Gross National Happiness in Bhutan: Is it working?

Photo: Nation Multimedia
Photo: Nation Multimedia

Nation Multimedia Group chairman Suthichai Yoon interviewed Bhutan’s Ambassador to Thailand Kesang Wangdi after a trip to the remote Himalayan kingdom famed for its notion of “GNH”. Excerpts:

Ambassador Wangdi, I was in Bhutan two weeks ago. It was beautiful. And of course I asked everybody, ‘What is happiness?’, because Bhutan has told the whole world that the measurement of success is not only GNP, or GDP but also GNH, Gross National Happiness. How would you define happiness for the Bhutan people?

Well, I would start by quoting His Majesty the King of Bhutan, the fifth King. He very succinctly captured it all by saying that it’s the development of human values. To expound a little, it means it is sustainability-based, wellbeing-centric and inclusive economic growth, where we don’t reject economic development. But at the same time, there are other intangibles that need to be looked into, including good-governance promotion and the enhancement of culture and conservation of nature. So there’s a holistic approach.

So it doesn’t reject the economic model but adds to it. In fact the economic aspect is our basic means to achieving the ultimate objective, which is that of happiness. So in a sense, [it is] an equilibrium, balancing the needs of the body with that of mind, in a secure and stable environment. And the objective of the government is, through public policy, to create an enabling environment for the pursuit of happiness. This is in essence what we believe.

Is it working?

Very good question. Many people have certain misconceptions about what this is all about. First, we don’t claim at this moment to have achieved happiness. What is different is that in Bhutan we are serious about the pursuit of happiness. So have we achieved it? Not yet. But we’re serious about it and [are] approaching it holistically. [Another] misconception is that this is about happiness on its own. Happiness cannot happen in isolation or in a bubble. In fact it is goes with Buddhist philosophy that everything is interdependent, especially in a globalised world. It’s much more relevant that happiness has to be inclusive and global, because it impacts one another: climate change, economic upheaval, security, peace – it’s all interdependent.

There’s a strong recognition that development has to be holistic.

But you also face a challenge of modern-day capitalism, global warming, poverty – and all these could threaten your goal of happiness.

Because there are such emerging new challenges [like] climate change, for example, and poverty, especially abject poverty, GNH or the concept of GNH is more relevant. It should be more holistic because of the interdependence of everything. I think the challenge lies in how we can implement GNH according to one’s own situation. This is not “one-size-fits-all”.

So for the average citizen of Bhutan, how would you explain the Bhutan model? What would be described as success for GNH on a day-to-day basis? What kind of quality of life would they have if they were today to say “this is GNH and it is working for me personally”?

Various aspects. For example, we all know that Bhutan is a very old country, but in the modern context we only have about 100 years of being under the present dynasty. Development started only, say, less than 50 years ago. We had many things intact – culture, environment, social stability – [but] our development infrastructures were behind. And then the third king [of the current House of Wangchuk] started the process of modern development, building on the socio-economic development, foundation of democracy. And the fourth king completely devolved power to the people. And the fifth king is nurturing democracy.

Now the question is, is this working? On many fronts it is working, as people are content. We have poverty. It is a reality, but not in terms of abject poverty. There are social inequities, but inequities that are modern in nature because of economic growth. How I say it is working in Bhutan for average people is [in terms of] access to health, education, infrastructure. All these are tremendous changes from [the situation over] the past 40 years.

So, free education, free healthcare?

Yes, free education, free healthcare, infrastructures … and we’ve made huge progress following that concept. And in GNH we talk about interdependence and so one of our priorities is having friendly relations with all countries, all entities, particularly all our neighbours. We expanded diplomatic relations with Thailand, for example. We have tremendous goodwill. Cooperation is growing. So these are evidence of GNH working.

As part of our GNH environmental policy, our forest has increased from about 60 per cent to almost 80 per cent. More than half the country is now declared a [national] park.

Will you see more Thai investors in Bhutan, especially in hospitality services?

We hope to see, especially investors from Thailand, take interest in investing in Bhutan, especially in the hospitality and tourism sector, because Thailand has a rich tradition [there]. Given your own innate culture of hospitality and courtesy, you have advanced experience and knowledge about this.

Opportunities are there and the government has a very liberal, very welcoming foreign direct investment policy.

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