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.
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.