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High-tech dreams in the land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan first plugged in to the Internet and TV in 1999. So isolated was the tiny Himalayan nation that until then World Cup soccer fans had to drive to the Indian border to buy videotapes of the latest matches, which they would watch a day late.

Picture the scene seventeen years later: at Thimphu TechPark, a government-run technology hub, a dozen coders hunch over flatscreen monitors. Downstairs, teenagers bark at Europeans through headsets. Soccer is a click away.

The success of Thimphu TechPark explains why Bhutan is moving so quickly toward its goal of graduation from the least developed country category (LDC). Having been found eligible for graduation in 2015 at the last triennial review of UNDESA’s Committee for Development Policy (CDP), the country looks likely again to meet the standard in 2018, potentially graduating in 2021.

The CDP secretariat last month launched a project in Thumphu to help the government understand and prepare for graduation, putting in place policies to diversify and develop productive capacity.

Thimphu

View of Thimphu, capital of Bhutan.

The TechPark is exactly the kind of initiative that the project aims to support with policy proposals. “Initially people expressed a lot of skepticism about the park,” says CEO Tshering Cigay Dorji, “but these things take time.” It was only after US online photo company Scan Café ramped up its initial 20-strong pilot project in May 2013 that 11 others followed from Bangladesh, Switzerland and elsewhere, specializing in telecoms, business process outsourcing and online data.

Scan Café showed that Bhutan was a good place to do business. Most of the ingredients were already in place – good education, competitive wages, cheap electricity and low rent – they just hadn’t yet been used in IT. Most Bhutanese are taught English from an early age, and the country scores particularly well on the human assets index that is part of the official LDC category.

Bhutan is following a path well-trodden by successful tech exporters: start small and cheap, discover markets through trial and error, and move into more sophisticated activities later on.

Government leadership is strong. The national vision, Gross National Happiness (GNH), aims to “maximize the happiness of all Bhutanese and to enable them to achieve their full and innate potential as human beings”.

According to the Bhutan Diagnostic Trade Integration Study (DTIS), IT fits well with the GNH environmental vision. E-commerce and e-government have a low environmental impact because they localize service access and delivery and are more efficient than old, carbon-heavy industries.

It’s too early to tell whether the TechPark will transform the economy. But in a tiny, remote LDC that only opened up to the outside world less than two decades ago, Thimphu TechPark is a remarkable success story, and the kind of policy initiative which the CDP aims to continue supporting.

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