Travel log from Bhutan: A successful development strategy

Meeting visually impaired who have benefitted from our development project in Bhutan left a lasting impression and clearly illustrated that transfer of expertise creates sustainable change in society.

Story by: Magne Lunde - 01.06.2011

When we started MediaLT one of our visions was to give disabled people in other parts of the world the same technological opportunities as we enjoy here in the West. In the realization of this vision we chose to implement a  two-stage strategy which we believe best facilitates development aid.  During the first phase expertise was transferred to a resource group of Bhutanese teachers. The thinking behind this was that these teachers, who are more capable than we are to pass on skills in their own country, should themselves implement a program to teach ICT skills to visually impaired in the second phase of the project.

The evaluation of the project in Bhutan shows that this is a very successful strategy which we would like to try in other developing countries.

Good results

MediaLT has been conducting the development project in Bhutan on behalf of the Norwegian Mission, funded by NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) and the Norwegian mission. Read more about the good results at New opportunities for visually impaired people in Bhutan.

A Privilege

The project in Bhutan ends on 31st December 2011. As we are now nearing the end of the project, Nils Magnar Sture from the Norwegian Mission, Einar Kippenes (Development consultant) and myself travelled to Bhutan in April to evaluate the results. Both Einar and Nils are former missionaries in Bhutan. Einar started the school for the Blind and Nils worked with a health care programme which almost eradicated leprosy from this small Himalayan kingdom. It was a great privilege to travel with two people whose earlier pioneering work is now so highly recognized in Bhutan.  They were able to open doors to all strata of society from grassroots to the highest level.

The diary below relates our journey.

27th April: Favorite Teacher

At the airport in Paro, we were greeted by Pema and the driver from the Ministry of Education in Bhutan. They were to accompany us throughout the trip. Pema is blind and a member of the resource group. As a result of the project, Pema obtained a position working with special needs at the Ministry of Education, where another member of the resource group,  Tshering Lhamo, is also employed. Their appointment at Government level is an important recognition of the work in the project, and will be of great value for future work for the Disabled in Bhutan. There are now two Government ambassadors who understand their cause and are able to advocate their needs.

[Photo: Magne, Nils and Pema talking to Tshering Yedon]

As soon as we landed, we visited two visually impaired teachers (Tshering Yedon and Pema Dorji) who are employed at two different schools in the local area. Many visually impaired in Bhutan are employed as teachers in mainstream schools, and they do a good job. Both teachers had attended a vocational computer course implemented as part of the project. They spoke of the great benefit a laptop and computer training had given them. The headmaster singled Pema Dorjivar's out as the pupil's favourite teacher. Both teachers expressed a wish to use the technology more actively, but because technological development has not progressed so far in this country, they were not yet able to use PowerPoint and a projector in the classroom, and students were unable to submit work in electronic format. In time they thought that this would change, and that they as teachers would become even more self-reliant.

In the evening we travelled on to the capital Thimphu. The road had been much improved since I was last there in 2005 and we did not have to stop for oncoming traffic. The last stretch of road towards the capital had become a motorway and the journey now took just under an hour.

28th April: Moving experience

The first day in the capital started with meetings at the Ministry of Education. We had a useful meeting to look at the way forward for the continuation of the work that has been started in the project. We then went on to visit the main hospital in Bhutan, where Sanga, a role model for the Blind in Bhutan, works as head of the physiotherapy team. Sanga, who had also completed the vocational computer course in 2010, spoke of the advantages of a computer in his daily work, as did a blind member of his staff who had also recieved computer training,  mentioning amongst other things the use of PowerPoint to promote external activities.

[Photo: Sanga's colleague treats a patient]

After lunch we visited a school with special responsibility for pupils with learning and writing difficulties. In the absence of knowledge about technological opportunities for this group the focus was geared towards practical handicrafts. I talked about the computer technical aids that are now available and promised to send them information. It is good to see that the Department of Special Education, with Pema in the lead, is now looking to meet the needs of all disabled groups.  They are in the process of gathering information about solutions for different groups, and how to meet their needs. There is still a long way to go, but the progress they have made for the visually impaired is the first step in the right direction.

The next item on the agenda was a visit to a blind switchboard operator. Previously he had used a typewriter to write. The laptop and computer training he had received made his job much easier.

In the evening Pema and Sanga had gathered together former pupils from the school for the Blind. Most of them had received training through the project. It was a moving experience to hear the gratitude they expressed for what the project had meant in their lives. And there was a ernest petition from them for the project to continue after 2011.

