Time for Bhutan and the world to give ‘hap­pi­ness’ a se­cond look

Bhutan Times - - Ed­i­to­rial - By Lean Alfred San­tos

If there is one thing that could de­scribe the tiny Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan in in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment terms, it would most likely be the in­tro­duc­tion of a unique met­ric to mea­sure de­vel­op­ment progress: the “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness” in­dex.

But more than 40 years af­ter the in­dex was in­tro­duced by the coun­try’s for­mer king, Jigme Wangchuck, the South Asian na­tion re­mains mired in poverty, with many of its cit­i­zens un­e­d­u­cated and hav­ing lit­tle ac­cess to eco­nomic and so­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Bhutan is at a cross­roads,” Chime Wangdi, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of Tarayana Foun­da­tion, told Devex. Not only is Bhutan tran­si­tion­ing from an ab­so­lute to a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy, it is also keen on mov­ing up to mid­dle-in­come sta­tus. And while the Hi­malayan na­tion re­mains de­voted to its na­tional ethos of pur­su­ing hap­pi­ness — all gov­ern­ment pro­grams and poli­cies go through the coun­try’s so­cio-eco­nomic plan­ning agency, the GNH Com­mis­sion — the gov­ern­ment needs to take a more crit­i­cal view of the GNH in an ef­fort to im­prove it.

“The in­di­ca­tors have been set against the cur­rent de­vel­op­ment back­drop and there may be [a] need to fine tune them as the coun­try moves for­ward,” Wangdi said.

The of­fi­cial, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion was com­mis­sioned by the na­tion’s prince to com­ple­ment gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives in 2003, added that Bhutan should keep pace with the chang­ing do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional land­scape. The GNH should have “some in­di­ca­tors that would make sense to both the com­mon cit­i­zens as well as to pol­i­cy­mak­ers.” Car­ry­ing out the GNH has be­come a “te­dious and ex­pen­sive” ex­er­cise as well.

Wangdi shared that her coun­try is “on a steep learn­ing curve as far as re­duc­ing hu­man er­ror [in the mea­sure] is con­cerned” and that there were ear­lier ap­pre­hen­sions that the gov­ern­ment may be spend­ing too much time and money on one sim­ple phi­los­o­phy to guide the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment.

And the gov­ern­ment is well aware of these con­cerns.

In 2013, Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay cam­paigned on a plat­form of a bet­ter and more ef­fec­tive ap­proach to de­vel­op­ment — a di­rect re­sponse to the grow­ing sen­ti­ment in Bhutan at the time that the GNH has be­come a public­ity stunt and does not pro­duce con­crete re­sults.

Now the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter, Tob­gay has re­ceived sup­port from sev­eral in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions to help im­prove and de­velop GNH to be more ef­fec­tive, in­clud­ing the U.N. De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram, the In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Re­search Cen­ter and the Ja­pan In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion Agency. Whether the in­dex ac­tu­ally im­proved will be seen at the end of the year, when the lat­est GNH sur­vey is ex­pected to be pub­lished.

“[It should be made clear] how these dis­ag­gre­gated data can help us tar­get our in­ter­ven­tions so that holis­tic de­vel­op­ment is pos­si­ble,” Wangdi said. “Mea­sur­ing progress is tricky ev­ery­where and it is no dif­fer­ent in Bhutan.”

A more grounded ap­proach

Much of the crit­i­cism against the GNH over the past few years cen­ters on the in­dex’s goal of mea­sur­ing an ab­stract con­cept: hap­pi­ness.

“I was also won­der­ing be­fore how can we mea­sure such a thing as hap­pi­ness,” Tshe­drup Dorji, re­search as­sis­tant at Bhutan’s Re­new­able Nat­u­ral Re­sources Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, told Devex. “It is some­thing that can­not be mea­sured. But in our sci­en­tific world, with­out a form of mea­sure­ment, we can­not come to a con­clu­sive de­ci­sion that those peo­ple are [liv­ing bet­ter lives].”

While gross do­mes­tic prod­uct re­mains the most preva­lent mea­sure of eco­nomic progress world­wide, many in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions have come to re­al­ize there is merit in hav­ing a more holis­tic ap­proach to view­ing poverty al­le­vi­a­tion and over­all de­vel­op­ment progress. One ex­am­ple is Ox­ford Poverty and Hu­man De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive’s Global Mul­ti­di­men­sional Poverty In­dex, which mea­sures poverty us­ing 10 in­di­ca­tors.

“There is a lot of good in be­ing able to mea­sure the over­all well-be­ing of a pop­u­la­tion, al­though it is a lot tougher, messier, but truer to the re­al­i­ties than just the mea­sure of progress based on GDP alone,” Wangdi said. “Many de­vel­oped economies are look­ing for al­ter­nate mea­sure­ment of progress as well.”

This more grounded ap­proach will have to pass the test of this “in­ter­est­ing as well as chal­leng­ing times” for Bhutan to de­velop as a na­tion. Wangdi shared that the in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity can play a cen­tral role by part­ner­ing with the gov­ern­ment and sup­port­ing civil so­ci­ety groups and lo­cal non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

From Bhutan to the world

But is the no­tion of us­ing unique in­di­ca­tors such as hap­pi­ness to mea­sure de­vel­op­ment progress applicable only to the tiny Hi­malayan na­tion?

The sim­ple an­swer is no. Through­out the years the idea of hap­pi­ness as a mea­sure of progress has spread to dif­fer­ent na­tions, con­ti­nents and even sec­tors. Some of the coun­tries that have con­tin­ued in­ter­est in GNH and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness in­clude Thai­land, Ja­pan and the United States.

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