In Bhutan CSOs’ role in policy making decisions are non-existent, study finds

The members of the CSO met recently to discuss the requirement of the amendment of the CSO Act



SONAM PENJOR

Thimphu

Despite increased recognition and engagement of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), most of the respondents were of the view that CSOs’ roles in policymaking decisions were non-existent.

This is according to the Public Perception of Civil Society Contributions to Local and National Development in Bhutan which was commissioned by Helvetas Swiss Inter-cooperation Bhutan Office 2020 funded by the European Union.

The report states that as of today CSOs had no influence on public policy and that CSO engagement with government agencies were “unsuccessful and weak”.

On the contrary, while respondents stated that CSOs were not fully engaged in any important policy framing decisions, such as the Five-Year Plans (FYP) or the national budget, it was highlighted that CSOs were considered key stakeholders for consultations during policy framing more regularly in recent years.

According to popular public perception, almost all respondents expressed similar views of the value that CSOs’ bring towards policy development due to their varied first-hand experiences from the field and exposure to issues.

Some respondents recognized that a few CSOs have a slight influence in advocating for legislation and expressing views on emerging social concerns. It states, “They agreed that CSOs can play a greater role in further advocating for issues related to women, children and youth, and issues of people living with disabilities, HIV/AIDs, LGBTQIA and those working in risky occupations.”

Some suggested that there are already opportunities for bringing such issues to the attention of the Parliament through the various thematic committees, social media and policy debates. A few others expressed that CSOs can play a role in the decision-making process by lobbying to influence policymakers and their decisions, added in the public perception.

A handful of respondents also shared that CSOs should be allowed to participate as observers to understand the policy framing process since currently experience is lacking.

“To engage meaningfully with the government, CSOs may be required to increase their research capacities along with their monitoring capacities, which according to a respondent was not active and successful yet,” they opined.

Considering that an important facet on the role of CSOs globally is that of a watchdog, most respondents were of the view that this would similarly be a natural transition for Bhutan as CSOs embrace their role of creating greater accountability in the future.

Further, it also states that many agreed that this would provide check and balance, offering increased independent objectivity in assessments that would lead to transparency and accountability.

This denotes a departure from the CSO Perception Report 2017 where half the respondents were of the view that it was not a necessity for CSOs to duplicate the role of other monitoring agencies such as the Royal Audit Authority, Anti- Corruption Commission, and legal departments.

Some respondents viewed a few CSOs as already embracing this role by compiling and submitting shadow reports on the status of vulnerable sections in society through periodic country reports such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), as well as through indirect engagement and communication on social media platforms. A few respondents were of the view that there was a complete lack of monitoring by CSOs currently.

A few respondents stated that for Bhutan, the context is slightly different as CSOs tend to work very closely with the government, to supplement and complement government initiatives. As in the findings of the CSO Perception Report 2017, there is a risk of conflict of interest for CSOs to fulfil its accountability and transparency roles if they were fully reliant on government funding. Since funding source is limited in the country, the government is still considered a reliable source of program-tied funding.

This could indicate internal regulation and censorship among CSOs to ensure continuation of funding. Currently, the lack of capacity, especially research capacity, in most CSOs could also indicate a lack of evidence to advocate for change and contribute to policy processes.

Despite the current situation, most respondents agreed that in the long-term CSO serving the role of a watchdog, including monitoring and reporting on progress and achievements of the FYP and international commitments, would be eventually benefit the country at large. However, to do so, respondents stated that CSOs’ capacity in research, policy dialogue and negotiation would have to be strengthened in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, there has been a marked increase in the awareness and understanding of CSOs among the public when compared to the CSO Perception Report 2017 which had reported a complete lack of understanding or awareness of CSO. 88 percent of respondents in 2020 were able to distinguish CSOs, their role, and space within which they perform.

The respondents’ perception highlights several changes that have come about in the roles and responsibilities of CSOs with 44.1 percent of the respondents perceiving CSOs’ roles and responsibilities to have increased considerably in the past five years. Another 44.1 percent responded that Civil Society’s role has increased slightly. Approximately one-tenth which accounts to 11.2 percent believed that their roles and responsibilities have remained the same, while 0.74 percent felt that it had decreased. The responses indicate an overwhelming consensus on the rise of CSOs’ role in the country over the last half-decade.

Respondents also perceived that CSOs could provide check and balance – offering non-partisan and objective assessment that could directly lead to government transparency and accountability.

It states that reconfirmed the confidence of donors and government agencies to engage CSOs in their program implementation because of their perceived reach and impact on different sections of society.

The findings also reported a lack of clarity from respondents in distinguishing between private sector organizations from CSOs. This indicates a need to better communicate with the broader population, the different roles organizations can take up in society or democracy, their characteristics, and their formal status in Bhutan.

Meanwhile, the study is statistically nationally representative with 510 respondents surveyed via quantitative data collection. As for the qualitative interviews via Key Informant Interviews, Focus Group Discussion and In-Depth Interviews, 39 individuals were interviewed from the government, INGOs, autonomous bodies, CSOA, CSOs and the general public.