Pursuing happiness, not productivity, helped Bhutan through the pandemic

16 Nov 21

Bhutan’s adoption of an index measuring gross national happiness has helped guide the country’s response to Covid-19.

Every person aspires to their own transformation towards a calm and peaceful state. The unfolding of such dreams has been severely tested by Covid-19.

However, a resilience programme launched by King Jigme Khesar has prevented the Bhutanese population from losing happiness in many ways.

Neither lives nor hopes have been ravaged. This is the result of gross national happiness or GNH – the guiding metric in Bhutan.

During the pandemic, an absolute priority has been given to people’s happiness above gross domestic product.

The result is an adult vaccination rate of 94%, government-funded quarantine payments, income support for all those who lost jobs, and a 50% monthly interest rate repayment providing debt relief to banks.

In 1983, Bhutan made its first GDP estimate.

The crudely estimated per capita income of Bhutan in 2021 is $10,700 in purchasing power parity terms (or a nominal per capita income of $3,200).

But we also know that income and GNH move separately as they measure different things. Knowing this is valuable for understanding the diversity of ways in which humans flourish.

And what if the GDP mirror has a curved surface, producing a flattering image of a much worse reality?

The measure of social achievement is distorted. GDP cannot guide sustainable economic growth or environmental sustainability.

The market prices that make up an intrinsic part of GDP do not speak to sustainability or wellbeing.

Over time, GDP has become so deeply embedded in one section of the Bhutanese bureaucracy that its rationality and structure is often not questioned.

GNH had to struggle to be taken up alongside it.

The traditional way of thinking says that a higher economic growth rate is always better than a lower one. However, one of the key criticisms of GDP is that it ignores the question of what should be produced, wallowing instead in how much.

A technical reason for GDP’s appeal is that the macroeconomic and project management instruments linked to it are far handier for the mechanical bureaucrats. Countless academic courses perpetuate these methods worldwide.

Bhutan’s GNH survey collects information from a sample of 8,000 households, covering 277 variables in nine domains. It is officially applied in five ways:

  • Benchmarking Bhutan’s five-year plan. Between 2010 and 2015, the overall GNH index improved, but certain sub-indicators in psychological, wellbeing and community vitality declined;
  •  As a weighting criterion to allocate budget resources to local government. It influences the allocation of 40% of the capital budget. More resources go to local governments with a poorer GNH score;
  • Vetting central government policies, using 22 criteria important for GNH and implemented according to a well defined process;
  • Evaluating large projects after implementation by comparing the impact of the project on beneficiaries versus non-beneficiaries on all nine GNH domains;
  • Assessing company performance. Many state enterprises and a few leading private companies have undergone GNH certification for business.

The five-yearly GNH survey was due last year, before the pandemic halted it. We are eager to find out what post-pandemic Bhutan looks like in GNH.

  • Dasho Karma Ura

    is president at The Centre for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies

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