Most countries gauge progress in economic terms, but Bhutan famously marks its achievements by a measure known as Gross National Happiness (GHN). The idea, say officials, is to attempt to keep incomes rising without sacrificing the country’s overall well-being.
It has been almost four decades since Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, promoted self reliance and progress in a fast changing world by creating the GHN paradigm.
The King based its principles on good governance, inclusive development, conservation and preservation of Bhutan’s unique Himalayan culture.
GNH Commission Secretary Karma Tsheetim told a recent conference the old formula is still closely tied to the country’s development model.
“It is an approach to development that we seek to balance the material with the non-material spiritual, cultural aspects and the needs of the individual in society," Tsheetim said. "This is based on a simple belief that at the end of the day what people want from life is to live a meaningful life.”
Traditional measures of economic progress such as a country’s overall economic output known as the Gross Domestic Product, minimum wages for labor, and the relative cost of food and basic staples are considered baseline measures for comparing the overall well-being of different populations.
But development economists have long contended that there are important costs to growing economies, such as pollution, social dislocation and deforestation. They say those also affect people’s overall well-being, yet go unrecorded by traditional measures.
GNH Commission secretary Tsheetim says the Gross National Happiness paradigm offers an alternative approach to development.
“Basically what we see is that the way we are going about development today and particularly confusing progress with just GDP is actually leading to more problems than solutions," Tsheetim said. "We’re not saying that creating jobs is not good or poverty - reducing poverty - of course they are top agenda. We feel that development it has to be sustainable.”
Tsheetim’s GNH Commission sets development policies for the country, assesses development project applications, and determines how to measure the more intangible indicators of the country’s well being.
To help in the effort, officials work with outside groups. Researchers from Portland State University estimated that Bhutan’s “natural capital," such as its forests and lush mountain eco-systems, are worth some four times the country’s GDP.
The researchers highlighted Bhutan’s nearly 75 percent of forest cover as being worth some $14.5 billion.
The Sustainable Society Institute at Melbourne University in Australia is also helping to set up a GNH development institute in Bhutan.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, Bhutan’s economics minister, says the country’s continuing commitment to its GNH principles are drawing foreign attention.
“GNH --- there is more and more acceptance and people are looking up to Bhutan. We have a huge responsibility and so as a first step we feel that we have to have it not only in terms of tourism but part of this national feeling,” the minister said.
Bhutan’s economic progress by traditional measures also has been positive. The country’s economy has averaged growth at close to seven per cent in recent years.
That growth has been spurred on by sales of hydro-electric power to India and foreign tourism - the leading foreign exchange earners.
Per capita incomes now exceed $2,000. U.N. economists say Bhutan is also on target to achieve its UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Part of the U.N. goals are aimed at reducing poverty. Dorji Choden, head of the U.N. Development Program’s poverty section, says the country has a broad approach to that issue. Officials look at a community’s access to roads, the extent of its agricultural production and the fertility of its land when considering which development plans that could bring it the greatest benefits.
“Then GNH elements of looking at environmental concerns, the social pattern of the community themselves, the holistic assessment and then the community vitality," Choden said. "It’s not one priority or the other but it’s really looking at it quite holistically - looking at it from all perspectives.”
The effort is not always easy in a country that still struggles with poverty. Chadho Tenzin, the Bhutan representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization, says as incomes rise and the country urbanizes, authorities are trying to maintain food security in many communities where there is limited fertile land.
Tenzin says the government may shift from focusing on supporting individual farmers to promoting cooperative farms that involve more intensive farming practices.
“At the national level if you want to go for food and nutrition security we need to have a more focused program, rather than going for this agriculture as a social program - we should have more focus, more concentrated areas where commercial farming is possible,” Tenzin said.
While commercial farming can produce more food, it can also carry higher environmental costs. Officials say that for their gross national happiness project to succeed, they need to keep a careful eye on the costs, benefits and challenges of each development strategy.