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In Bhutan, it's happiness that counts
By Joseph Harris

In the late 1980s Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck first announced that the tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom would no longer follow the popular economic indicator of gross national product (GNP) and instead would be guided by a philosophy he himself developed called "gross national happiness" (GNH). The two approaches could not be more different. And last month's international seminar on GNH in Bhutan helped to crystallize those differences.

GNP is a measure of cash flow through an economy, specifically the dollar amount for goods and services in an economy for a certain year. While it focuses rather narrowly on the materialist aspects of development, it and its twin cousin - gross domestic product - have been the main global indicators of economic progress and development over the past few decades. GNH, however, is different and relies on coming up with a measure of people's happiness as an indicator of development and progress in a certain country. In this way, it is a more direct indicator in that it does not measure one type of means - money - to try to get a sense of people's standing in the development game. Rather, it goes to the heart of the matter and directly asks how happy people are, and if they are even happy at all.

Last month in Bhutan's capital, Thimpu, scholars, academics, the media and other interested persons from 20 countries gathered to discuss ways to operationalize the concept of GNH. While the king and his people have espoused the view for some time that Bhutan followed GNH and not GNP, the kingdom has yet to "operationalize" this concept, that is, actually build an indicator for measuring it. So much was the interest received by the Center for Bhutan Studies, the institution hosting the international seminar on GNH, which Prime Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley chairs, that a third day of discussions was added to what was originally envisioned as a two-day retreat.

The conference began boldly, with much pomp and circumstance, and with a great amount of local Buddhist color injected into the activities. When the business began, though, conference participants discussed the problems and pitfalls of building a GNH indicator in such detail as to reveal the real difficulty in moving forward (something that the government had not yet decided it would do before the conference was over).

But it was on the seminar's first day that one British researcher misspoke and accidentally offered what might have been the most crucial thinking point of the entire seminar: "As Bhutan seeks to find the Middle Ages, I mean, the Middle Way ..."

The slip raised a laugh from the audience, but it also gave pause for thought in greater detail about the development policy offered by GNH. Is GNH truly a forward-thinking, ahead-of-its-time economic tool for measuring development progress? Or is it rather a scenic detour away from the real business of development, which is about raising the living standards of the poorest, first and foremost economically? These questions are especially crucial for Bhutan, as the nation decides whether or not to climb onto the bottom rungs of the conventional development ladder, or continue to try to occupy its unique position in the development game by questioning such bland orthodoxy as GNP and GDP.

For so long already, Bhutan has effectively eschewed joining the World Trade Organization, questioning (and rightly so) what it would offer a small country with many of its consumer needs already met. Isolation in the Himalayas and a close relationship with India (recall the Indian insurgents recently snuffed out in southern Bhutan through joint Indian-Bhutanese cooperation) have forged an ethos of self-sustainability in Bhutan.

Currently, hydroelectric power is thought by many to be the main hope for its future. Electricity from hydropower now accounts for 40 percent of exports, nearly all of which goes to India. Bhutan itself consumes only 23 percent of the power it produces, with that figure slated to fall as low as 2 percent if Bhutan exploits the full 12,000-30,000 megawatts of power projected to be available.

But Bhutan's major comparative advantage in going one step further to implement a GNH policy might be its isolation itself. The year 1999 saw television and the Internet introduced to the country. Such major media influences will certainly spell changes for the culture of Bhutan. But while these impacting forces are still in an infant stage, people in the country continue to retain the same inner focus and vision that has propelled them to develop such innovative ideas as GNH and free education and healthcare for all citizens.

The close of the international seminar on GNH saw participants offer heaping congratulations to the country's leaders and its approach to development but little practical in the way of newly constructed indicators to measure happiness. Bickering in the government over the merits and drawbacks of operationalizing such an indicator prevented the fashioning of any way forward.

Rather, the philosophy of GNH will, for now, continue to guide policy, even though it cannot be measured on the ground (itself decided by many conference participants to be a very Western idea, if a critical one). And as such, it remains unclear whether Bhutan's GNH development path will lead it to the Middle Way - or the Middle Ages.

(More information about Gross National Happiness can be found at and

Joseph Harris is a freelance writer based in northern Thailand. He is working on a book about perceptions of time in cultures at different levels of economic development. He has worked with United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, Grameen Foundation and a variety of other non-government organizations.

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Mar 27, 2004


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