“I don’t see a country that’s totally reliant on single natural resource, I see a country that has taken very appropriate advantage of its natural resources in a sustainable way,” the new World Bank (WB) country director (CD) for Bhutan and Afghanistan, Robert J. Saum said in an exclusive interview with The Bhutanese.
Saum, on his first visit to the Kingdom as the World Bank Country Director, was impressed with the on-going economic projects and progress achieved by Bhutan over the 10th five year plan.
“You can see not only physical changes, but progress has been made more importantly in areas such as discussions on Gross National Happiness (GNH),” he said.
He applauded the government’s ability to improve the people’s lives to great extent, especially in the areas of poverty reduction, increased rural access to better communications, education and health facilities.
The WB’s representative to Bhutan Mark LaPrairie said “The 10th plan in the end still had a funding gap that I think is a reflection of the realities of the availability of resources and also because of the ambitious nature of the plan which really did target service delivery”.
He said there is lot of competing demand around the world and the WB has a limited pie which needs to be allocated based on priority.
CD Saum said as the 11th plan unfolds and as the government wishes to evolve some of these programs, “we are available to work with the government, which could be on the financial support, technical or analytical support”.
The WB representative to Bhutan, Mark LaPrairie said the WB planned the next country partnership strategy to be introduced one year after the 11th plan begins, so that the WB can observe how the plan looks and then develop a new partnership-strategy to ensure its alignment with the plan.
“We purposefully sequenced it so that our next country partnership strategy can reflect the priorities of the 11th plan,” he explained.
Saum said WB will work closely with the government on climate change and environment issues. “One of the things we appreciate about this is that it’s an area where the world can learn from Bhutan”.
The CD also acknowledged the interest expressed by Bhutan toward WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) which is a global partnership by the WB. It aims to support countries to factor their natural-capital into systems of national accounts.
Saum, who also visited the Thimphu Tech Park appreciated the progress of the on-going project. “What I was impressed with was, even though the construction is still on-going, you have the data center already set-up, you have the incubation center, you have several companies who are already out there. IT park has the capacity to bring in more companies, to support more companies. It seems to me that they are off to an outstanding start,” he said.
“I think the government and people of Bhutan recognize the importance of economic growth, diversification of the economy and at the same time linking that with GNH,” said Saum.
Saum, 49, who grew up in Auglaize County in northwest Ohio has worked for several non-profit organizations in Pakistan and with Afghan refugees.
Saum visited Bhutan about a decade ago after he joined the WB in 1998. His field was accountability and public sector financial management in south Asia. He spent a year in the World Bank’s New Delhi office. He also worked on a few projects of Bhutan for the WB.
Saum who assumed office on May 1 is based in Kabul, Afganisthan and will visit Bhutan twice or thrice a year.
On his current four day visit, Saum met Lyonchen Jigmi Y. Thinley, cabinet ministers, auditor general and development partners.
Bhutan became a member of the WB in 1981 and joined the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the WB’s private sector development arm, in December 2003. Through the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank began its program of assistance in the early 1980s.
It has been more than a year since the first WB country office in Bhutan was established along with the appointment of first WB representative to Bhutan, Mark LaPrairie in March 2011.