Politics and Policy: Balancing growth for real happiness

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 30, 2019 - October 06, 2019.

Powdyel interacts with the children of remote Sakteng Primary School in Bhutan. Its government strive to ensure that even the feeblest voices are heard.

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THE kingdom’s former minister of education Prof Thakur S Powdyel, who was on a recent visit to Malaysia as a member of the Sejahtera Leadership Initiative’s international advisory panel, answered questions by Rash Behari Bhattacharjee in an email interview.


The Edge: Gross National Happiness lays emphasis on qualities like compassion, contentment and peace that conventional economic indicators like gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national product (GNP) give incidental attention to, if any. What human values must conventional economics prioritise to align with the idea of GNH?

Prof Thakur S Powdyel: GNH, as envisioned and articulated by the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, represents a holistic and sustainable vision of human development and societal progress within the mutually supportive planetary boundaries. It is founded on the realisation that the most profound needs of human beings are not necessarily material or physical and that there are other non-material or non-economic elements including the natural, social, cultural, emotional, psychological, spiritual and ethical domains that give meaning and purpose to life and which need to be nurtured and cultivated.

Conventional notions of progress are largely confined to considerations of the linear, utilitarian and reductionistic logic of economic efficiency. In this model, the finer elements that support the subjective inner dimensions and uphold the integrity and dignity of life do not count for much if they do not possess a measurable economic value. Even though the world is too accustomed to measuring progress by GDP or GNP indicators, it can at least try and seek to harmonise the needs of the body with the yearnings of the soul.


In a few years, it will be five decades since the idea of GNH was first articulated. How far has mainstream development thinking embraced the outlook behind GNH?

Every society, as indeed every nation, needs its own North Star to guide it towards a collective destiny that it aspires to reach. GNH as a normative development pathway symbolises Bhutan’s North Star as we look towards a future in which the best of tradition combines with the best of modernity. GNH is not a mere slogan. All our development plans are formulated based on the cardinal pillars, namely balanced and equitable socioeconomic development, conservation of the natural environment, preservation of culture and tradition, and promotion of good governance, that provide the necessary environment for the nurturing of GNH.

Policymaking, mobilisation and allocation of resources, monitoring of development progress and achievement of plan targets are done by the Gross National Happiness Commission. The Constitution of Bhutan enshrines the pursuit of GNH as the national goal. Compatibility with the GNH principles is required for government agencies to receive state funding for capital and recurrent expenses.


In this era of instant gratification and the apparently limitless potential of human creativity, what indicators in the GNH spectrum are especially relevant?

The need to moderate the impulse to seek instant gratification and to invoke the more sustaining and fulfilling elements of human nature is an important aim of the GNH development model. Therefore, the human capacity for imagination and creativity ought to be enlisted to guide the maverick, pleasure-seeking impulse towards the more sublime and sustaining goals of GNH, not the other way round. The four pillars of GNH and the nine domains provide the necessary conditions to secure the well-being of all the interdependent elements that share our planet Earth.

Given the current state of our world, cultivation of the life-affirming ethic of cooperation as opposed to the corrosive principle of cut-throat competition, distinguishing between wants and needs, recognising our place as co-inhabitants of planet Earth sharing this common home with the limitless beings, taking a long-term intergenerational view of sustainability, as well as making governance more mindful and sensitive that GNH seeks to advance, will help the hungry impulse to find balance and to flourish.

GNH is “development with values” in the words of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.


What are the most common misconceptions about GNH that prevent its effective adoption as an approach to development?

The obsession with quantification and measurement that GDP favours and the notion that nothing counts if it cannot be counted, indeed, the belief that having more naturally translates to being better off and happier, stand in the way of GNH flourishing and finding the full fruition of its edifying promise. The pleasure-principle mistaken for the happiness goal is an obstruction as well. The profundity and sublimity as well as the fundamental naturalness and simplicity of the alternative development pathway are often too difficult for some to comprehend.

The good news is that some of the finest minds around the world are looking at GNH as the much-needed anodyne to “still the tooth that nibbles at the soul”. Having gone through a catharsis of sorts, a more humbled world is coming to realise that the mindless pursuit of material progress with its untold negative consequences on the health of our planet and the well-being of the human race is unsustainable and unjust. Good sense has to prevail and the headlong rush to an uncertain future needs to be restrained.

The writing on the wall is too stark for comfort.


Please share an example of the benefits that the GNH approach brings to a community through balanced development.

Perceived or real inequities in the distribution of the country’s available resources, development services and opportunities to participate fairly in the life of the society can be the cause of much dissatisfaction and frustration, leading to the loss of trust and faith in the government. It is in the fitness of things, therefore, that the first pillar of GNH pertains to the need for balanced and equitable socio-economic development.

To this end, the royal government has adopted the policy of grassroots-level democratisation, decentralisation, resource allocation and monitoring of policy-implementation to ensure that even the feeblest voices are heard and that necessary interventions are put in place to redress public grievances. The fact that even the remotest villages of Bhutan have been provided with the basic services, resulting in the improvement of the quality of life of our people, is heartening. But more still needs to be done in some areas.

For a country like Bhutan, balanced development is not a populist fad but an important strategy for citizen flourishing and nation-building. It is about creating an enabling environment for the flowering of the Bhutanese genius in the diverse spheres of society to make up in terms of quality what we lack in terms of quantity.

Small nations cannot afford to make big mistakes.

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