Bhutan Leads the Way
Tucked in south of Tibet, east of Nepal and north of Bangladesh there is a small country called the Dragon Kingdom that is perhaps the most special, and one of the most important places on Earth.
When financial crises spread around the world, most countries are affected in one way or another. So it was with the collapse in 1971 of the Bretton Woods system that had regulated the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan ever since the end of World War II. Even the tiny country of Bhutan felt the shock waves. That system depended on gold as the monetary standard for all, and the United States’ unilateral removal of a gold-dollar fixed exchange rate created ripples around the world.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, a Buddhist country recognized at the time as being perhaps the last Shangri-la, might have seemed to be one of the few countries that should have been insulated. But it still relied on trade with those geographically close to it, two of which were Tibet to the north and India to the south and west. Although neither were of the world clout status of today, they were still big. So when the Bretton Woods agreement vanished, so too went much of the economic stability behind Bhutan’s major trading partners.
Like a tidal wave, the collapse of the existing financial system could have drowned Bhutan and almost wiped it from the economic map. Fortunately for this tiny kingdom, however, its leader, a teenage king named Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was of a very different sort than most. And when he took a look at how to find new stability amid world financial chaos, he found something even more valuable than gold within his country to rely on. He took a personal philosophy that happiness, something the people of Bhutan had in great abundance, was far more important than financial success. That turned into what even now is one of the most unusual principles of governance anywhere in the world: that instead of leading the country based on how to increase its GDP, Bhutan should be led based on something to be called the Gross National Happiness index, or GNH for short.
In those days, the country was only just beginning to open up to development. Roads had been built – but not many. The country did have a few public means of transport that connected places like Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, to Phuntsholing, the gateway to Bhutan’s primary trade route to India, and Thimphu to Gelephu, another trade route to India. But that was about all at that time.
This was also still during the time when kings had to ride horses to go around the country to visit it and know the condition of the lifestyle of the people. The advantage of such travel is that it is far more personal and intimate than by car or rail, and it allowed the 16-year-old king the chance to experience the character of his country firsthand. As he traveled, he saw the strength of his people in their happiness, even while poor. But he also wanted to do what he could for his people to ensure that the country would not suffer behind others as economic growth moved forward, all the while paying careful attention to preserving both his country’s culture and environment.
And so when the king crafted the details of his new concept, he presented the four pillars of GNH: good government, environmental conservation, cultural advancement and equitable socioeconomic growth.
It was not an easy time to bring forward such a radical shift in thinking, especially as the government still did not have an immediate solution to help the country’s people get fully on their feet. Instead, the king and his immediate advisors created a five-year plan to guide them through this tough time. It included the country making sure that every child had a school they could attend. It made sure safe drinking water was available to all. More roads were made to link up the valleys, and a plan was put in place that eventually brought electricity to all, with both initiatives happening in spite of the country’s mountainous terrain. The drive for good education went back far earlier than the young king, to the Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1958, which the country had put in place so the government could know how many children there were (for planning purposes). But the drive for country-wide free public education was initially not that well supported by the people, with many being concerned about schools having values that might be different than the traditional ones that had guided the country for so long in the past. There were concerns about the liberal nature of that education, so many people hid their children to keep from having to send them to school. Later, the southern people of Bhutan, the Lhotshampa, mostly known as Nepalese, brought up concerns about their traditions of voice reading and attire. Eventually, after a 1992 revision to laws regarding education, their local traditions became honored more formally as part of the country’s methods of education and dress.
Next in the plan to support the king’s pillars in the GNH was to provide a strong focus on Bhutan’s existing pristine environment and rich biodiversity. The people were already treating nature as a sacred gift to all of them, with lush green landscapes and pure air. They considered Bhutan in some ways as a real “heaven on earth.” The king took that to heart, taking the revolutionary approach of going after clean hydroelectric power as one of the country’s major sources of energy and encouraging tourism rather than heavy industry as a new source of revenue – with 287 tourists welcomed to Bhutan in 1974 as an early part of this push. The country also celebrates Social Forestry Day every June 2, a day on which trees are planted by schools and organizations everywhere as another way to support the environment.
A further part of the plan was to continue to honor the country’s rich heritage of tradition and many years of civilization as part of the everyday life of the people of Bhutan. Traditional dress is still encouraged in offices and schools, for example. The fullness of the people’s traditions is proudly on display during the festival “shochu,” where every person puts on their national dress, the gho and kira. This festival is very rare and colorful, and the people display and enjoy the culture of dance, songs and games.
After decades of seeing how putting these principles in place created a vibrant and successful culture in Bhutan, the king later did something many consider even more radical. He made the decision to pass his throne to the crown prince and convert the country from a traditional monarchy to a constitutional mon-
archy. This is still relatively new, as the country’s first voting under the new structure only happened in 2008.
