Get­ting Ready for the Future

While Bhutan needs to step for­ward and move with the rest of the world, it should not al­low glob­al­iza­tion to al­ter the coun­try’s tra­di­tional out­look.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Asna Ali

Pop­u­larly held no­tions about Bhutan paint it as an idyl­lic coun­try that is largely iso­lated from out­side in­flu­ences. It is, af­ter all, the only coun­try in the world to use Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness as a mea­sure of suc­cess. Its con­sti­tu­tion dic­tates that 60 per­cent of the coun­try must always re­main forested. But while the in­creas­ingly con­sumerist and in­ter­con­nected world would like to be­lieve in the idea of a coun­try that has es­caped the neg­a­tive ef­fects of cap­i­tal­ism and the sub­se­quent pur­suit of money, the re­al­ity is far more com­plex.

Bhutan, like ev­ery other coun­try, must in­ter­act with the out­side world and let in for­eign in­flu­ences in or­der to sur­vive. So far the coun­try has been meet­ing its economic needs through trade with other na­tions on the fringes of the world econ­omy and also through its free trade agree­ment with In­dia. How­ever, the pro­posal of Bhutan join­ing the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion has been around for a long time.

Though the plan was shelved in the past, the cur­rent gov­ern­ment seems

de­ter­mined to over­come Bhutan’s myr­iad economic prob­lems through WTO mem­ber­ship to en­sure greater ac­cess to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets.

Con­cerns re­gard­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket mainly have to do with the changes the mem­ber­ship could bring to Bhutanese so­ci­ety. It is feared that an in­flux of cheaper for­eign prod­ucts will crowd out lo­cal busi­nesses as has hap­pened in other coun­tries.

The ques­tion of ex­actly what Bhutan has to of­fer in terms of ex­ports has been raised many times. Bhutan ex­ports hy­dro­elec­tric power to In­dia and its other main in­dus­try is tourism. Farm­ing is done mostly on a small scale and there is lack of a skilled la­bor force for other in­dus­tries. Due to th­ese fac­tors, un­em­ploy­ment and poverty is on the rise even as the ur­ban pop­u­la­tion in­creases. The tra­di­tional way of life is un­der­go­ing changes even though Bhutan is still on the fringes of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in many ways.

Th­ese facts are used by the pro­po­nents and de­trac­tors of po­ten­tial WTO mem­ber­ship to sup­port their re­spec­tive ar­gu­ments. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment and es­pe­cially Prime Min­is­ter Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay be­lieve that greater in­ter­ac­tion with other economies would open new av­enues for trade and help de­velop Bhutan. The in­flux of new busi­nesses would bring em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and de­velop the badly needed in­fra­struc­ture. Since com­ing to power, Tob­gay has aban­doned the Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness mea­sure in fa­vor of a more prag­matic ap­proach.

He be­lieves that con­trary to the world’s ex­pec­ta­tions and de­sires of more con­ser­va­tive forces within Bhutan, the so­cial and economic make-up of the coun­try has changed dras­ti­cally within the last few years. While tra­di­tion and reli­gion are still very im­por­tant, a more mod­ern ap­proach must be adopted. Tob­gay and his gov­ern­ment wish to in­crease hap­pi­ness through more prac­ti­cal means. Rather than just ad­ver­tis­ing the idea at an in­ter­na­tional level to build Bhutan’s pro­file, his gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy is fo­cused in­ward. Mak­ing ba­sic util­i­ties avail­able to all and re­duc­ing the bur­den of na­tional debt are some of the main goals. Fur­ther­more, there is a clear de­sire to re­duce cor­rup­tion, a prob­lem which plagued the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment.

Con­trary to the gov­ern­ment’s as­pi­ra­tions, those who op­pose greater glob­al­iza­tion be­lieve that Bhutan’s econ­omy will be weak­ened even fur­ther due to in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure. The Bhutanese way of life has been fiercely pro­tected but open­ing up to out­side in­flu­ences will in­evitably bring changes in dress, re­li­gious and so­cial con­vic­tions and al­ter the be­lief sys­tems held sa­cred by the peo­ple of Bhutan. Cap­i­tal­ism is gen­er­ally looked down upon by tra­di­tion­al­ist Bhutanese and its ingress into the coun­try is seen as some­thing that will poi­son so­ci­ety.

