Bhutan - where happiness outranks wealth

Everybody happy?

The beautiful mountain kingdom of Bhutan rates happiness over wealth, but does it work? Kencho Wandi reports.

Bhutanese dancerWhat is happiness, really? In conventional development theory, it equals money and prosperity, as measured by GNP (Gross National Product). But Bhutan, the famously remote and beautiful Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, has been trying out a different concept. Espoused by the country's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, its government uses a different standard called GNH, or Gross National Happiness. It has underpinned the country's approach to change and development.

After centuries of self-imposed isolation, in 1961 Bhutan opened its doors to the world. The Bhutanese quickly learnt that in the pursuit of economic prosperity, many countries had lost their cultural identities, their spirituality, and compromised their environment. From a Buddhist perspective the burst of consumer-driven economic growth and consequently the explosion of affluence in industrialised nations had resulted in wide-spread spiritual poverty. It was a clear message to the Bhutanese that economic growth alone did not bring contentment.

While Bhutanese society was nowhere near perfect, experience of other countries led the country's government and people to believe that they had much to preserve and value within their traditional customs and lifestyles. Most importantly, they recognised that Bhutan's rich cultural heritage was as a key source of national values and identity. The Bhutanese had also lived a sustainable life in harmony with a pristine environment. Change, as Bhutan saw it, could threaten all that and, therefore, the survival of the country.

However, the government, also knew that change was inevitable. So Bhutan had to come up with a different approach to development - something that would monitor and regulate the nature and pace of change without compromising the essence of its citizens' well-being. Thus GNH was born. GNH, according to the Centre of Bhutan Studies, in the capital Thimphu, is not against change. It propounds development - balancing economic development, preservation of the environment and religious-cultural heritage. The underlying message is that the country should not sacrifice elements important for people's happiness to gain material development. In short, GNH takes into account not just the flow of money but also access to healthcare, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other non-economic factors.

In 1998, Bhutan's prime minister Jigmi Thinley identified the "Four Pillars" of GNH, which today form the overall guiding principle for development in Bhutan. The first is sustainable and equitable socio-economic development. This stresses the improvement of physical, intellectual, social and economic health through services such as health, education, trade and commerce, road and bridge construction, employment, urban development and housing. Bhutan's decades of development plans have focused on these, according to Mr Dorji Tenzin, a government official. He said as a result, education and health were provided free of cost to all Bhutanese even though the country was still poor.

The second pillar is conservation of the environment. Only 16% of Bhutan's land is arable, so there is pressure to fell trees and sell timber. But the law requires that the proportion of tree cover must not be less than 65%. At present about 72% of Bhutan is forest. The hydropower projects - main drivers of the country's economy, are mostly "run-of-the-river" schemes which pose far less impact on the environment, and far less human displacement, than would huge dams. The third pillar is preservation and promotion of culture. The Bhutanese government views this as a crucial strategy to preserve the country's sovereignty. It has implemented policies that conserve and promote Bhutanese religion, language and literature, art and architecture, performing arts, national dress, traditional etiquette, sports and recreation. For instance, the government requires all Bhutanese to wear traditional dress to offices, temples and official functions.

The fourth and the last pillar is good governance. The Bhutanese believe that good governance is vital for the happiness of the people. Towards this end, a constitution has been drafted and Bhutan is poised to become a constitutional monarchy in 2008.While this novel approach to development is still very much a work in progress, importantly, it is today serving as a catalyst for broader discussions worldwide on happiness - stoking ideas about whether governments and peoples should accept happiness as a legitimate and measurable pursuit. Two international seminars on GNH were held in Bhutan and, recently, in Canada. Across the world an increasing number of bureaucrats, economists, corporate leaders and social scientists are discussing the subject. These include The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown and the Leader of the Opposition David Cameron.

Critics, however, have attacked GNH as romantic naive idealism, with no real connection to the development process. Others have claimed that, apart from the term GNH, the policy contains nothing different from conventional development approaches. And of course, in Bhutan, not everyone is happy. Speaking to Developments, Bhutanese officials agreed that their GNH experiment was very much still being refined, and they acknowledged that poverty and alcoholism remained serious problems in the country. Nearly half of the 700,000 Bhutanese population live on less than $1 a day. Subsistence farming still sustains around two-thirds of the population. And for the government, its key priority is the very basic economic development goal of road-building. Although drivable roads today connect all but one of Bhutan's 20 districts, many villages can still be reached only on foot.

The pressures of globalisation are also increasing. The power of the commercial-driven media is forcing a traditional society to open itself to the wider influence of global culture. In 1999 Bhutan introduced television and the internet. Since then there have been increasing reports in the country's media of violence and disaffection, particularly among young people.

Former Prime Minister Thinley remarked in 1998 that Bhutan would endeavour to balance globalisation by localising its decisions and choosing and rejecting what the world had to offer. That difficult task continues to be a guiding light of government policy - a policy that has not always been popular. In 2005 the Bhutanese government was criticized by human rights observers for blocking the broadcasting of some Indian television channels deemed a "bad social and cultural influence".

According to Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper, however, GNH does not mean that Bhutan has promised to make the rest world happy. It is not even a guarantee of happiness for its own people. He said, "Happiness, as we learn in Buddhism, can only come from within the self, through the understanding of one's own mind. So GNH is the responsibility of the state to create the right environment where the citizen can seek and find that happiness."

That said, GNH does not ignore economic development, according to the Centre for Bhutan Studies. On the contrary, economic development planning is critical, but as only as one means by which happiness should be achieved. Renata Lok Dessallien, the Resident Co-ordinator for UN agencies in Bhutan, recently said: "GNH encapsulates both the quantity and quality of development or Ôprogress'. GDP is a quantitative measure only, measuring as it does both Ôgoods and bads'. "For example, Ms Lok Dessallien argued, "when a sick man receives medication and health care, the GDP increases whether the man recovers or not. But GNH is not only interesting because of its combination of the quantitative and the qualitative, it also conjures up deep philosophical questions on the essence of happiness. And it allows for a relative definition of happiness, according to each person's perspective."

According to her, GNH could provide a practical alternative to the present global development paradigm which seems continually to confuse means with ends. Indeed, Bhutan has begun work to determine the statistical indicators and indices to measure GNH, which should be completed by 2008. Nine provisional GNH indicators have been identified: standard of living; health of population; education; vitality and diversity of ecosystem; cultural vitality and diversity, use and balance of time; good governance; community vitality and emotional well being.

According to the head of the Centre of Bhutan Studies, Karma Ura, these indicators would be made meaningful in order to drive, guide and evaluate the policies, decisions and performance of the government. Recently at the GNH international seminar held in Nova Scotia, Canada, two American scientists asked if Bhutan was feeling the weight of the responsibility for GNH? Mr Thinley - now home and culture minister - said that while Bhutan was under pressure to make GNH work domestically, it did not promise GNH as a solution or formula for everyone. "That will be your responsibility", he said. "You will have to make GNH work your own way."

Image © Kencho Wandi

The Bhutanese quickly learnt that in the pursuit of economic prosperity, many countries had lost their cultural identities, their spirituality, and compromised their environment.