Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the World Bank

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Photo Credit: Oliver Jammes

The concept of “Gross National Happiness” has been long discussed, debated, understated, overstated or seen as a gimmick. Now what is really Gross National Happiness? And how does the World Bank engagement fit in it? Let’s look into it together in an attempt to de-mystify the concept into what it really is, which is: a vision, broad policy directions trickling down to programs, a survey, a policy screening tool, and yes also, a foreign policy instrument and a brand.
The visionary statement, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product” was first enunciated by His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan in the 1970s. In turn, the Fifth King declared: “Today, GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people but to me it signifies simply - Development with Values. Thus for my nation today GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth.” Article 9-2 of the constitution directs the state “to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.
GNH is translated into broad policy directions that provide the Government’s overarching, long-term strategies and five-year plans. The four pillars of GNH philosophy are: sustainable development; preservation and promotion of cultural values (traditional and cultural heritage paramount  - its loss leads to a general weakening of society); conservation of the natural environment (Bhutan’s constitution: 60 percent forest coverage, green economy), establishment of good governance.

GNH has been put into practice through the introduction of the GNH survey and Index in 2010 and the GNH Policy Screening Tool:
  • GNH is a survey and a methodology to measure the various dimension of collective well-being. The GNH Index consists of 9 domains, shifts the focus from the economy alone, or from subjective happiness alone, to include other critical parts of people’s lives that lead to enhanced wellbeing (psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and lastly living standards). GNH surveys have been carried out in 2010 and 2015, allowing comparison over time.
  • GNH is a policy screening tool.  A Gross National Happiness Commission is charged with reviewing policy decisions and allocation of resources. The GNH screening tool aims to assess impacts of any policy and project on GNH.
  • GNH is also a foreign policy instrument and a brand. Implicitly, the GNH has been used as an instrument of soft power to put Bhutan, a small country enclosed between two political and economic giants, on the map for the UN. It is also a brand, which Bhutan uses to market itself in tourism; for example: “Happiness is a place!”
On the one hand, the World Bank Group’s work in Bhutan is no different than in any other country and its program is aligned with the Government’s priorities.
On the other hand, Bhutan’s unique approach calls for unique engagements. The World Bank engages with an ambitious and demanding counterpart, who has a strong vision and wants to make the best out of the development partnership to achieve this vision. For example, the Millennium Development Goals are achieved for the most, and Bhutan has already incorporated some Sustainable Development Goals in its development plans before the SDGs were adopted by the UN.
The World Bank supports the GNH approach directly in a number of ways:
  • Cultural heritage: we have supported the drafting process of the cultural heritage bill and its implementation plan. The bill proposes to recognize tangible and non-tangible assets (people village skills tradition) as national cultural heritage.
  • We are supporting the GNH survey (use of the latest IT technology to carry the latest GNH survey, and data analysis) and are helping to improve the GNH policy screening tool.
  • The WBG facilitates sharing of knowledge and lessons learnt from Bhutan with the world. Examples include Bhutan’s experience and record in multi-dimensional poverty and welfare measurement, poverty alleviation, public governance, environmental protection, green growth (including tourism and hydropower), and the use of electric vehicles.
GNH may be seen as a gimmick but it has brought real gains to the fight against poverty and shared prosperity in Bhutan. Perhaps more importantly, it brings to the fore an almost philosophical question about economic development: Should countries pace out economic progress to allow culture, social relations and all the non-monetary dimensions of development to catch up? The GNH surveys have recently shed light with scientific rigor on what our intuition tells us: as economic development progresses, we tend to lose on the non-monetary dimensions of well-being. In Bhutan economic development has delivered a sharp drop in poverty and sustained shared prosperity. But it now experiences a decline in psychological wellbeing, decreased spirituality and a decline in community vitality as people’s sense of belonging declines. So the question that comes to mind is: Is there an optimum to the pace of development? I find this debate really at the core of the debate on long-term economic development.

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