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Friday, April 4, 2014

MASTERMINDS OF A BETTER FUTURE: How can we trust 'Gross National Happiness' if it doesn't work where it was founded?

 by Rachel Dixon (University of Sussex, UK)




The Gross National Happiness index (GNH), conceived in Bhutan, is cited as an innovative and more ‘human’ alternative to the Eurocentric school of poverty measures, which includes the more well-known and more frequently cited Human Development Index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, Dollar a Day etc and on first glance it is remarkable. The GNH aims to measure 9 domains that are said to take a holistic approach to progress, development and policy making: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. This is what the development world dreams of, surely? A welcome divergence from unrelenting reports of inequality, environmental destruction and questionable governance, this approach has nevertheless fallen into a familiar trap: the exclusion of a significant minority.

A quick Google search will find that Bhutan is chiefly categorised as a Buddhist nation with Dzongkha recognised as the official national language. This of course, veils the true demography of a nation composed of an estimated 25% Lhotshampa (Nepalese speaking Bhutanese Hindus) as well as the 70% Mahayana Buddhists, which are the two largest ethnic groups in Bhutan, the remaining population consisting of indigenous or migrant tribes. This contradiction typifies the two approaches generally taken to the analysis of the GNH: 1) the image of Bhutan - generally endorsed by government officials as a nationalist, homogenous and culturally united Buddhist state; and 2) a diverse, exclusionary and centralised state.

Under the GNH index, policies have been implemented with the aim of promoting both cultural diversity and resilience. However, although GNH comes with the idyllic promise of a thriving and accepting cultural and religious environment, in reality the tangible actions taken by Bhutan have almost solely upheld the Buddhist majority. Buddhist sites of worship have been renovated (undoubtedly a positive step for a large proportion of Bhutanese citizens) and the government has issued a decree requiring all citizens to observe ‘driglam namzha’, the traditional dress, values and etiquette of Bhutan. Certainly in the global context of an increasingly homogenised, ‘western’ cultural outlook, the focus on the resilience of tradition is attractive, almost enviable. The abolition of the teaching of Nepali in schools and the denial of their freedom to practice their own cultural customs thus begins the marginalization of the Lhotshampa community.

Bhutanese people wearing the traditional clothes of Driglam Namzha
The Bhutanese government’s “one nation, one people” policy based on the traditions of the Northern, Buddhist Bhutanese, arguably the product of its escape from colonisation and its status as a small, isolated state surrounded by two powerful giants, India and China, has seen the denial of the ability of vast segments of the population to enjoy their human rights. A report by Amnesty International identified the arbitrary arrest, torture and rape of the Lhotshampa Bhutanese, which spurred the flight of thousands to the Nepalese border where many still reside in refugee camps. Discriminatory land rights, marriage acts and limits on the freedom of assembly were just some elements of legislation enacted in the light of the GNH index that led to this migration.

Over the past half century Bhutan has been transformed into a thriving, unique society with much to be admired and emulated by the rest of the world. The focus on happiness, wellbeing, environmental awareness and health is an undeniably positive approach which one could say needs to be adapted by European countries. However, if a similar scheme were to be implemented elsewhere, the necessity to follow through on the acceptance and encouragement of diversity and equality would be paramount and inescapable. Although today, the Lhotshampa still largely reside in Nepalese refugee camps and tensions continue to exist between the Lhotshampa and the Bhutanese government, the new Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, may be taking the first positive steps in a positive and inclusive direction. He is quoted stating that “rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness”. 

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

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