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Are Asian economies sacrificing happiness for development?

Economic governance | Are Asian economies sacrificing happiness for development? Economy Watch

The UN General Assembly in September saw the Prime Minister of small Asian nation Bhutan denounce what he believed to be a “monster of a consumerist market economy” that “enslaves humanity and thrives on the insatiable nature of our greed". He urged instead for an entirely different form of economic governance that doesn't rely so heavily on GDP. Speaking to Michele Lin, Bhutan's Chief Planning Officer, Mr. Karma Galay, sets out his alternative solutions to the current global development strategy.

Nestled at the edge of the Himalayas and landlocked between two of the world’s most populous nations, India and China, one can be quite quickly forgiven for not having heard of the little kingdom of Bhutan. Long romanticized as a secluded paradise, or the “last Shangri-la”, Bhutan’s idea of personal fulfillment is not just a spiritual pursuit, but a government policy. In fact, while the rest of the world clamors relentlessly in the pursuit of economic growth, the Bhutan state has taken upon itself the responsibility of creating the enabling conditions for what it deems a conscious pursuit of “Gross National Happiness.”

The notion of Gross National Happiness was first coined by Bhutan’s former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s as an alternative to Gross National Product. Today, the Bhutanese are refining the country’s guiding philosophy into what they see as a new school of economic, political and social science.

“The concept of GNH has evolved from something philosophical to scientific approach. More appropriate measures have been set up and constructed to get a better measure of happiness. It is a serious project in Bhutan,” said Mr. Karma Galay, Chief Planning Officer of Bhutan.

“There is a lot of beauty and respect for the idea (of GNH),” said Galay. Conceding that there may be several skeptics, Galay argues that the idea is nonetheless applicable and relevant to the Bhutanese economy. “The power of sharing in Bhutan is real and strong, it is part of the culture of the people. Some may say that the concept is too idealistic, too vague for application, or even that it is a Buddhist value. But, likewise, the idea of sharing and happiness is a universal value upheld by all people and religions,” he said.

But Bhutan knows that for its novel idea to be taken seriously, it has to work out a set of definitions and standards that can be quantified and scientifically measured. Under the comprehensive GNH framework, Bhutan’s development program now includes four broad themes:

1. sustainable and equitable socio-economic development (not growth);
2. environmental conservation and protection;
3. promotion and preservation of culture;
4. good governance.

Taking the right route

Given that the international community is facing a host of serious challenges – from natural disasters to food and financing crises – Bhutan is keen to avoid the pitfalls of greed and rapid development. Referring to the global financial crises, Galay points out that “greed is the root of the crises, and that it is important to moderate our wants.” His comment echoes the sentiments of the Bhutan prime minister, Jigme Thinley, at this year’s UN General Assembly.

"Lacking political will and, indeed, clarity of vision, we deny with clever arguments what we know to be the cause of our predicaments. So we go on – doing what is irrational. We continue acquiring arms to prevent war; answering climate change with more harmful emissions; racing to extract, produce and consume more in the face of depleting resources; fuelling faltering economies with debt and greed; enabling the wealthy to deepen crevasses that separate the rich from the poor; idealizing individualism as family and community crumble amid rising social dislocation, crime, mental illness, loneliness and suicide.

For too long, we have ignored the truth that the causes of all these problems are interrelated and that durable remedies must be found through a rational and holistic approach. For too long, we have refused to accept that GDP-focused economic models have served their useful purpose and that we need to switch tracks. Guided by the belief that life satisfaction is about material pursuit and accumulation, and that good economics is about limitless growth, our economic development processes have created the monster of a consumerist market economy."

In a sense, the overarching guiding philosophy behind Bhutan’s principled development is the commitment towards intergenerational equity.

“What is done today shouldn’t be done at the expense of cost on the future generations,” said Galay. His country, he said, was concerned that other countries had become rich but the “happiness of the people did not increase in a commensurate way.”

The road to progress

Adhering to the Gross National Happiness guidelines has thus far seen Bhutan’s forest cover expand from 64 percent to 81 percent in the past four decades. Bhutan is also the only country that has pledged to forever remain carbon neutral. As Galay emphasized, “it was the will of the King to move towards a constitutional monarchy,” as the country smoothly transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a fully-fledged democracy.

Naysayers have questioned if Bhutan is doing away with economic growth and GDP-markers, or even if Bhutan is pursuing this line of Gross National Happiness policy because it does not have material growth. To this question, Galay answered: “Economic growth is a simply a means to be happy. The goal of economic development is to make people happy, not to make more money.”

This article was written by Michele Lin and was originally published on Economy Watch under the title: Development, But At What Price? Lessons from the Happiest Place in Asia.

Economy Watch also features a fascinating slideshow looking at 'The 10 Happiest Countries in the World'.

Tags: 10 Happiest Countries in the World , Bhutan , Bhutanese economy , But At What Price? Lessons from the Happiest Place in Asia , Development , economic governance , Economy Watch , GDP , GNH , GNP , Gross National Happiness , Gross National Product , intergenerational equity , Jigme Singye Wangchuck , Jigme Thinley , Karma Galay , Michele Lin , socio-economic development , UN General Assembly
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  1. Anonymous Comment says:
    Wed Jun 20 15:06:32 BST 2012

    Which came first, the problem or the solution? Luckily it doesn't matter
  2. freshthought says:
    Wed Nov 16 06:07:49 GMT 2011

    Bhutan's lead on this matter is not entirely unnoticed by politicians in the west and east and while Bhutan may seem like it is out on a limb, there is underlying support for its sentiment. Last year David Cameron announced a project to try and measure Britain's happiness and indeed raised the idea of Gross National Happiness as a long term supporting indicator to GDP to track the country's progress. The public were surprised that he had come out with it but were broadly supportive as it came against the background of anti-capitalist sentiment. In China there has been growing concern this year about the erosion in human and society values that rapid commercial growth is causing. In October a toddler was knocked down in a hit and run incident in Guangdong, but critically passers by did not stop to help, they being too focused on their own business. The government's concern about the decay in society's values caused by the pursuit of GDP growth extends to the media, with recent crackdowns on TV and internet publications with poor moral values that were being driven by commercial success.

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