‘Any critical comments on GNH are welcome’ – Part 2

President of the Center of Bhutan Studies and one of the key architects behind Gross National Happiness, Dasho Karma Ura answers some critical questions on GNH in a series of in-depth interviews with The Bhutanese.


4. What is your reaction to the fact that most of the intellectuals and writers who support GNH internationally like Stiglitz and Sachs are seen as being from the left? In that sense is GNH becoming identified with the left wing in the international context?

Happiness research, of which GNH is a part, taking place among many academics transcend polarities, including right and left. Academics of different political persuasions research on happiness. And GNH has found a niche in NGOs and institutions in politically diverse nations such as China, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and USA, to name a few. This week the Pacific island nations – Melanesia – have officially adopted a modified version of GNH indicators. Any critical comments on GNH from different standpoints are welcome: we can benefit from the new scholarship. The issue is not whether GNH is right or left leaning; it is not. The relevant issue is that there can be certain academics and media, irrespective of their political stands, who can object to public policies being based on happiness as an outcome measure. This should be addressed. Objections and scepticism can take various forms. Examples are: happiness measures transient moods, not genuine wellbeing; subjective happiness, a single variable measure, can be manipulated even though in GNH, happiness is defined multi-dimensionally; governments cannot influence happiness except through income generation; government’s attempt to make individual behaviour pro-happiness interferes with personal liberty.

David commented that GNH is “dripping with socialism”. Socialism is a notoriously spongy term to define. David suspects GNH to be prone to intrusive centralistic planning and inclined to constraining personal freedoms. This is unrealistic. As an indispensable domain of GNH, good governance centered on human rights and democratic institutions make such happenings unlikely. His observation is also completely at odds with one major act of the present government. It surprisingly chose McKinsey consultancy those dishes out neoliberal prescriptions, to guide its strategy and implementation for the country’s 10th Five Year Plan (FYP). Bhutan has embraced financial liberalization and free trade at the SAARC and BIMSTEC levels. Whether it is good or not, Bhutan is opening up itself rapidly. Due largely to this, upscale emulation and imported consumption is a very dynamic force for middle class creation. Neither our economy nor our planning system was socialistic in the way socialistic states were. Increasingly, our FYPs have become a fiscal coordination tool rather than economic planning mechanism in a wider sense of coordinating production and distribution of main goods and services. Fiscal coordination planning is not distinctive of socialism; every government does it. Certain commanding heights of the economy are state-owned but they too run on a deregulated, commercial footing. These and other examples prove practically that GNH implementation has taken a form that cannot be called socialism. The design of the new political economy will be ultimately one of the most important issues for GNH or Bhutan. Regrettably, few actually debate this issue, leaving default space for a capitalistic economy to be grafted upon the world’s last Vajrayana state in which businesses and economy should be guided ideally by Buddhist values.


5. Apart from the fact that GNH is strongly adopted in government policies does it have any legal backing in the constitution? Could some future government not give it as much emphasis or could an ordinary citizen challenge components of GNH in court if it affects him or her?

The Hon. PM has boldly advocated GNH in the country and abroad. Both parties also advocated GNH during the past election campaign, emphasizing those means or domains that they wished to pursue. Assimilation of GNH into policies and laws was intuitive in 1980s and 1990s. Coherence and unity of laws and policies then drew largely from the wisdom and moral authority of HM the 4th King. Now, institutionally, it is collectively responsibility of the parliament, cabinet, companies, bureaucracy particularly GNHC which is ripe for shifting to a new planning system. His Majesty’s highly insightful speeches given on 2011 National Day, on 2011 Graduate Orientation, and on other public occasions point out where our urgent emphasis should be, towards fulfillment of peace and happiness of the people.

The word GNH is written into the constitution once. Among many other normative directives, the constitution says that “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of GNH.” People have to contest and make meaning out of the provision which is what genuine politics is. The scope and meaning of this provision have to be filled, just as we do for human rights such as right to property or to free basic education. How tightly such rights are interpreted and realized depends on many factors.

Decision-making process in a democracy is quite challenging. Great decisions are based on cognitive or knowledge diversity, not mere opinion diversity. This cognitive diversity, the basis of crowd wisdom, must be turned into collective decision. But it depends crucially on two factors: how to tap into knowledge of the individuals and how to aggregate such knowledge into collective decisions.


6. Bhutan is a donor dependant country with nearly all our capital budget coming from donors. Are we really in a position to lecture the world on sustainability when we can’t even produce enough to feed our own people?