The plan the king put in place has borne many positive results. As one looks around, it is clear that the country is developing well while preserving both environment and tradition. Today Bhutan has six major industries and a small but growing agricultural business, for example. Yet in spite of that, the country has actually increased national parks to 50% of the land and preserved 80% as natural forests. Bhutan is also recognized as a net carbon negative country. It also continues its drive to excel in not just maintaining but also adding to its natural environment, and it set the Guinness World Record title of “Most Trees Planted in One Hour” on June 2, 2015. (The number was 49,672 trees – even more amazing considering they were planted by only 100 volunteers.)
One of Bhutan's major industries is tourism. However, it is carefully managed on Bhutan's terms. Tourists must apply to visit through licensed tour companies and spend at least $200/day (all inclusive) for the off season and $250/day for the high season. Not all is perfect in the Heaven of Bhutan, however, because when the country began to open its doors to more westernized culture to allow the country to evolve, other things considered not so good happened. The elders are sad seeing youth dropping the traditional gho and kira in favor of shirts and jeans as the preferred clothing of the land. Public houses are also becoming available, and the youth are seeking them out. There are also other development challenges, such as perceived addictions like too much love of political control and emerging economic affluence with its gadgets and luxury goods.
With such a radical concept as happiness and its pillars as the basis for Bhutan’s governance, it is not surprising that it took time for the country to figure out how to attach more than just principles to the concept. It in fact took until 2002 to come up with a book to guide the measurement of how the country was doing relative to its GNH. That all started first with a survey in 2002, followed by studies and research to create a formula to calculate the GNH in 2005.
In that year, to help understand how the country was doing relative to its GNH on a more regular basis, the government of Bhutan took steps to provide more structure to measure how it was doing. The country’s Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) put in place nine researchers to guide the development of the GNH indicators. After the first small survey of its people, the CBS expanded to a planned full country-wide survey process. Initially it included about 750 variables that were objective, subjective and open-ended in nature. Gathering the survey data was complicated and more people-intensive than expected, and for budget reasons, that first major survey was carried out in only 12 of the 20 districts. Later, in 2015, and with better planning and larger budgets to do it, the country followed the same quaternary process and gathered data from 7,142 respondents. Of those who responded, 6,476, or 90.7%, provided enough information to actually calculate a valid GNH index for the first time.
So how is the country doing?
In 2010, before the extensive, more thorough 2015 survey, the numbers were as follows:
“Head count” (or the percentage of the people seen as “happy”): 40.9%. This means that approximately 41% of Bhutanese had “sufficiency” in six or more of the nine domains and were considered “happy.” That also means that approximately 59% of the population was not happy.
“Intensity”: 43.4%. Intensity is a measure of the degree of unhappiness of the country’s people. In this survey, it was determined that the 59% of Bhutanese who were not considered “happy” lacked sufficiency in 43% of the domains. Nine domains times 0.43 = 3.87. Thus, unhappy Bhutanese on average lacked sufficiency in just under four domains and enjoyed sufficiency in just over five domains.
GNH index: 0.743, a calculated number based on the survey data and the rules of the calculation, varies from 0 to 1. Higher is better, as it reflects the percentage of Bhutanese who are happy and the percentage of domains in which the not-yet-happy people have
achieved sufficiency (based on the head count and intensity parameters).
The results were not good enough from the country’s perspective, so it worked hard to improve and help its people have fewer problems and better success. In 2015, the government’s newest survey saw that hard work pay off with the GNH index increasing to 0.756.
The 2015 survey results also included a more thorough breakdown of the country’s happiness distribution and found:
Deeply happy 8.4% Extensively happy 35.0% Narrowly happy 47.9% Unhappy 8.8%
Although the government saw this as an improvement over its earlier survey, it also was not content with these results, as its aim is to have all of the people in Bhutan be extensively or deeply happy. Now it is looking forward to fulfilling that goal before the next survey.
If in the context of government the GNH seems to be an idealistic approach, in practice it is far more than that. It does of course work on practices to improve the monetary and economic dimensions of the country. But it is also true that the policies have been drawn in such a way that gives equal and due importance to many dimensions of life that other conventional models tend to ignore, including considerations for the value of culture, spirituality, family relationships, trust, community bonding and solidarity.
“Policies are not only gauged towards achieving the physical things or the tangible but framed towards achieving contentment, well-being, peace and happiness … based on the GNH concept or idea. The pursuit of happiness is the fundamental human goal,” said Mr. Pema Thinley, a researcher at the CBS. He added: “No one wants pain and suffering. Everyone wants the opposite of sufferings and struggles.”
Bhutan, like many countries, does continue to suffer its ups and downs, and it has taken time for the path the king has chosen to fully realize the better future he had hoped for. With the GNH no longer just an idea but a measured reality, he can see the success of all as he realizes that the country is truly on a path towards happiness, thanks to the people acting together to get past the suffering and rise above it.
Managing a country to create greater real happiness among citizens makes a huge difference on every level, as these happy school children are learning. Photo: ryanne lai
Bhutan's Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger's Nest Temple), a major tourist attraction.