29th April: A Fire in a shop

Early the next morning we started our long journey up and down the Himalayan Mountains, to the school for the Blind in the East at Khaling. Despite the winding and difficult roads we travelled fast. With two "insiders" (Einar and Nils) there was much to talk about during the journey. In the evening we arrived at Bumthang, an area that has received much support from the Swiss aid organization Helvetas. In February this year many shops had burnt down, including a shop run by a blind person with the name Gembo Tenzin. The auto parts store was his life's work, but without insurance, he is now empty handed again with his wife and four children.

[Photo: Pema, Nils and Magne talking to Gembo]

The meeting with Gembo that night was very special. Einar, Nils and I agreed that we had to try to help.

30th April: Traditional Bhutanese Reception

Another day of driving. A few miles before our arrival in Khaling, we were greeted in traditional Bhutanese style, with tea and a picnic, before they left with us for the last miles to Khaling. This was very pleasant!

1st May: Dinner with the project initiator

In the morning we went down to the school for the Blind where construction workers were already in full swing. The government has allocated money for new buildings. It is a good sign that the Bhutanese Government is prioritizing work at the school. We visited the new administration building, which is now almost complete and had conversations with people from the resource group and the Principal at the school.

[Photo: View of Khaling]

In the evening we were invited to dine with Kuenga. He was one of Einar's first pupils, and the initiator of the project. In 2004, Kuenga contacted Einar about how to start an ICT project. Einar contacted me, and thus the first seeds of the project were sown.

2nd May: The Teacher's day

[Photo: Einar in conversation with students

2nd May was "teacher's day" in Bhutan, an official day off: a day to honour teachers for the work they do for their country. There were events at various schools to commemorate the day. As our visit coincided with this event the resource group had decided that this would be the right day to launch the new website for the school. Earlier in the spring, we had conducted a course with the resource group, when they had learned how to create and maintain a website. The course was conducted as online teaching, something that is relatively new in the context of deveopment work. Costs can be reduced by this method and results have been satisfactory. The resource group is still missing some expertise in this area and there will be follow up with more teaching later this year. With help from us, however, the new web site is in place.

On this particular morning, however, the electricity supply failed, as it often does in this country. So the launch had to be postponed. The day was devoted to meeting with the resource group and the Principal to review the results of the project. It was agreed that all objectives of the project had been achieved except for a course in the use of DAISY. DAISY training will be conducted during 2011, ie within the project period. The resource group stil believed that there was a need to continue the project, and they strongly petitioned us to extend the project. Given the high level of achievement of goals in the project, it is difficult to anticipate an extension. The meeting concluded that the resource group and the Norwegian counterpart, would look for new opportunities to continue the work.

Visually impaired in Bhutan attend the school for the Blind until the sixth grade. Then they continue at the local middle and high schools in Khaling, where they are integrated into regular school. In the afternoon we were visited by visually impaired students from these two schools. They talked about what ICT training had meant to them and how they used ICT at school. In middle school this worked well, because students here are still living as boarders at the school for the Blind and have access to the Computer centre, which has been funded by the project. At the high school, however, follow-up of the visually impaired students is more challenging, and on the day after we had a separate meeting with the administration at the high school.

In the evening we were invited with the resource group to a local restaurant. Now there was time for reminising about the resource group's stay in Norway and some technical talk, but above all, a time to be together.

3rd May: Great Excitement

The electricity was back and everything was ready for the launch of the new website. This style of commemoration can only happen in Bhutan, with great speeches, the unveiling of the computer screen and the cutting of the ribbon. The enthusiasm was great for this new milestone in the school's history. The website has the following address:

[Photo: Tshering, Pema, Kuenga and others proudly demonstrate NIVI's home page]

Then we went up to the high school to discuss the situation for the visually impaired students' integration into the school. The high school did not receive any increase in resources compared with other high schools, so it was difficult for them to sufficiently monitor the visually impaired students. Leki, one of the resource persons, took lessons with them after school. This was in their leisure time and hers. It was not possible for students to use ICT as part of their studies, for example to present their work. With Pema present, imrpoved monitoring of these students was discussed and how the Ministry of Education might contribute to this. It was decided that students should have a separate room where they could use a PC, and a printer to print out their homework to hand in to the teachers.

That night the school held a big farewell party for us with both pupils and teachers present. The students entertained us with music, and both Einar and Pema gave inspiring speeches to the students.

4th May: New visit to Gembo


[Photo: Tshering, Pema, Nils, Einar and Magne at the highest point in the journey]

Early next morning we started the journey back home. Again we stopped to visit Gembo at Bumthang, discussing how we could help him, and we agreed to try to collect money on our return to Norway. If you would like to join us in supporting Gembo, please contact us. It would very good if we could raise sufficient support from the Norwegian authorities so that he can start his store again.

5th May: Dinner with the Department of Education

At around six we were back in the capital, Thimphu, just in time for dinner with the Director of the Department of Education and Special Education. The Director has been a key supporter of the project throughout the project period, and has both understanding and insight into the challenges and opportunities for visually impaired people in ICT. This invitation to dinner was much appreciated.

