Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bhutan: The Case for Quotas

By James Walsh, WAPPP Summer Intern

Yesterday, with my voice competing with the clanger of the monsoon rain on the tin roof of the Planning Division’s office, I presented my final report to the Gross National Happiness Commission. Twenty-five people were in attendance at the meeting. More important than the number however, was its composition. It included key decision makers from the GNHC: Department Heads and the Secretary of the Commission – one of the most respected leaders in Bhutan’s civil service. After weeks of worrying whether my time here would leave any lasting impression, this was my opportunity to play a small role in influencing the people who drive the country’s policy agenda.
When I first arrived, I had been asked by the Secretary to work on designing a framework for implementing policies that allowed the government to actively engage in pursuing ‘GNH Development’ (by focusing on fostering indicators like uptake of meditation and volunteering). It was important, interesting work and the Secretary had a keen interest in it – the ideal way for a student to spend an internship. After familiarizing myself both with the various dimensions of the GNH framework and the scope of the project however, I realized my work would do very little to address the growing problem of inequity faced by women Bhutan as the country modernized – something I had come to Bhutan to work on. (Gender is an important component of many aspects of GNH, but doesn’t feature strongly in others). So I decided to work on a parallel project independently, focusing specifically on empowering women in politics through the introduction of quotas. I would conduct the research, write the report and present the findings alongside the original assignment, relying on occasional advice from senior figures in the GNHC who had an interest in the area. The plan worked.
Though the issue of gender was not something that anybody had much interest in me working on here, it created by far the greatest stir of the presentation. The Secretary, who opposed the introduction of quotas (like many in the senior ranks of Bhutanese government), changed his mind on the issue. Speaking on the subject after the presentation, he described his “180 degree turn” and decided to use the report to engage the issue with members of parliament. That afternoon, I left the office triumphantly, feeling that a slight of pressure had been added to the arc of justice in Bhutan.

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