November 2009, Bhutan – Himalayan Kingdom (Bhutan) is a small country in Himalayas between Tibet and India, with a population of 672,425. As of 2008, four kings have ruled the country over 100 years, following a peaceful transition to Constitutional Monarchy and democracy. This democratic transition was implemented by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. In addition, his Majesty transferred power to his eldest son, the Crown Prince Jigme Keshar Namgyel, bestowing upon him the title of the fifth Druk Gyalpo.
In general, Bhutanese people are characterized as friendly and peaceful. Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world. Vajrayana Buddhism is a unique form of Buddhism that is a fusion of Buddhism and Indian-Nepalese influenced Hinduism. This strong religious identity can be seen among many Bhutanese people, especially members of the older generations, who practice and apply this Buddhism in their daily lives. While the official language of the country is Dzongkha, most of college and university students can speak English fluently. I call this country the “Spiritual land” because of the affect that my visit to Bhutan had on me.
From November 23-36, 2008, the 4th International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) was held in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The conference, held at the beginning of the winter season, brought about 70 foreigner participants from 25 countries around the world. Most of participants were scholars and academics who presented papers that addressed a variety of perspectives on GNH generally, and on the conference theme “Practicing and Measurements on GNH”. The conference focused on how to bring GNH into practice by incorporating measures and metrics, thus advancing the GNH movement beyond abstract and philosophical concepts. In the past few years, the GNH network has grown in every corner of the world. As a result, GNH has been considered as an alternative development paradigm leading world into peace, prosperity and a just society. This new trend questions and actively refutes living under globalization (neo-liberalization), a system which is demands economic growth above all other measures of “development.” However, we have all witnessed that economic growth or economic well being is not necessarily equated with human well being.
The conference began with Marchang ceremony, an event led by spiritual leaders and monks. The Prime Minister, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, the opening session keynote speaker, remarked on the power of the GNH movement:
“Over the years due to transmission of GNH by all of you, there have been attempts to practice and measure aspects of it in ways that have and should always take into account local specificities and relevance. It is most encouraging to observe how aspects of GNH are being implemented in bottom-up, non-centralized ways, in many local communities around the world. Big shifts from governments towards what is recognition of true progress and how it should be measured many indeed only come when citizens and organizations, dispersed as they are, act in unison and convergence spurred by new consciousness. Such actions are being stimulated by the collaborative activities of vanguard research institutions around the world that are supported by enlightened people and leaders”
The keynote was followed by two plenary sessions on “Indicators for GNH” and “Well-being as well as Happiness and Environment.” Three workshops on “Psychological Well-being,” “Happiness and Quality of life” and “Health and Happiness” were also conducted.
Mr. Nic Mark, a founder of the New Economic Foundation (based in the UK) stated that whilst national governments spend millions collecting and analyzing economic (and to a lesser extent social and environmental) data, very little attention has been given to how their citizens actually feel. As a consequence, whilst much is known about the material conditions of people’s lives much less is known about their actual lived experience and their sense of personal and social well-being.
On the second day (Nov 25), there was a cultural trip to Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Dochula. After that there was a plenary on Rethinking Progress and participants attended three workshops on Good Governance, Education and Sociology Sustainable Development.
On the third day (Nov 26), Two plenary sessions on Gross National Happiness: Global and National and GNH the Way Forward were conducted. There were three workshops on Community Virtually, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
Ms. Dena Freeman, lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel presented an experience which focused on an economic framework for development and its impact on the community. She also described a case study a ‘successful’ development project on a small rural community in Southern Ethiopia. The project, carried out by a well known international NGO, aimed to increase household income in this remote area by developing the production and sale of a cash crop, namely apples, in this area formerly characterized by subsistence agriculture. Viewed from the outside, through the lens of traditional development indicators, the project is a huge success. However, when viewed from the inside, by those living in the community and observing the social and cultural changes that have come about because of apple cultivation, the success appears much more qualified. Although additional wealth has been generated, it is questionable whether this wealth has made people happier – it has largely been used to buy more clothes and plastic goods, such as plates, cups and shoes. More worryingly, the new presence of a valuable commodity – the apple saplings and trees – has led to widespread theft and social conflict. Traditional methods of conflict resolution are proving ineffective in this new social reality. Trust has been eroded and what can be described as ‘social breakdown’ is taking place. As a result, people are more stressed and unhappy.
This case clearly shows that community development can not look at the economic dimension only. There is a need to apply a GNH framework to community development, which consist of four pillars as follows:
I .Sustainable and equitable socio economic development (not growth)
II. Environmental conservation
III. Promotion of culture and
IV. Good governance
At Gross National Happiness: Global and National plenary, Ms. Namgay Zam, a representative of Bhutanese youth, presented a survey on youth’s perspective of happiness in relation to themselves, their parents and their community. Target group are youth and children between 11-25 years old. 1500 questionnaires were sent out and 72 received. She figures below shows the top indicators of Bhutanese youth and children Happiness.
For other plenary sessions and workshops content in details, you can look at http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt
Most of the participants expressed a need to come back to Bhutan in order to reflect how GNH can apply to our life, community, and society as the whole. We strongly hope that GNH will become a widely accepted alternative development paradigm which can lead to peaceful, equity and justice society, and bring happiness to all humankinds.
In order to achieve this, stakeholders like government, NGOs, civil society groups, academics, scholars, researchers etc must give a space for the young generation to fully participate in the GNH movement at every level. They are the future of our society.
Additionally, the International GNH Conference must be carried on in order to make GNH become visible as main stream development policy worldwide. The 5th International Conference will be held in Brazil probably in November 2009. The host organization will be the Eco-village of the Future Vision Institute.
Written and photo by Supawadee Petrat
Statement by Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bhutan at the 4th International Conference, “Practice and Measurement” on 24 November 2008, Thimphu, Bhutan.
Wikitravel, Bhutan. Retrieved Jan 6,2009, from file:///D:/GNH/Bhutan/Bhutan.htm
Freeman,D, Development and (Un)happiness: A case Study from Rural Ethiopia. Retrieved Jan 7, 2009, from http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/main/abstract.php, retrieved Jan 7,2009
Marks, N, National Accounts of Well-being, Measuring Wellbeing across Europe. Retreived Jan 7,2009, from http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/main/abstract.php