1. What is GNH?
It is the philosophy that has guided my country's development in the last forty years.
It is based on the premise that happiness is a state of being that is realized when the needs of both the mind and body are attended to. The goal of GNH then, is to create the enabling conditions for the pursuit of happiness within a safe and secure environment.
GNH is a holistic, sustainable and inclusive approach, and relegates the indicator, GDP, to its originally intended purpose of simply measuring the sum of all goods and services traded in the marketplace at a given period.
This development paradigm was conceived by our former King, HM Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the early 1970's and has provided the framework for our development plans. Initially founded on the four pillars of socio economic development, cultural promotion, ecological conservation and good governance, the model has now acquired a rather complex structure with 9 conditions for happiness as may be measured through an index of some 72 variables. These nine dimensions are:
I. physical health and life expectancy,
Every development policy is subjected to a screening process to examine whether it is GNH positive, GNH negative or GNH neutral. For it to be passed by the Cabinet, the negative elements must be neutralized or completely removed and positive elements included.
2. What outcomes has GNH given to Bhutan?
GNH has enabled Bhutan to place the human individual and the dual needs of the mind and body at the center of planned change while ensuring that improvement of one condition does not come at the cost or neglect of other equally important and interdependent factors.
As a consequence, demographic, agricultural, urban and industrial growth have not come at the cost of ecological degradation or cultural erosion. From a forest cover of a little over 60% in the 1960s, Bhutan today is greener with 80% forests with over 50% of our total territory protected as national parks. Home to an amazing range of flora and fauna, the country is valued as one of the global biodiversity hotspots. We have vowed to remain forever a net carbon sink.
Proving the point that GNH does not undermine our citizen's material needs, we have managed to maintain a GDP growth rate that has been consistently above 8% in the last decade to yield an annual per capita income that is among the highest in the region of South Asia. Happily, therefore, our unemployment rate as of last June 2012, is just a little above 2 %. By the time the current government's term ends in Spring of 2013, its minimum development targets will have been achieved. These comprise motorable roads to every community center, electricity for every home, universal mobile phone connectivity, safe drinking water supply for every family, full primary school enrolment, universal access to basic health coverage and adequate nutrition and food security for every family. Likewise, we are well on our way to achieving all of the MDGs, with many having already been fulfilled. In a very mountainous region with a highly scattered population, the delivery of these basic needs is extremely challenging.
In the meanwhile, steps are being taken to promote Bhutan as a green and sustainable service economy supported by an IT enabled knowledge society to take advantage of our unique selling points in, what has become, a highly advantageous geo economic location. These include measures under way for the speedy realization of our vast run-of-the-river eco friendly hydro-power generation potential for export to an energy starved region and transforming Bhutan back to organic agriculture.
On the softer aspects, cultural preservation and growth have always received special attention so that these are not consigned to the museums and tourist targeted festivals. Even as we have become an integral part of the globalized world, our languagesliterature, religions, dress, arts, architecture and music are thriving. With special importance being attached to the integrity of our extended family network, the most natural, sustainable and indeed, humane, form of social safety net is kept alive. This, in turn gives vitality to community and contributes to keeping alive the culture of mutual care giving, veneration for the aged and the nourishing of our spirit, traditional wisdom and relationships.
Equitable income distribution and access to benefits of development are priority policy goals and maintaining the gap between the rich and poor within an acceptable range with an absence of extreme poverty is a conscious endeavour of the government. More recently, enhancing the role of women in politics has become the subject of a highly spirited national discourse. Although it was just four years ago that Bhutan transited very peacefully from absolute monarchy, we are now perceived to be a successful democracy, having gone well beyond the legal and institutional arrangements and the external trappings that can sometimes serve to mask authoritarian practice. An extremely free and unrestrained mainstream and social media make government bashing their raison d'être and continually test the commitment of the government to freedom of expression, transparency and accountability.
I cannot resist stating that much of what we have achieved with the GNH frame has been possible because we are small.
3. Is GNH relevant to the larger human society? Does it need a specific social, cultural or political context?
If we are to accept, as indeed, we ought to, that happiness is not only a universal value but that it is the most important human desire separating man from all other species that only seek wellbeing, then any developmental process that aims to create conditions for its realization is relevant. What strikes me as ironic is the argument that serious pursuit of happiness is frivolous; that it is best left as a private yearning and deserves no public policy or expenditure; that it has no part in serious politics.
How can one trivialize the most basic of human aspirations by assuming that it is nothing but an ephemeral, passing mood? It amazes me that neither the citizen nor the state wants to make it the purpose of governance. When we trivialize happiness, we trivialize the meaning and purpose of human life. And that is what we continue to do in an inexplicably irrational way. That is why, in pursuing the wrong ends, we are discovering that ours is a journey without destination. The only certainty is that the perilous journey will end at the precipice of extinction for all forms of life. Of this there is no doubt.
The alarm bells are ringing ever so loudly through an explosion of devastating events. Yet, we go about callously triggering more natural disasters, aggravating economic calamities, deepening social inequity and dislocation, causing political strife and climate change to bring about crop failure, extreme weather events and death and decay among the weaker forms of life. Even as weaker species die, we fail to see the advancement of our own end. Unwilling to go beyond our immediate interest, the only remedial measure we are prepared to take is to shovel more fuel to fire the engine that pulls the faltering train on the tracks to extinction.
The good thing is, there is growing dissatisfaction with the state of our world. More and more academics, economists, civil society and ordinary citizens are persuading policy makers to acknowledge the mistake of having neglected the higher need for human wellbeing as opposed to unsustainable economic growth. Intra and intergenerational equity and long term integrity of our ecosystem services are growing concerns and sustainability has become the watchword of the day. There is a serious quest to keep what has been achieved, and to promote growth in ways that will create jobs, stability and contentment within ecologically sustainable boundaries. People are beginning to understand that alternative development models need not bring about a reversal of human civilization and that some amount of readjustment at the individual and national levels, is necessary given that the alternative is unthinkable.
There is a growing convergence in this view. In evidence are an increasing number of communities, local governments, corporations and even national governments that are seriously incorporating wellbeing and happiness indicators in their plans and programmes that emphasize sustainability. Happiness researchers and writers are being welcomed from the fringes of society by mainstream academia and economists. And the OECD secretariat has developed its own wellbeing indicators while happiness has become a popular theme for international conferences.
These have persuaded the United Nations General Assembly to pass the resolution, Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development. This was followed up by an extremely well attended high level meeting here at the UN Head Quarters in April this year to discuss a new economic paradigm. In quick succession came the UNGA declaration of 20th March as the International Day of Happiness.
On the request of the High Level Meeting, Bhutan has now established an ‘International Expert Working Group' to elaborate the ‘new economic paradigm' that comprise the four dimensions of wellbeing and happiness; ecological sustainability, efficient distribution; and effective utilization of resources. Simultaneously, the UN SG Mr. Ban Ki Moon appointed a ‘High Level Panel' to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015. More recently, we also welcomed the launch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, lead by Professor Jeffery Sachs. Then of course, there is the intergovernmental Open Working Group tasked to design Sustainable Development Goals, to be established as agreed at Rio+20 in June this year. All these are clear indications of efforts underway to enrich and make more comprehensive the framework within which development must take place from hereon in ways that will truly advance societal progress.
I am convinced that the post 2015 world agenda will be one that will not only set human society on a sustainable path, but persuade mankind to adopt a way of life that will enhance the wellbeing of all life forms and raise our individual and collective happiness.