Bhutan Leads the Way

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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.

Ini­tial Bid Ocean/ NAPC staff in Phuntshol­ing, Bhutan

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.

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