Struggling with GNH
One cannot come to Bhutan without hearing about Gross National Happiness (GNH). It is an idea birthed in the late 1970’s as an alternative to dominant development philosophies that prioritize economic criteria for proxies of well-being. The idea was to provide a more holistic way of viewing human nature and assessing development by recognizing spiritual, socio-cultural, and environmental values. While it originated as a philosophy, based on Buddhist ideals and cultural values, it was later transformed into a development index providing indicators to measure the country’s wellbeing and providing a basis for policy direction. While GNH has received a number of criticisms, especially regarding the measurement of happiness, it has continued to evolve providing a champion for alternative development models. For this, I applaud Bhutan’s contribution to global discourses surrounding development and well-being.
However, I have come to approach GNH with some skepticism. While the GNH philosophy seems to have local origins, the tools, strategies and discourses that have emerged in recent years seem to have external roots. Many international NGOs, donors, and researchers (even like myself) seem to have taken hold of the concept, in their eagerness to find alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, and have helped it progress to its current state. While global cooperation in maturing the concept is certainly not criteria for dismissing GNH, what has happened is that local involvement and understanding has eroded. Local residents are either confused or frustrated by GNH. With a history of state paternalism, many residents look to the government as being responsible for providing ‘happiness’, despite education efforts to promote personal responsibility. Other locals merely know GNH as something mentioned on TV or at school, but know nothing else of its purpose or how it is being used to impact their lives. Although this isn’t the case for all, it seems to be a common theme for rural residents as you get further from the hubs of Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing. However, even urban elites express concern about how GNH has become something other than a ‘home-grown’ philosophy. They feel that GNH has been appropriated by outsiders and no longer resembles their national identity.
I commend Bhutan for offering the gift of GNH, as it has challenged the global community to think beyond economic measures. However, more work needs to be done to ensure that GNH remains a localized concept that accounts for the experiences, understandings and values of the common Bhutanese.