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Bhutan's wise pursuit of wealth in happiness

September 7, 2010

Jeffrey D Sachs
The National (UAE)
September 5, 2010

The economic challenge in the Himalayan kingdom
is not GDP growth but in gross national happiness. Adeel Halim / Bloomberg

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is unmatched in
natural beauty, cultural richness and inspiring
self-reflection. From the kingdom’s unique place
in the world now arises economic and social
questions that are of pressing interest to the rest of the planet.

Bhutan’s rugged geography fostered a hardy
population of farmers and herdsmen, and helped
cement a strong Buddhist culture, closely
connected in history with Tibet. The population
is sparse, about 700,000 people on territory the
size of France, with agricultural communities
nestled in deep valleys and a few herdsmen in the high mountains.

Each valley is guarded by a dzong, or fortress,
which includes monasteries and temples, all
dating back centuries and exhibiting a masterful
combination of sophisticated architecture and fine arts.

Bhutan’s economy of agriculture and monastic life
remained self-sufficient, poor and isolated until
recent decades, when a series of remarkable
monarchs began to guide the country towards
technological modernisation (roads, power, modern
health care and education), international trade and political democracy.

What is incredible is the thoughtfulness with
which Bhutan is approaching this process of
change, and how Buddhist thinking guides it.
Bhutan is asking itself the question that
everyone must ask: how can economic modernisation
be combined with cultural robustness and social well-being?

In Bhutan, the economic challenge is not growth
in GDP but in gross national happiness (GNH). I
went to Bhutan to understand better how GNH is
being applied. There is no formula, but,
befitting the seriousness of the challenge and
Bhutan’s deep tradition of Buddhist reflection,
there is an active and important process of
national deliberation. Therein lies the inspiration for all of us.

Part of Bhutan’s GNH revolves, of course, around
meeting basic needs -- improved health care,
reduced maternal and child mortality, greater
educational attainment and better infrastructure,
especially electricity, water and sanitation.

This focus on material improvement aimed at
meeting those goals makes sense for a country at
Bhutan’s relatively low income level.

Yet GNH goes well beyond broad-based, pro-poor
growth. Bhutan is also asking how economic growth
can be combined with environmental sustainability
– a question it has answered in part through an
immense effort to protect the country’s vast
forest cover and unique biodiversity. It is
asking how it can preserve its traditional
equality and foster its unique cultural heritage.

And it is asking how individuals can maintain
their psychological stability in an era of rapid
change, marked by urbanisation and an onslaught
of global communication in a society that had no
televisions until a decade ago.

I came to Bhutan after hearing an inspiring
speech by Jigme Thinley, the country’s prime
minister, at the 2010 Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development.

Mr Thinley had made two compelling points. The
first concerned the environmental devastation
that he could observe, including the retreat of
glaciers and the loss of land cover, as he flew from Bhutan to India.

The second was about the individual and the
meaning of happiness. Mr Thinley put it simply:
we are finite and fragile physical beings. How
much “stuff” – fast foods, TV commercials, large
cars, new gadgets and latest fashions – can we
stuff into ourselves without deranging our own psychological well-being?

For the world’s poorest countries, such questions
are not the most pressing. Their biggest and most
compelling challenge is to meet citizens’ basic
needs. But for more and more countries, Mr
Thinley’s reflection on the ultimate sources of
well-being is not only timely, but also urgent.

Everybody knows that hyper-consumerism, as is
common in the US, can destabilise social
relations and lead to aggressiveness, loneliness,
greed and overwork. What is perhaps less
recognised is how those trends have accelerated
in the US in recent decades. This may be the
result of, among other things, the increasing and
now relentless onslaught of advertising and public relations.

The question of how to guide an economy to
produce sustainable happiness, combining material
well-being with human health, environmental
conservation, and psychological and cultural
resilience, needs to be addressed everywhere.

Bhutan has many things going its way. The country
will be able to increase exports of clean
hydropower to India, thereby sustainably earning
foreign exchange to fund education, health care
and infrastructure. The country is also intent on
ensuring that the benefits of growth reach all of
the population, regardless of region or income level.

The key for Bhutan is to regard GNH as an
enduring quest rather than as a simple checklist.
Its Buddhist tradition understands happiness not
as an attachment to goods and services but as the
result of the serious work of inner reflection and compassion towards others.

Bhutan has embarked on this serious journey. The
rest of the world’s economies should do the same.

Jeffrey D Sachs is a professor of economics and
the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University. He is also a special adviser to the
UN secretary general on the Millennium Development Goals

* Project Syndicate
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