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Ethnographic Research on Youth Unemployment in Bhutan: Looking Beyond Statistics, For Stories

Joint post by UNDP Bhutan and Youth Co:Lab


Stories, not statistics. This was our mantra as we embarked on three weeks of ethnographic research related to the challenge of youth unemployment in Bhutan.

Click to explore the stories of the nine ‘Personas’ generated through our research, and then read on to learn about our journey.

Bhutan’s struggle to create sufficient, productive employment for its youth has long been one of the issues of greatest national concern. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, youth unemployment (15-24) was over four times higher than overall unemployment. With a young population, the scale of the challenge was growing. And now, the economic impact of the pandemic is hitting youth hardest, with devastating job losses in sectors such as tourism.

As a joint team from the Gross National Happiness Commission, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources and UNDP, we have been seeking to build our capabilities and shift our approach to better understand and work with the systemic nature of the youth unemployment challenge. The unpredictable chain reactions triggered by COVID only reinforce the urgent need for us to get better at navigating complex systems.

Starting out on this journey, we were well versed in the statistics; the literature; and the relevant policies, strategies and programmes. However, we needed to break away from projecting one-dimensional lenses (e.g. MoLHR vs. MoEA) onto the issue, thereby oversimplifying its real dynamics. Instead, we needed to work bottom-up from the systemic nature of the challenge itself, through human experiences in all their complexity. This was where ethnography came in. Our aim was to understand young people’s experiences of the wider system and to generate insights into system dynamics.

Over three weeks in June our team conducted in-depth ethnographic interviews with 85 participants (47 women, 38 men) in Thimphu, Paro and Mongar. We interviewed a wide range of young people: from class six school leavers to graduates; jobseekers, employed and self-employed youth; long-term unemployed as well as those recently laid-off; recent COVID returnees; and those supporting domestic work. In addition, we interviewed 14 parents to generate a complementary layer of insights.

Our team in the field. Photo: UNDP Bhutan

“Building our muscle” with ethnography


We held interviews in participants’ homes or common spaces (some were reluctant to host us at home due to COVID), using an open-ended interview guide and three tools (Day in the Life, Wheel of Life and Journey Map, see below) We investigated young people’s experiences; the barriers and enablers they face in securing quality work; as well as deeper motivations, values and beliefs. The sessions were exhausting as we needed to continually adjust our questioning to steer the interview; while unpacking meaning in what we saw, what was said, and what hovered in the air but was left unsaid.

The sessions were as diverse as the participants and we needed to approach each one differently. We had to learn when to probe and when to hold back; and how to build trust so participants would open up. We also had to get comfortable with not trying to prove a specific theory or jump to a preformed conclusion; but to let human stories emerge in all their contradictions. We improved over time, understanding what we had been told in training about the need to “build muscle” with ethnography skills.

Looking for patterns in the noise

Following three intense weeks of fieldwork, our team convened to analyse our field data. We worked on empathy maps to gather insights on different profiles of participants. We reviewed over 120 pages of interview transcripts and sought to identify patterns by grouping participants according to common experiences, barriers, enablers, needs or aspirations.

From this, we developed composite personas (fictional archetypes of groups of real people segmented by characteristics) to represent the insights generated. The nine personas we created were as follows, click here to read their stories in detail. NB each persona is a fictional composite of multiple interviewees:

  1. Dema: Young returnee from employment overseas

  2. Gyeltshen: Young diploma or degree holder laid off due to COVID

  3. Karma: Young school leaver laid off due to COVID

  4. Pema: Unemployed young university graduate

  5. Jigme: Unemployed youngschool leaver

  6. Kinley: Youth working in a family business combining with household responsibilities

  7. Sonam: Employed young TVET graduate

  8. Nima: Urban youth entrepreneur connected within startup ecosystem

  9. Penjor: Self-made non-Thimphu youth entrepreneur / self-employed

Click to read the nine personas


The ethnography challenged our pre-assumptions, reinforcing why “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” (John le Carré). We saw the power of drivers of behaviour in the system, for example the role of mindsets and parental pressure. We also saw the need to reframe away from work as the end in itself; to looking holistically at outcomes for young people, with work as a means to an end. The energies, relationships, resources and practices evident in participants’ experiences are helping us to identify assets in the system that can be harnessed, and potential pathways for system shifts.


Based on the findings of the ethnography, we are developing a portfolio approach (more on this in our next post) to collectively view and manage interventions acting on different leverage points in the system. The unpredictable, volatile context of the COVID crisis only raises the need to make interdependencies in the system visible, learn fast, and steer interventions as a portfolio. In doing so, we hope to better leverage interconnections, monitor feedback loops, generate learnings about system dynamics, and adapt accordingly.

In addition, the personas we developed will be used as a tool to put a human face to data, create shared understanding and empathy, and guide decision-making on an ongoing basis. We and our colleagues can ask, "How can we design this service for Dema?" or, "How would Sonam be affected by this policy?"

Our team analysing the field data. Photo UNDP Bhutan

We know that with a complex challenge such as youth unemployment, single point interventions cannot generate systemic change. Instead, we need portfolios of complementary, interconnected interventions acting on multiple points in the system. This requires coalitions of actors working towards a shared orientation, local actions grounded in relationships, and new narratives (again, the importance of stories!)

This challenges 'business as usual' in the public sector and UNDP, and requires us to build new capabilities and culture. We are committed to keep "building our muscle" to understand human experiences of complex challenges and to harnessing bottom-up energies for system shifts to generate better outcomes for young Bhutanese. Please reach out if you'd like to join us on this journey!

*Ethnographic research field team members from UNDP, GNHC and MoLHR: Tshering Wangmo, Sonam Choki, Bishnu Chettri, Maya Potter, Yeshey Khandu, Tshering Eudon, Wangchuk Dema, Tashi Choden, Ngawang Gyeltshen, Tshering Penjor, Nawaraj Chhetri, Tashi Dekar and Ugyen Dorji.


With thanks to Youth Co:Lab, co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Ellie Horrocks and Courtney Lawrence, UNDP Regional Innovation Centre, for support and to Bas Leurs, Lead Learning Designer of UNDP Accelerator Labs Network, for training in ethnography principles, tools and analysis. Persona illustrations by Wang Rana Gurung of Vast Bhutan.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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