The story of a king, a poor country and a rich idea

Business Bhutan
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The story of a king, a poor country and a rich idea

How the development philosophy of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH), was born?

About the time when the Bretton Woods System collapsed in the early 1970s leading to the then worst stock market crash in 1973-74, a teenager king of a small Himalayan kingdom had started advocating a development philosophy among its mostly illiterate citizenry. The message was clear and simple – happiness of the people is more important than economic development of the country.

Bhutan had just opened itself to the outside world in 1961 by embracing the first ever five year development plan. When His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck formally ascended the throne in 1974 at nineteen years of age, two years after he was deemed too young to do so after his father passed away, the country was still an agrarian economy. Modern infrastructure like roads was being built for the first time through its mountainous terrain with development assistance of India. Literacy level was painstakingly low with a handful of primary school graduates occupying the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The country had just entered the world map joining the United Nations in 1971 but was still overwhelmed by its geography of being sandwiched between two largest economies of the world with China in the north and India in the south.

Those were the days when the king mostly toured the country on horseback and mingled with the people around campfires at night and drank water from natural springs. At almost every meeting with the civil servants and the people, His Majesty outlined his vision for the country with the same message. He was never tired of reiterating that collective happiness of the people was his ultimate goal.

The prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Y. Thinley, who is credited for being the ambassador of the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to the outside world, explains: “His Majesty, as a young king, would engage in conversation with civil servants, policy makers, and the citizens very frequently.”

No single incident is recorded as the first time where His Majesty asserted his idea. “It was during these unrecorded and informal occasions, over campfires, during his travels throughout the country that His Majesty repeatedly alluded to the need for the government and the leaders to aspire to give to the people what they needed and desired most and that is happiness,” said Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley.

Explaining why it is difficult to pin down an exact date where he gave birth to the idea of GNH, Jigme Y. Thinley said, “At that time, it did not strike most of us as an extraordinarily wise and unique statement as it has now become. We all took it as something obvious and it wasn’t taken as an extraordinarily unique statement.”

So the king had given birth to a new idea of a development philosophy centered on the intangible human emotion of happiness. It did not have a name though.

His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck inadvertently christened his philosophy in 1979 at Bombay airport when he was returning from the sixth Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Havana. Giving a rare interview to group of Indian journalists, one reporter asked “We do not know anything about Bhutan. What is your Gross National Product?” His Majesty said “We do not believe in Gross National Product.” He added “because Gross National Happiness is more important.” The media reports that resulted from the interview did not really focus on a new development philosophy Bhutan was pursuing.

Eight years later on May 2, 1987, John Elliott of the Financial Times of London published an article ‘The Modern Path to Enlightenment’ in their weekend edition called the Weekend FT. It was the first news article ever to highlight GNH as a development philosophy propagated by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

His Majesty is quoted in the article saying “We are convinced we must aim for contentment and happiness. In 2008, John Elliott wrote on his blog about the interview “He (His Majesty) put gross national happiness above the more usual economic targets of GNP and listed the GNH parameters: ‘Whether we take five years or ten to raise the per capita income and increase prosperity is not going to guarantee that happiness, which includes political stability, social harmony and the Bhutanese culture and way of life.’”

John Elliot also writes “When I met the shy, unassuming but dignified king in his ornate Thimphu palace, he worried about how to develop the country – how to open it up, but not so fast as to be disruptive, while maintaining Bhutan’s traditions and peaceful Buddhist culture. In a paternalistic way, he was clearly agonizingly aware of the enormity of his inheritance – and that his decisions could make or break his tiny nation. It needed protecting from what could become uncontrollable and avaricious outside influence.”

The research organization in Bhutan responsible for developing mathematical indicators to measure GNH, the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS), also records the article by John Elliott as the first ever written evidence of GNH. Today the CBS, founded in 1999, has developed mathematical parameters to measure GNH and has measured it in Bhutan twice.

It was only in 1998 that Bhutan first mentioned GNH as its development philosophy at the Asia-Pacific Millimium Summit in Seoul. It was through an address of Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley. Thereafter, Bhutan began showcasing GNH as an alternative development paradigm.

Asked why there was a long incubation of the GNH philosophy and what prompted Bhutan to share the idea with the outside world only in 1998, Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley said “I would not say we went through an incubation period but rather that it remained within Bhutanese boundaries.” He added “because of the success of the GNH philosophy and its relevance to development, the donor countries and donor development partners that visited Bhutan felt that Bhutan should share this idea with the larger world. So it was for the first time that Bhutan was convinced to take this idea outside its boundary and we made the statement in Seoul.”

A research officer of the CBS, Karma Wangdi, opines that Bhutan’s decision to share the idea of GNH with the world could have been triggered by externalities that showcased the vulnerabilities of the Bretton Woods system. Coincidently, there was the Asian financial Crisis which began from Thailand in July 1997 and went on to affect most Southeast Asian countries including Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea. It also came in the aftermath of the 1994 Mexico Economic Crisis. Moreover, the 1990s was marked by international financial crisis and the decade ended with crisis in Brazil, Turkey, and Argentina. It was a time when the world was challenged by economic realities and an overdependence on it to assess progress, growth and development.

In 2004, Bhutan organized the first international conference on GNH in its capital Thimphu. The second one followed the subsequent year in Canada. It has organized five international GNH seminars so far with the third one in Bangkok in 2007, the fourth in Bhutan in 2008 and in Brazil in 2009.

It was in 2005 that Bhutan decided to quantify happiness and entrusted the responsibility of developing mathematical parameters to measure GNH to the Center for Bhutan Studies. The CBS finally came out with the mathematical formulae in 2008. It uses a new nine-step methodology of multi-dimensional poverty by Alkire and Foster to measure the GNH index.

In its efforts to implement GNH, all initiatives of the government are divided into policies and projects. Each policy or project then has to undergo a GNH screening test where it is scrutinized against several GNH indicators. For example, the mineral development policy has to pass not only the economic indicators but also environmental standards and impacts on other indicators like culture are weighed. In the parliament, the state-of-the-nation address of the prime minister is always prefixed under GNH priority indicators.

In July 2011, history was made when the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Bhutan-led resolution on “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.” As a follow up to the resolution, Bhutan convened a High Level Meeting on ‘Happiness and Well Being: defining a New Economic Paradigm” at the UN headquarter in April in New York.

At the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development to be held on June 20-22 in the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Bhutan will be calling on the world to adopt GNH as the new development paradigm. The Bhutan paper for Rio+20 called ‘Time for a sustainable economic paradigm’ says that it will be a New Bretton Woods system. Asked whether Bhutan’s quest is too ambitious, Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley said: “Yes, it is extremely ambitious. But it is timely.”

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories