In Bhutan, 'ain’t no mountain high enough' - How innovation is bringing Parliament to Bhutanese communities

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Bhutan may be a tiny country, but the topography of the Himalayas pose a mountain-sized obstacle for the elected members of parliament in engaging with the people they represent.  Imagine your parliamentarian walking for hours with horsemen to reach his constituency. Imagine the remote community’s sense of connection with parliamentary proceedings taking place in the faraway capital of Thimphu. In Bhutan, this is often the reality on the ground. For many parliamentarians, it may take over a week to visit the remote areas of their constituencies, due to the mountainous terrain and limited road access.

At consultations earlier this year, many parliamentarians pointed us to the gaps in representation that stem from these physical distances. Videoconferencing, on the other hand, is already being used to connect the central government and all 20 districts, as featured by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay on his Facebook page.

Almost 70 per cent of Bhutan’s population lives in rural areas. The general literacy rate in Bhutan is 63 per cent. To reach all members of the population – even those not connected by internet or able to read - innovative communication methods therefore, need to be looked into. Any solution must be unique to Bhutan’s circumstances and traditions, while at the same time making best use of technologies and infrastructure available.

As an advocate for innovation, UNDP is leading the development of a Virtual Zomdu, (“Zomdu” = a meeting of residents of villages or communities), together with project partners in Bhutan.  The country’s internet penetration currently stands at 23 per cent, but exciting changes are afoot. There are already almost 100 community centres across the country that have internet connectivity – and our Virtual Zomdu plans could be piggy-backed onto this infrastructure.

Eventually, videoconferencing facilities could be used to enable citizens from across Bhutan and parliamentarians to meet virtually to discuss issues of concern. Regular meetings between parliamentarians and constituencies are developed on the basis of the Bhutanese tradition of Zomdu. We hope that the Virtual Zomdus will allow current and future members of parliament to engage with the people. For constituents, Virtual Zomdus would provide an opportunity to find out about the work of their representative in parliament and share their views and priorities.  A joint collaboration between the National Assembly, National Council, Department of Information Technology & Telecom, Department of Local Governance, Bhutan Post and the Gross National Happiness Commission is working to make the idea into reality.

That is the idea. However, we are still exploring whether and how the Virtual Zomdu will really work. We are currently in the middle of a rapid six-week prototyping phase (July-August 2014). Through this, we hope to learn more about the feasibility of such a project – both technically, as well as in terms of interest from the communities and parliamentarians themselves to engage in Virtual Zomdus.

We are honored and excited that the first parliamentarian to test out the connection with their constituency will be the Speaker of the National Assembly Jigme Zangpo. We are equally pleased that Zangley Dukpa has kindly agreed to take part in the testing phase. We are also grateful to be taking part and organizing the mock Virtual Zomdus in the two constituencies. Based on lessons learned from the prototyping, we may be able to develop a plan to scale up and institutionalize the Virtual Zomdu concept across the country - and seek the resources to support it.

The idea for the Virtual Zomdu project in Bhutan has been inspired by several other international initiatives.  In Italy, the M5S party live-streams any parliamentary meeting where a position is taken by their members. The parliament of Ecuador is using a video system to connect their National Assembly with the provincial capital cities in order to hold hearing with citizens, while US members of Congress increasingly hold “virtual town hall meetings” to keep in touch with their constituents. These are all initiatives we are learning from and adapting to Bhutan’s unique context.

Of course, there are risks.  What if video communications ends up reducing face-to-face meetings? Is it really possible to connect all constituencies of this rugged country? Will people want to participate in this procss, when they are busy with their day-to-day work and tasks?

Whatever happens, providing more opportunities for elected representatives to interact with the general public will surely only be good for democracy. 

While we are developing and testing the idea, we would love to hear from you.  What are your reactions and experiences? If you’re from Bhutan, would you be interested to take part in a Virtual Zomdu with your MP if this is was possible in your community in the future? Or do you have similar experiences from elsewhere?

SOURCE: UNDP Bhutan, July 29th 2014: