Sunday, 14 August 2011

Bhutan and Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is a Himalayan kingdom that has spent the majority of it's history isolated from the rest of the world.
Landlocked, located in a remote mountainous area and lacking any strategic relevance or natural resources that would make them appealing to an aggressive neighbour Bhutan managed to remain cut off from the outside world from it's unification in the 17th Century up until the late 20th Century.
However this policy of isolation would come at a price.
By the time Jigme Singye Wangchuck became King in 1972, Bhutan was suffering some of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality in the world.
The King decided that for the good of his people he would open up to the world around them and allow developments in education, medicine and economics that were taken for granted in other countries to be implemented in Bhutan.
He was however wary of the unique culture of Bhutan, which had endured for centuries protected from the influences of other nations, being eroded or even lost altogether.
His solution was to allow the development of Bhutan to take place very slowly and be regulated by an idea would put the good of the country as a whole ahead of that of any particular individuals or institutions.
He called this 'Gross National Happiness'.
With it's roots in Buddhism, the major religion in Bhutan, the idea behind GNH was to allow for development but to put the spiritual and psychological needs of the people at the centre of the process.
The main effect of this has been the decision to prevent large scale industrial development at the cost of the environment of Bhutan.
Instead it was decided that 60% of the country should remain permanently forested, 40% of the land should be protected as National Parks and a further 9% should be maintained as 'biodiversity corridors' to preserve these other areas.
Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world to introduce television, waiting until 1999.
For the first time Bhutanese people could see what the world outside looked like.
Cable services delivered sports, news and entertainment shows from around the world.
With television came advertising. Consumer spending spiralled as the people of Bhutan became aware of branded goods and products such as aftershave.
Spending on these goods rocketed but at the same time so did another phenomenon new to Bhutan.
As the levels of spending rose so did the levels of violent crime.
Consumer goods meant more things to steal and the television shows that were being beamed in seemed to be little more than lessons in consumption and how to commit crimes.
It was decided that advertising levels would be scaled back dramatically and that there would be a greater control on the shows that were broadcast, with those shows that focused on crime and consumption removed from the airwaves.
With this action the levels of crime dropped accordingly...
The actions of the King made him incredibly popular in Bhutan.
His decision to open up to the world while maintaining Bhutanese culture has allowed his country to flourish without a loss of their national identity and the resolution of the problems related to television show the impact that a government more concerned with the happiness of it's people than their material wealth.
In 2005 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that he would be abdicating in favour of his son in 2008 and that Bhutan's first Parliamentary elections would follow.
The King had decided that if Bhutan was to be respected internationally in the 21st Century it would have to embrace democracy and learn to govern itself.
The people were stunned.
Two political parties were established, the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party and the People's Democratic Party.
Polls were taken in the run up to the election and found that people asked who they intended to vote for invariably came up with the same answer:

'Who does the King want me to vote for?'

This struggle to embrace the idea of democracy turned the election from an attempt by both parties to outline their policies to both parties attempting to prove themselves more in line with the thinking of the King.
For the record the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party won by a landslide...
Bhutan will never be a prosperous country.
It's mountainous location, poor transport infrastructure and lack of natural resources means that it is largely ignored by India and China, it's rapidly industrialising behemoth neighbours.
Bhutan will never be rated AAA by Standard and Poor, it will never win the World Cup, it will never have an army large enough to wander around the world implementing it's policies at an international level.
It's just got a government based around the happiness of it's people and a determination to ensure that their landscape is protected from rapacious developers.
More fool them, right?

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