above policies, if protocol was followed and there was due diligence and everyone was consulted then there would have been a better outcome,” said the source.

Lyonchhen says focus on long-term and more aligned planning

Lyonchhen said that under the structural reforms, all the commissions and councils that did not have a basis in law were done away with, like GNHC, and were incorporated into parent ministries. He said even a body, like the National Environment Commission (NEC) will not be a stand alone body, but the ministry will act as the secretariat.

Lyonchhen explained that the Cabinet Secretariat would be divided into the Office of the Cabinet Affairs and Strategic Coordination, and the Office of the Prime Minister with the former looking after the planning process.

Lyonchhen said that Center of Bhutan GNH & Studies (CBS) will look at the long-term approach and guide the Cabinet, and the Cabinet will come up with the overall plans while the MoF will do the day-to-day activities and raising grants with donors.

When asked about how policy vetting would done in absence of the GNHC, the PM said that this function would be carried out by a restructured Committee of Secretaries.

In response to question on how the government would prevent the plan being driven by donors, the PM said the planning division of the Cabinet will be drawing up plans that will look at a path 20, 30 and 40 years down the line.

Lyonchhen said MoF will be guided by the overall plan prepared by the Cabinet, and it would also go down to 10 ministries and all agencies. PM stressed that MoF will look at the budget aspect more, and based on the priorities of planning the Finance Minister, Secretary and Budget Director would negotiate with donors on how much is required and where it is required.

The Prime Minister in the past had announced the need to improve the five-year planning process and even do away with it, if necessary.

This position has now moderated to reforming the five-year plans.

When asked about how different the 13th Plan would be, the PM said that the Perspective Planning Division will be framing the 13th Plan and though it will be different from other five- year plans, they are calling it the 13th Plan for convenience sake.

Lyonchhen said that one major difference in the 13th Plan is that it will have a lot of long-term projects that go into two decades, one decades, 6 or 7 years and one or two years.

The current Cabinet Director is expected to head the Office of the Cabinet Affairs and Strategic Coordination.

Lyonchhen said he will soon be giving directions to the division on the 13th Plan. PM reiterated his past positions that the local government plans need to be aligned with national priorities and it cannot just be about more BHUs, schools and farm roads. He said the central planning body should be the main spine of planning.

Lyonchhen also said that the planning process is not delayed, and that he would be getting three drafts of the 13th Plan with the first draft by the end of next month, the second draft by April 2023 and the final draft by June 2023. Lyonchhen said six to seven months should be enough to draft the plan, and this was the past practice too.

The GNHC’s strategic planning functions is elevated and integrated into the Cabinet Secretariat. Perspective Planning and Regulatory Coordination from GNHC will be in the Cabinet Secretariat.

GNHC’s responsibility of managing external grants will be transferred to the Department of Macro-Fiscal and Development Finance under MoF.

The responsibilities of central and local government planning from GNHC will be transferred to the Department of Planning, Budget and Performance. 

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