Bhutan has cultivated a close relationship with Switzerland over the last 60 years. There are even similarities between the landscapes of these two small mountainous countries. Cooperation in the fields of dairy farming, agriculture and forestry - and later teacher training - has been a success and it continues with the ongoing efforts to bring greater democracy and vocational training.

Success stories in the Himalayas

It was the friendship between the King of Bhutan and a Swiss businessman back in the 1950s that laid the groundwork for the partnership between the two countries. In 1975 HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation took over the existing projects, which included bringing cheesemaking to Bhutan, and they developed over time into an effective national programme.
HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation also introduced experiences of forestry management from Switzerland. The Bhutanese authorities were sceptical about putting the forests in the hands of village communities. Would people overexploit their natural environment? It turned out that farming families, organised into forest committees, knew perfectly well how to protect their forests and use them in a sustainable and democratic manner.
This is just one example of how HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation promotes democracy and co-determination through everyday projects. 
Since increasing numbers of young Bhutanese set their hearts on studying, and crafts are not (yet) held in very high esteem, there is a lack of qualified craftsmen and –women. HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation has therefore made a commitment to support the government as it endeavours to improve vocational training. The Swiss apprenticeship model and the successful educational project in Nepal are a valuable source of experience in this regard.

Democratic awakening in Bhutan

The then King himself took the initiative to transform Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy in 2006 and pushed ahead with measures for greater democracy. The land of the thunder dragon is now undergoing radical change while trying to conserve its cultural roots.
Bhutan was the last country in the world to introduce television and the Internet in 1999. The small mountainous country, caught between two giants - India and China, has been opening up while also carefully protecting its cultural identity. Bhutan is aiming for a development where progress is measured not only in terms of material prosperity but also as “gross national happiness”, which values aspects such as an unspoiled environment, a vigorous culture, spiritual well-being and good governance.
Bhutan’s second parliamentary elections were held in 2013. Many were initially hesitant about the challenge of self-determination that their King had set them. Tow important remaining tasks are to awaken a sense of civic spirit in people’s daily lives and to strengthen local authorities’ capacity to fulfil their roles. Attention is being paid to ensuring that every group, ethnicity and region of the country participate equally in this democratic process. HELVETAS supports civil society groups, elected (local) administration and the developping private sector in this transition process towards democracy and decentralization.
Bhutan’s riches are its natural resources: extensive forests and hydropower. The priority must be to protect these from the greed of its energy-hungry neighbours and make use of them in a democratic fashion to the benefit of all.
Nearly one in ten Bhutanese still lives below the poverty line. However, an expansion of the education system has halved the illiteracy rate from 90 to less than 40 percent within a generation. Bhutan nevertheless faces the major challenge of creating sufficient jobs, income opportunities and, with them, future prospects for the well-educated school leavers.

Reference project in Bhutan