Bhutan’s Happiness Saga

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Rashed Nabi        2 October 2018

Bhutan ardently advocates for happiness as the ultimate measure of a nation’s progress, but its own happiness record is barely persuasive of it. In the 2018 rankings of the World Happiness Report (WHR), it was ranked in underperforming 97th place out of 156 countries. Since 2012, when the WHR was launched under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), Bhutan has dropped in the rankings and trailed behind scores of countries in many of which unrest frequently disrupts daily life.

Bhutan’s preoccupation with measuring happiness is much older than the history of the WHR. Since the 1970s, it has been advancing the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an unorthodox alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To confront the narrow focus of GDP on economic growth, it has developed a multi-dimensional GNH Index. The country’s Constitution extends support to it by proclaiming that “the State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of GNH.” To turn the vision into action, it has dissolved the central planning commission into the GNH commission, which scrutinizes and influences the approval of national and local development activities.

The gap between Bhutan’s commitment to GNH and its relative standing in global happiness rankings leads to this question: If GNH is the best policy tool, then why does Bhutan’s happiness ranking lag behind so many countries where happiness is unheard of as a policy outcome?

Bhutan’s Big Strides

Bhutan disregards this question because it has other accomplishments on its side. The western media, from the New York Times to The Guardian, is an uncritical admirer of GNH. International conferences on wellbeing and happiness bring it further to the limelight by showcasing Bhutan at every opportunity. State heads and celebrities from the west speak effusively on their return from trips to this tiny Himalayan kingdom to discover the experience of the happiness. Even the World Bank for which GDP and economic growth are the guiding principles favours learning from Bhutan’s GNH experiments. The UN has gone further. Influenced by Bhutan’s persistent campaign, it adopted a happiness resolution in 2011, underscoring that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,” which nations should pursue “with a view to guiding their public policies.” In brief, with its GNH, Bhutan has succeeded in grabbing the attention of half the world. No small feat for a country with so little economic and political clout!

Bhutan could also boast of its enormous strides in the socioeconomic development. Paradoxically, it fares better in the measures of GDP, which it has replaced with GNH. The World Bank data show that over the past decade Bhutan’s GDP has grown at an annual rate of 7.0%. This growth would have been the envy of other South Asian countries had the value of GDP been large. In 2015, its total GDP stood at $2.0 billion – half that of Maldives, the smallest South Asian nation. Between 1990 and 2015, Bhutan’s GDP per capita increased from US$580 to US$2,340; life expectancy at birth from 52.5 to 69.9 years; and mean and expected years of schooling by 0.6 years. All these gains have helped it to move up the UN’s Human Development Index – the nearest rival of GDP in the policy world. Higher GDP per capital has also positioned Bhutan to graduating from the LDC (Least Developed Countries) category established by the UN in 1971. In 2015, Bhutan was one of the three countries which the Food and Agriculture Organization removed from its list of food deficit countries. It also has been more successful than other South Asian countries in reducing poverty.

GNH and Happiness Gaps

Above all else, the GNH Index by itself can provide a sufficient conceptual defense against Bhutan’s low standing in the WDR. The WDR uses happiness as a synonym of subjective wellbeing and evaluates countries based on the life satisfaction data of the World Gallup Poll. This long establish poll asks samples of respondents to locate themselves on an imaginary ladder of life with steps number from “0” (worst life) at the bottom to “10” (best life) at the top. Countries with higher average scores are then ranked happier than others.

The GNH Index stands in sharp contrast with the idea of subjective wellbeing. It is a single metric as GDP is but is a measure of composite variables covering psychological, social, economic, health and environmental factors. How distinct it is from the other wellbeing indexes used elsewhere is a matter of separate analysis. Within the Bhutanese context, it definitely responds to the call of the Constitution and aims to capture more objective conditions of happiness rather than the psychological experience of it only.

