Is Bhutan the mythical, mystical nation seen as last remaining Shangri-La where its people live in permanent happiness, perched on the top of the world?
Unfortunately this is not a fairytale but a country.
With approx. 700,000 people it has the same problems as a lot of the world’s “least developed countries”, which it was until last year. Bhutan now holds last place in the worlds “developing” nations, breaking out of “least” developed bracket. This does not dismiss the fact that 1 in 5 live in poverty. It faces huge challenges, where a burdening youth face the prospect of high unemployment, where hospitals still treat tuberculosis and leprosy. The image of a pristine countryside is brought into reality on landing and driving a few kilometers on the road, where trash can be found dotting the roadside as you twist and turn around endless mountainous bends. A few days into living in the capital I find out about broken families and a youth prescription drug problem. Where the average school kid has no idea that its government has turned Gross National Happiness (GNH) into an inspirational new development tool, endorsed only last week by the United Nations, never mind that he/she not having a clue what GNH means. The mantle of bringing the world GNH has turned it into an international punching bag.
I began to wonder if I was sold a lie.
BUT, it is struggling to improve. It is trying hard to make this country a better place for its people. The fact is that illiteracy in the older (55+) population is 90% in some rural areas of the country, a huge figure. Now youth literacy is up to 87%, the government is pouring money into education; into its free healthcare system (if you cannot be treated in Bhutan you will be flown to India for treatment). Fines were introduced this week on littering and people are responsible for keeping their property trash free. No trafficable roads entered Bhutan until 1974; infrastructure is improving all the time but it still has some way to go. Remember this is a country where electricity did not make its début until 1964; TV came to the country in 1999 and still does not have a set of traffic lights, anywhere. Now I type over my Wi-Fi network.
The prescription drug problem has occurred as a direct result of the countries modernization. Where in rural communities, if parents separate or die the children were taken in by the extended family, this tight knit structure is not present when a family moves to the city for a “better life”. On the falling apart there are no aunts or uncles there to take these children in, it leaves them susceptible and a portion turn to drugs.
Gross National Happiness is a philosophy that Bhutan has inspired the world with. It does not measure the countries success by its gross national product (how much money it makes) but focuses on a more holistic approach, based on a variety of social issues (from healthcare to education, time value to facilities found in your home etc.). A statistically verifiable questionnaire has been development over many years to harness the results by which every new government policy is passed or failed against this model. Deforestation was once carried out along the southern border to India producing huge amounts of revenue for the country; this process was then subjected to the GNH model and failed. The logging was stopped, it was rightly deemed unsustainable but it’s a powerful message, this country stopped a major revenue source because it knew in the years to come it would be better for the country. Maybe this is why 72% of the country is still covered by forestry. It is now developing hydroelectric infrastructure, selling this electricity to India. This is the sustainable model at work and the GNH policy for that matter. This is the biggest money generator for the country.
The concept of GNH can be traced back to Bhutan’s legal code of 1629 which stated “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist”. This was championed again by the 4th King of Bhutan in 1972 “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” It was written into Bhutan’s new democratic Constitution in 2008 Article 9: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” It has left Bhutan open to criticism by the international world on its failings but what the rest of the world needs to understand is Bhutan is not trying to be the happiest place on earth but it is trying to make life happier for its people. Should it ignore the philosophy because it is not doing as well as it would like? It believes the rest of the world needs to wake up to the “suicidal” path it is on. Capitalism believes in constant growth driven by demand from an ever increasing population which is great only that the physical earth is not ever growing, we are constrained by our size and our natural resources. It wants the world to focus more on a holistic approach and its people’s wellbeing (or happiness) than on how much money you have in your back pocket. Bhutan is striving for “Happiness and Well-Being : Defining a New Economic Paradigm” for the world, I think for a developing nation it can hold its head high. I only wish the rest of the world was so brave in its vision for its people.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan has a slogan, “happiness is a place”. If Bhutan has taught me anything over these weeks is that happiness is a place.
It is a place inside of you.