Growing democracy among youth

Posted by Tempa Wangdi, January 8th, 2019

Facing the social media wall

Christiane Berthiaume, former spokesperson and Public Information Officer for the UN World Food Programme and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has contributed this blog after spending a few weeks in Bhutan working for BCMD on communication and fundraising strategies. This is the blog she has written on her personal impressions.

Bhutanese are among the nicest and most polite people in the world. And believe me, as I visited over 50 countries throughout my career.

So I was not so surprised when a friend of mine told me that she was reminded by her boss many years ago to stop asking too many questions. “If you want to stay in this country as a foreigner, you will have to learn that one doesn’t ask questions. It is perceived as being rude”.

And indeed, Bhutanese are very, very respectful. Not asking question has nothing to do with fear or censorship. Their Kings have always been very open and available to all, on their numerous trips across the country or simply by according audiences on a simple request. “There is a culture of democracy in this country,” said UN Resident Coordinator, Gerald Daly. “Bhutanese have always been able to speak directly to their King.” Not asking questions is more a social behaviour.

Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, Executive Director and founder of The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD) recalls going to schools asking children why they did not ask questions.

And why should they? Bhutan is the last kingdom of the Himalayas blessed by a monarchy that has the wellbeing of its population at heart, since the early twentieth century. This monarchy provided the entire population with free education and health services. The Fourth King (1972-2006) went as far as to invent the strangest national index called the Gross National Happiness. So why bother asking questions when you have so well intentioned leaders?

The same King went further in 2008 by deciding that democracy should be introduced into his country because, as he explained, the future of a country should not rest on the shoulders of a single person. It is far too risky.

BCMD’s mission is to nurture democracy, making sure that it is not merely seen as voting on election days, but rather about making better citizens involved in their community and taking their future in their own hands, instead of depending on other people’s decisions.

This is why Siok Sian Pek-Dorji felt the need to reverse the tide when children claimed that it was up to their teachers, and not to them, to ask questions.  She told them: “You have the right, even the duty, to ask questions to your parents, teachers, to the government, because asking questions make you better understand what are the issues and make you better citizens of the country.”

Indeed, what is democracy if it is not about asking to seek clarification and answers?

BCMD is a Bhutanese Civil Society Organisation (CSO) created in 2008 when the country made the historic transition from an absolute to a democratic constitutional monarchy, and the first CSO to be formally registered in 2010. BCMD dedicates most of its works on helping young Bhutanese to get acquainted with the new system. After all, they are the future of one of the world’s youngest democracies and they face the same challenges as their western counterparts with, however, far more headwind.

“Social media is proliferating in a small, landlocked country where media literacy is limited”, explains Siok Sian Pek-Dorji. “Thus, people lack the critical thinking needed to discern between right and wrong across the newsfeed. And this is particularly true for young people who lack knowledge about its harms. Many people unwittingly and mindlessly perpetuate hate speech and defamation that can have huge implications for Bhutan. It creates social problems.” Several studies have outlined the new challenges of those Internet media across developing nations.

I found BCMD’s media lab fascinating. Not only because it is where we gathered together to talk about communication and about fund raising needs (please go and click on the donate button on the website; BCMD needs your support), but because this is the place where BCMD trains young people on news and media literacy.  In the Media Lab, youth learn how to get better informed, how to distinguish between real and false news, how to act according to a certain media ethics, etc. They learn how to use media responsibly through different digital techniques such as photography, filming, writing, documentaries, editing, etc.

As Pek-Dorji explains: “Such trainings enable youth to develop skills to verify information that they need to make decisions in life. It also enables young people to amplify their voices through media production and how to engage responsibly in a digital era.”

Indeed, isn’t democracy not also about each of us taking on our duties and accountabilities as a citizen?

BCMD has conducted non-fiction writing workshops to enable people to share their stories of change, and have produced numerous publications and resources on democratic change in Bhutan.

Through BCMD Youth Initiatives and the annual Youth Summit, young people are grouped to think of projects they could put in place in their own schools or their communities to help and act as active citizens working in the making of their country.

Among the several projects that were implemented are the clean-up of a contaminated water source for a village, the assistance of accident victims, the layout of footpaths for the elderly and disable people, the provision of first aid training, the constructing of shelters for recycling. They also learn to carry out advocacy campaign on domestic violence, on women health and hygiene, on safe sex and so forth.

The process of such projects is as important as the results they yield. Youth engaged in those activities have reported ascertain their self-confidence to work with people and negotiate with local leaders and even mayors.

In other words, they learn to become active citizens. Isn’t it, after all, what democracy is all about?