Does this composite measure provide a more accurate picture of Bhutan’s happiness than its WHR ranking? Unfortunately, there is very limited data available to answer this question. Bhutan’s devotion of half a century to GNH is not matched by effort for generating empirical evidence. The only GNH surveys conducted in 2010 and 2015 show that national happiness between those two periods increased somewhat: The percentage of the Bhutanese who were assessed as happy changed from 41% to 43%. This small increase rather poignantly point to this simple truth that another 57% still lived an unhappy life. To put it differently, of the total population of 787 thousands, 448 thousand failed to reaching the happiness threshold of GNH.

Causes of unhappiness

Such a high incidence of unhappiness, measured by more objective criteria, explains why Bhutan sits in the bottom half of the WDR’s subjective rankings. Some of the objective conditions outlined below, concerning employment and income opportunities, will help further to understand why such a large number of Bhutanese is failing to climb the ladder of happiness.

First, the main engine of Bhutan’s economic growth is hydroelectricity followed by urban infrastructure development. Neither of these sectors has the potential to create broad-based economic opportunities. However, these location-specific sectors could trickle down the benefits if they employed domestic workers. Instead, they have primarily employed migrant workers from India, which is not only a major investor in these sectors but also a provider of a secure market for Bhutan’s hydroelectricity.

A result of this narrow-based growth is insufficient attention to the growth of the agricultural economy. Although agriculture does not drive growth, it still accounts for 80% of Bhutan’s GDP and engages more than half of its population. Over the past two decades, agricultural productivity and growth have declined due to many institutional and demographic factors including low rural population growth and high out-migration. Besides, a shift to commercial fruit farming coupled with imports of cereal from India has caused a decline in staple food production. As a result, agriculture has become more profitable for some, unrewarding for many. Low incomes from farming force farmers to live in high poverty particularly in the southern part of the country. Not surprisingly, the GNH survey finds that the unhappiest Bhutanese belong to the farming community. Seeing no future, the young people leave their communities for urban areas.

This out-migration aggravates one of Bhutan’s pressing problems – youth unemployment. As in many other countries, Bhutan has a high proportion of youth population with the median age of 25 years. They flock to three significant cities, mainly Thimphu with a population of only 115 thousand. According to the GNH survey, they are the second unhappiest group after farmers. A 2018 World Bank study notes that despite Bhutan’s sustained high growth the youth unemployment rate increased from 10.7 percent in 2015 to 13.2 percent in 2016. The youth with education compete for the most lucrative public sector jobs, which are few and far between; however, more than two-thirds of them with a post-secondary education are out of luck. On the other hand, their education is often not aligned with the needs of the nascent private sector. Amid uncertainty, recent migrants languish in the informal urban economy with precarious work.

This precariousness, in turn, is not only eating away at young minds but also affecting social fabric. The GNH survey reports a decline in community cohesion concerning the sense of belonging to the community. Other sources provide some pictures of the consequences of this decline. For example, alcoholism, addiction, and domestic violence being on the rise in Thimphu. Mental health issues have become a growing problem both in urban and rural areas. The government has recognized the ever increasing mental health problem by expanding the psychiatry unit at Thimphu’s hospital. If none of these is enough indication of unhappiness, then one should look at the country’s suicide rate, which is the 20th highest in the world. Every one will agree that it is way too high for a happy country.

Need for shift in focus

Happiness is an aspiration of every human being and Bhutan has courageously articulated it into its social goals. Now, it has to come to terms with the fact that more than half of its people are unhappy and they are unhappier than many other peoples. Happiness is the result of many socioeconomic conditions, and Bhutan has made remarkable improvements in them. However, those improvements have benefitted only one half of its population. The deprivation of the other half is as much noticeable in Bhutan’s GNH account as in global rankings.

The country has had enough success in publicizing GNH. It is time that it shifted gears and focused on ensuring distributive justice for its people. For, it matters little to people as to how happiness is measured when they have to live in misery.

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