Friday, 24 January 2014

Bhutan Is Not An Island -- The Future of Gross Domestic Happiness

For three or four years now, one hears in the ecological scene much about growth critique, sufficiency, the de-growth movement, etc. - not only in Germany, but, as far as I can see, in almost all developed countries. However, nothing has happened. At the same time we heard until recently a lot about the term gross national happiness. In eco-circles I was enthusiastically told about the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and its most admirable attempt, to measure and increase  gross domestic happiness rather than the gross domestic product. Even in the German print media a couple of articles have appeared on this topic. 

For both me and my eco-friends it was remarkable that this attempt had been made in Bhutan, which in every respect was still a very underdeveloped country, where the first road was built in only 1962. Since then I have collected more articles about this topic, but did not have time to read them all. The great events of the world – the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq, the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, the failed climate conferences, the Occupy movement, etc. – occupied my attention completely. But actually the much more interesting topic of Bhutan and its gross domestic happiness stayed in the back of my mind. I thought for the time being, its origins must lie in Buddhism, the religion of the majority and of the king, including the elite. It is after all a very pacifist and redemption and sacrifice oriented religion.

But for some time, I have been feeling motivated to deal with this topic again. This was triggered off by the terrible events in Burma, also a predominantly Buddhist country. In the last year there were several murderous pogroms against the Muslim minority, especially against the dark-skinned "Rohingyas" – all committed by Buddhist mobs, egged on by a monk. Apparently, in Burma, the effect of Buddhism on the behavior of the Buddhist majority and the rulers was not real, or it was not strong enough to make it impossible for the pogroms to take place. This led me to ask whether the same was true of Bhutan? I knew Bhutan also had a problem with minorities of Nepalese origin. But my main interest was the gross domestic happiness. I began to read the reports I had saved about the country.

King Wangchuck first expressed the idea of gross domestic happiness in 1972. That was a year before the appearance of Fritz Schumacher's famous book Small is Beautiful, in which there is a chapter on Buddhist economics. The king said in a speech: "Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product" (quoted in Wikipedia ). At first it seemed like an impromptu remark, not to be taken seriously in the long-term. But for the king, who had initiated the process of development in his country, it was serious. He wanted to signal the intention that Bhutan's development would be consistent with Buddhist spiritual values and culture. He said that Bhutan must ensure that prosperity is fairly shared among all members of society; that there is a proper balance between prosperity and preservation of the cultural tradition; that the environment was protected and that the government governs responsibly.

There were then over the years, some corresponding policy decisions. A sophisticated instrument was developed to measure the general happiness. Such measurements have also been carried out. It was decided that 60 percent of the country would have to be covered with forests. There was a decision against mass tourism. Only a small number of tourists were welcome in the country annually. A dress code required that men dressed traditionally. After the introduction of democracy in 2008, the first elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley intensified this policy. The sale of tobacco and tobacco products was banned. The use of plastic bags was also prohibited. During religious holidays, which can also extend to one month, no meat was allowed to be sold. Automobiles were heavily taxed, and there was a car-free day every month.

Until 1960 there was no public education system in Bhutan. There are now schools everywhere, for each stage. In the public health care system, for non-acute sufferings, patients have the choice between western medicine and traditional medicine. While the per capita income of the Bhutanese remains one of the lowest in the world, between 1984-1998 their life expectancy increased by 19 years to 66 years.

In an Internet article I found the following sentences about the capital: "Thimphu is a pleasant walking city, with none of the chaotic warrens present in many Indian cities. Its people are cheerful, its merchants show none of the pushiness common in South Asia, and even its stray dogs seem benign. There are no slums" (Harris 2013). Prime Minister Thinley said, "Material well-being is only one component. That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other" (Revkin 2013).It all sounded wonderful, in our sense. Bhutan stood as a model of sustainable development. It seemed to be a happy, yes happy society on the way.

But then came the disappointment. I read that Prime Minister Thinley has lost the election in the summer of 2013, and the new Premier Tshering Tobgay, a mechanical engineer trained in the U.S., has given up the idea of gross domestic happiness. “Rather than talking about happiness” he said, “we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness” (Harris 2013). He repealed some of the prohibitions and decrees, which had been imposed on the people by the previous government, e.g. the occasional car-free days and the traditional dress code for men. He realized that it would be difficult to maintain the traditional culture in an era of rapid urbanization.

In fact, while the majority of the Bhutanese still lives as subsistence farmers, an increasing number of them are leaving their traditionally built mud and wood houses in isolated villages and moving to the towns, where many new modern houses are being built. “Who wants to do subsistence farming and get up at 4 in the morning and carry water if you don’t have to?” asked a member of the royal family. “Once you educate the people, nobody is going to live the same miserable life their parents did” (Harris 2013).

 As a consequence, unemployment is very high. The new prime minister lamented that many of the youth are voluntarily unemployed. He also spoke of increasing political corruption that he wanted to fight.

The two industries that Bhutan has to pay for its modernization, and imports of almost everything necessary from India, are tourism and hydroelectric power. The latter is sold in large part to India, and the country wants to develop this sector further. But the necessary construction works, also those necessary for infrastructure development, are almost entirely in the hands of Indian companies and workers. At first, it had to be so, because too few Bhutanese had the necessary know-how. Now, however, this is because the educated and urbanized Bhutanese youth consider building work beneath their dignity.

So it is no wonder that Bhutan's national debt is very high and continues to grow. There was even a currency crisis and a threat from India to stop further financial assistance.

The experiment in a small country to increase its gross domestic happiness instead of gross domestic product has thus failed, for the time being. Will it be just a small and short episode in world history? Bhutan has ultimately taken the usual route of an underdeveloped country towards development and modernization – with the well-known problems: the contradiction between development and environmental protection (hydropower too harms the environment) and the contradiction between modernization and traditional Buddhist culture.

Also, Bhutan has not been spared the usual problem with minorities. As in Burma, the teachings of Buddhism have not been any help in Bhutan. The expulsion of the Hindu-Nepalese minority has brought Bhutan a bad name. How can you build a happy society, so the criticism goes, if it only blesses the Buddhist majority?

We need to understand that in today's world no country is an island. In particular, the siren song of development in the neighboring countries of India and China is too enticing. Anyhow, today, for purely economic reasons, no country, especially a small country like Bhutan, can pursue an independent economic policy. Also culturally and socio-politically, the influence of the rest of the world is too strong, and the promise of a consumer society too tempting.

Referring to the global ecology crisis, in the 1990s, the then very famous Brazilian environmentalist José Lutzenberger said: "In the Third World, nothing will happen if nothing happens in the First World." Back then I was of the same opinion. The failed experiment in Bhutan again confirmed Lutzenberger’s view. But who knows, maybe something will happen again in the First World, with many talking already about de-growth. People will probably try again to increase the gross domestic happiness in the world, rather than the gross domestic product.


Harris, Gardiner (2013) “Index of Happiness? Bhutan’s New Leader Prefers More Concrete Goals”. In The New York Times International  (online), October 4, 2013.

Revkin, Andrew C. (2013) “Can Bhutan Achieve Hydropowered Happiness?”. In The New York Times International (online), December 10, 2013.

Wikipedia : Article on gross national happiness.