Rajni Bakshi (India)
© Copyright 2004 Rajni
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is an unlikely place for the birth of an
international trend. Yet Bhutan is emerging as a global leader in the
promotion of 'Gross National Happiness', a concept it first embraced
three decades ago and which is now being fleshed out by a wide range of
professionals and agencies across the world.
The term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by Bhutan's King Jigme
Singye Wangchuck when he ascended the throne in 1972. It signaled his
commitment to building an economy that would subserve Bhutan's unique culture
permeated by Buddhist spiritual values.
Today, the concept of GNH resonates with a wide range of initiatives, across
the world, to define prosperity in more holistic terms and to measure actual
well-being rather than consumption. By contrast the conventional concept of
Gross National Product (GNP) measures only the sum total of material
production and exchange in any country. Thus an international
conference on Operationalizing GNH, hosted by the Bhutan Government in the
capital city of Thimphu from February 18th to 22nd, 2003, attracted scholars
and experts from 20 countries.
The evolving concept of GNH could prove a significant advancement in economic
theory. It endeavors to enhance the
sophistication of human systems by emulating the infinitely greater
sophistication of nature. Just what
would it mean for economic structures to emulate nature? At present
individual companies and entire countries are compelled to keep growing
indefinitely. The only parallel for this in the natural world are cancer
cells, which by growing exponentially destroy the host body and themselves.
Today it is widely acknowledged that the human economy cannot keep growing at
the cost of its habitat. Yet even after two decades of expanding
environmental regulation we are still losing the race to save the planet.
This is partly because production systems and consumption patterns are out of
synch with the carrying capacity of the planet. The pressure for ever higher
GNP is merely one manifestation of this.
The concept of GNH is seen as one of several ways in which these imbalances
might be rectified. The international gathering at Thimphu
reflected a consensus that Gross National 'Product' would still need to
be measured and given due importance but in ways that are actually conducive
to GNH. So far there has been a tendency to treat GNH as merely the
well-intentioned slogan of a land-locked developing country ruled by an
enlightened monarch. The obvious challenges of attempting to define or
measure happiness have also helped to keep the concept of GNH on the outer
fringes of serious discourse.
However, as the conference in Thimphu showed, basic happiness can be
measured since it pertains to quality of nutrition, housing, education,
health care and community life. Thus, GNH may indeed be ready to come of age.
The concept is essential for anyone working on development. Three major factors seem to be responsible
for the expanding credibility of GNH. One, there is wider awareness that GNP
is a one-dimensional and thus misleading measure. Two, a wide range of
indices have been devised which offer a more realistic assessment of even
material prosperity. Three, there is growing pressure for an infusion of
moral and cultural values into the core of economic policy. GNP was never intended to be a measure of
actual well-being. It is the artifact of a time when it was assumed that if
there are more goods in circulation general welfare is ensured. As extensive
documentation has shown, this is not always the case. Moreover, attention has
also been drawn to dire side effects of the GNP driven model of
economic growth in many societies, including the USA with its multiple
social crises and rising sales of anti-depressants. Such critiques are not new. Back in 1968
Robert Kennedy lamented that the GNP also grows because of the sales of
rifles and knives and "...television programs which glorify violence in
order to sell toys to our children. ...(it) does not allow for the health of
our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play."
Since 1995 a San Francisco based think-tank called Redefining
Progress has been annually assessing the American economy with an alternative
yardstick called the Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) which presents a
relatively grim picture of American society compared to the GDP, as GNP is
called in the USA. The GPI index gets closer to the reality of
people's lives in the following ways. It includes the household and volunteer
economy which is completely ignored by the GNP. It counts as a 'loss' all
money spent on either preventing crime or repairing damage caused by it.
Similarly all money spent on water filters, air-purification and other ways
of coping with environmental degradation is counted as a 'loss'. Likewise
money that goes into circulation because of car crashes and divorces is
counted as a loss. The GPI also takes into account the extent to which the
whole population shared in increasing material abundance.
The GPI is just one among several endeavors to evolve new indicators which
measure actual conditions of human well being. But although countries as diverse as Costa
Rica, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia have established
well-being indicators, the hegemony of the GNP measure remains in place. This is why Bhutan's insistence on the
primacy of GNH over GNP inspires people far beyond its borders. Their
commitment to GNH has meant that moral and ethical values are placed at the
core of their economic strategies for ensuring better food, housing and
health for their population of just over 710,000 people. It has allowed them
to both expand their network of roads and increase their forest cover. In
most other developing countries the arrival of roads is inevitably followed by
deforestation. This is not to suggest that all is well in the Kingdom of
Bhutan or that they are able to fully live up to their GNH commitment. Yet
their achievements are notable
Bakshi, “Gross National Happiness”, post-autistic
economics review, issue no. 26, 2 August 2004,
article 6, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue26/Bakshi26.htm