For th­ese in­di­vid­u­als, the Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness should con­tinue to be a mea­sure of suc­cess. It is ar­gued that as it has done in the past, Bhutan will con­tinue to sur­vive, if not thrive, by con­tin­u­ing its busi­ness and trade in the same way as it did be­fore.

It is due to th­ese con­flict­ing points of view that Bhutan has been un­able to make a de­ci­sion re­gard­ing the WTO mem­ber­ship for the past 15 years. Even though now there is a po­lit­i­cal will strong enough to drive the coun­try to­wards glob­al­iza­tion, any ef­forts in this re­gard can­not be truly con­sid­ered suc­cess­ful if dis­sent­ing el­e­ments are not brought around to the same point of view as the gov­ern­ment.

The gov­ern­ment has shown it­self to be com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing tra­di­tional el­e­ments of Bhutanese so­cial life which could cer­tainly raise its cred­i­bil­ity with con­ser­va­tives. This can be seen in Thim­phu, Bhutan’s cap­i­tal, whose build­ings have been con­structed along tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments. But other re­stric­tions, such as those re­gard­ing dress, have been eased.

While Tob­gay and his gov­ern­ment want to take ad­van­tage of the global com­mu­nity to ben­e­fit Bhutan’s econ­omy, their de­sire to raise the coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional pro­file is limited. Plans by the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment to open new em­bassies have been shelved. The rea­son given for this is that the money spent on em­bassies could be bet­ter uti­lized else­where - a pru­dent ap­proach suit­able for a strug­gling econ­omy.

Bhutan is also keen to main­tain the sta­tus quo with re­gard to its re­la­tions with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. In­dia re­mains the clear fa­vorite, as the two coun­tries have trade agree­ments which are cru­cial for the sur­vival of Bhutan’s econ­omy. China, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent story and re­la­tions are less friendly between the two coun­tries.

There is no bet­ter time than now for Bhutan to open its gates to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The coun­try has man­aged to build a pos­i­tive in­ter­na­tional pro­file and its suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to­wards democ­racy has made it very pop­u­lar with in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. The na­tional news me­dia is thriv­ing and there is much devel­op­ment in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. Tob­gay is a progressive leader who un­der­stands that iso­la­tion is no longer an op­tion for his peo­ple. He also un­der­stands the shift­ing dy­nam­ics of Bhutanese so­ci­ety and does not try to cover his coun­try’s short­com­ings by hid­ing be­hind the GNH con­cept.

How­ever, in­ter­na­tional trade brings with it sev­eral prob­lems and th­ese must be kept in mind while con­sid­er­ing the de­ci­sion. Bhutan must have a clear plan on eas­ing up its busi­ness re­stric­tions and mak­ing it­self more at­trac­tive to for­eign in­vestors while at the same time pro­tect­ing its na­tional in­ter­ests. It is a del­i­cate bal­ance that many smaller economies fail to strike.

The lure of for­eign in­vest­ment must not be al­lowed to over­ride other con­cerns. One of Bhutan’s great­est as­sets is its largely un­spoiled for­est land. Other coun­tries that al­lowed for­eign busi­nesses to use and de­stroy lo­cal ecosys­tems should be a cau­tion­ary tale for Bhutan. While the more con­ser­va­tive con­cerns of some re­gard­ing the preser­va­tion of tra­di­tions may be a lit­tle naive, they are based on gen­uine con­cerns for the well­be­ing of the coun­try and should be given due con­sid­er­a­tion.

There is no ques­tion that Bhutan needs to step for­ward and em­brace glob­al­iza­tion. The real is­sue is that to what ex­tent will this glob­al­iza­tion be al­lowed to al­ter the coun­try? A clear vi­sion and strong pol­icy would en­sure that Bhutan ben­e­fits from its mem­ber­ship of the WTO and en­joys closer re­la­tion­ships with other coun­tries, while avoid­ing the pit­falls of jump­ing head­long into cut­throat cap­i­tal­ism. How well the coun­try han­dles th­ese changes re­mains to be seen.

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