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Constructed poverty

Poverty in Bhutan is still a rural phenomenon.

Reports after reports reiterate this rhetoric as people are told of varying initiatives taken to lift the poor out of poverty. Yet this phenomenon persists, if not in the same dzongkhag​, ​ then in another.

The recent poverty analysis report found that Dagana, Samtse​,​and Mongar are home to 40 percent of the country’s poor, the highest proportion in the country. There are 56,855 poor people in he country based on the national poverty line.

Bhutan has been consistently making efforts to alleviate poverty. The last Plan focussed on alleviating poverty. Yet we see that despite impressive results and targeted interventions, poverty persists in these dzongkhags.

The poverty analysis report doesn’t provide an analysis on why this phenomenon is chronic to these southern and eastern dzongkhags. Calling poverty a rural phenomenon is not enough. For policymakers to take informed decisions and intervene, we now need to further expound on these findings and profile the dzongkhags with high rate of poverty.

The report tells us that agriculture contributes 68.6 percent to the national poverty rate today, up from 43.9 perecnt in 2012. It was found that poverty rates are higher in households whose heads are working in agriculture (9.6 percent). Although this is a decrease by almost half from 18. 5 percent in 2012, the agriculture sector’s contribution to poverty is disturbing.

We call Bhutan an agrarian country because about 56 percent of the country depends on the sector for livelihood. But dzongkhags where agriculture is the main occupation are also home to the poorest. This shows that either our interventions executed from the center are falling short or those in the dzongkhag administrations are unable to implement poverty reduction programmes.

That poverty is deeper and more severe in rural than urban areas is well acknowledged. We need to now find out to what extent is this chronic situation a consequence of our dependence on agriculture. What does it tell of the investments made to agriculture when the sector’s contribution to poverty is higher than its contribution to GDP?

Despite being one of the most important sectors in the country, agriculture has remained neglected. The amount of budget allocated over the years indicates the priority accorded to the sector. Our dependence on imported agriculture produce indicates our inattention to the sector. And because the impact of investing in agriculture is not as immediate and as visible as in other sectors, we have not given the sector the importance it deserves.

Understood this way, the poverty that we are seeing today in the country is a constructed phenomenon. It is of our making and only ours to address. The rhetoric of ‘poverty in Bhutan is still a rural phenomenon’ needs to change because poverty in Bhutan is a rural phenomenon.

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