6th May: Three meetings with the Ministry

[Photo: Einar and Magne at the Department of Education]

Much of the day was spent in meetings with the Ministry of Education,  first with the Director, then with the Secretary of State and finally with the Minister for Education. The follow up to the project was discussed with the Director, and possibilities for further work after 2011.  The setting up of an  organization for the Disabled is now under way in Bhutan. The visually impaired are in the forefront of this work. In an indirect way the work of this organization is a result of the project. It was agreed to consider the possibility of linking a new project up to this organization with the aim of helping them build up this new organization, and to look closer at how the organization can assist disabled people in relation to their technological needs.

The next item on the agenda was a meeting with the only Norwegian-speaking Bhutanese person: Jigme Drukpa. He lived in Norway for six years and worked with folk music with Sondre Bratland. The two of them have also released a CD together. He now runs a private music school in the capital. In the evenings he entertains tourists with Bhutanese folk music. Einar, Nils and I decided to eat at the restaurant, Bhutanich kitchen, and we were very lucky to have Jigme Drukpa there entertaining a group of Japanese tourists and the Japanese ambassadors. We got to take part in the entertainment, and were able to listen to the Norwegian willow flute and traditional Bhutanese music.

7th May: Royal cyclist

This was the first day with some free time. In the morning we looked round Thimphu and bought some gifts for home. In the afternoon Sanga and Pema invited us to walk in the paths on the hills above Thimphu. It was good to get some exercise. The walk provided us with a rare opportunity. Suddenly there was a cyclist coming at high speed towards us who braked suddenly. The "royal biker" was not expecting to meet anyone here, and least of all a group with white canes. It was Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself. There are pictures and posters all over the country, now mostly with his son, as he abdicated the throne in 2006. Sanga, who is known to the old king chatted with him.  Before we parted company he mentioned that the old king wants to meet with us the next day. Half an hour later, while we stand by the car, he appeared again, this time accompanied by one of his queens, Ashi Tshering Pem. There was more talk and the invitation for the next day was confirmed.

We dined with two resource persons in the evening: Kuenga and Shriman. An important topic during dinner was about how the collaboration can be continued, and the idea of building a new project around an organization for the Disabled in Bhutan.

8th May: Visiting the old king

On Sunday we visited the Queen's residence. Sanga, Pema and Kinley from the Department of Education and the three of us were invited.  We were served juice and coffee, pizza, momo and cake. The king addressed each of us by name and asked how our children were. We chatted about sports, Norwegian and Bhutanese politics, world affairs and more. He spoke well of the school for the Blind and about the leprosy and health work in Riserboo and surrounding areas, and the implementation of the project. When I shook hands and said goodbye to him, the message was the same: You must come back and continue your work here.  Back in the car he brought gifts for each of us, two beautiful woven fabrics and a stamp book. Sanga and Pema were probably those most overwhelmed by the weekend's events. They say afterwards that the old king very rarely does anything like this, inviting ordinary people to his home or a queen's residence.

[Photo: The old king chats to Pema and Sanga during a walk in the woods]

Later in the day we shake hands again with Jigme Drukpa, this time at home with him and his family, where his music and 31 students are also housed.  It is very interesting to get his critical gaze on Bhutanese society and the origins of democracy in the country.

9th May: New exciting meetings

There were more exciting meetings on our way to the airport at Paro.  Our first visit was to a hospital for lepers and people with AIDS. Nils greeted old friends and was able to ascertain that the work he played such a big part in is now being well run. Then we stopped to visit Carma, a former Principal at the school for the Blind. He is the only person in Bhutan with a Master's degree in Special education, which he took in Norway. Pema draws on his expertise in his work at the Ministry.

Once in Paro we greeted Reuben and his wife Pabi Maya. They showed us the Nak-Sel Hotel where he is a Construction Manager. The hotel is far up on the hillside, beautiful and very elegant with luxury apartments, spa and views to Taktsang and Jumolhari.  It is now nearing completion. We were able to visit their home, before dinner in the evening with Tshering Lhamo (a member of the resource group) and her husband, Karma, who played a central role in starting up the school for the Blind.

[Photo: At home with Reuben and his family]

Sustainable change

Fourteen interesting days are over. Our meetings with the visually impaired who have benefitted from the project have made a great impression, not to mention the enormous gratitude they express, and their strong petition that we must continue to help them. This unanimous message from all levels of society is hard to ignore, and we agree that we must look for new opportunities to continue our commitment in this mountain kingdom.

The project has clearly confirmed for me that the most tangible results of development work are created through education and expertise. These are the values ​​that create sustainable change in society.

News archive