Food self sufficiency was a cornerstone in the 1980s and 1990s when we were in the Planning Commission. Now, people are rarely worried with the fact that we are undermining our ability to feed ourselves. 54 towns have been cheerfully declared. Every major food growing valley is getting buried rapidly under officially induced urbanization; this is irreversible and dangerous for basic economic sovereignty. 30 year data confirms that share of both public and private investment in agriculture has been declining sharply and lending to agriculture has become lowest of all loan portfolios. From 2000-2009, both yield and acreage growth rates have turned negative. If these decreases continue our children will farm one day unsuitable slopes for food as the prices of imported foods rise. It is a dire mistake in Bhutan where farm land is scarce to think of town creation as a necessary form of development. It will be seen as an astounding shortsightedness by future generations.

Land should be acquired for in kind exchange for permanent public purpose like hydro projects, roads or public institutions, but not for taking from one individual and giving to another individual, for urbanization. As land values rise manifold in future, with later type of acquisition, there is high probability for deep seated contention to arise among aggrieved original owners, allocating authority and competing new recipients. All official land grants no matter which official body processes for acquisition, replacement or grant should be legitimated by Kasho, as is the intention of the Constitution. It will lessen the latent anxiety about land if there were less frequent and erratic legislative interventions over land, a fundamental property like financial or building assets over which we dare not intervene much.

The argument that only governments not receiving aid can launch an international discourse is repugnant. If speaking right is limited thus, half the world will have to be literally mum, on many issues where a dialogue between recipients and donors can be constructive. Bhutan’s dependency on grant is unavoidable, but resorting regularly to loans, however soft, in non-hydro area, seems less cautious. Some politicians and officials have overstated the necessity for soft loans. They base their claims on favorable debt service ratio, low interest rates and a future of hydro-affluence. There are two other adverse criteria which are glossed over. First, the stockpile of official debt can become too high even though the present debt service ratio is affordable. Excluding the estimates of loans that future governments will certainly take, by 2020, official debts we will leave behind is Nu 427 bn, up from Nu 74 bn this year. Steady disbursements of loans already signed for hydro-projects and other projects will increase this stockpile. The government is about to sign a US $ 36 mn World Bank soft loan for budget support. The size of debt will be an unprecedented 164% of most optimistic estimate of GDP in 2020. Second, taking soft loan for consumption or general budgetary support should be treated with extreme caution. Everyone likes optimists more than realists. Our successful development history of the last 50 years has spawned optimism. But optimism also makes our judgments underestimate future risk and downsides.

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  1. Can GNH lower the high Bhutanese Infant mortality rate?
    Can GNH increase the life expectancy of Bhutanese?
    Can GNH  lower down unemployment rate?
    If yes, I have no problem with GNH.

    • Yes, ultimate aim of GNH is to lower these problems and create conducive environment to make one and everyone happy! In my understanding, GNH is all about “balanced and sustainable” development philosophy. 

  2. yes to all your three questions.

  3. Can people and Karma Ura stop talking about GNH. I am ashamed of people talking about it and it is propaganda to me. Even parrot can recite much better about this stupidity and the height of inanity about this useless propaganda.

    Look around the lives of people– darn poor and full of misery, pain and suffering in the rural areas—when compared to lives of people in developed countries.
    Look around for the level of knowledge, innovation, creativity that a person has —nothing as there is no proof of any product/services-when compared to knowledge, innovation, and creativity of a person in other developed countries.
    Look at organizations, offices, any institution which supports and empowers people with knowledge, intelligence, creativity etc—no support to people who are committed—when compared to developed countries that are in full swing in knowledge, talent, creativity management for knowledge society
    Look at infrastructure: road networks, quality of roads, internet speed and its distribution- very narrow and unreliable.
    Look what we produce: nothing, nothing, and nothing!!!

    BUT look what we do: pretend, showoff, boss around, status conscious, free ride on others, no shame telling other productive people and countries…

    Consequence: Bhutan is over 100 years old, and we are still damn poor and hopeless.

    So until attitude of each person change, and develop ourselves like South Korea, Japan, Nordic countries, preaching GNH is propaganda.

    We need to build our people who will build the country. And then may we discuss this present GNH insanity hype. We need to stop acting like a fog in a pond; there are greater water bodies and greater bloody bodies in that bloody water.

  4. Dear kg, if i may counter some of your frustrations regarding the GNH amid anxiety and fear that it may further provoke your already tainted sentiments. You have attacked GNH as nothing more than mere propaganda which forced you to endure some sort of uneasiness and embarrassment. You have also hinted on the gap between theory and practice citing sluggish nature of development taking place in the country. And of course, as your article suggest, you were not happy with the nature of service delivery and bureaucracy.
    To argue your stand precisely, GNH as development philosophy and new economic paradigm hardly qualifies to be called propaganda. GNH has no hidden agenda and unspoken motives whatsoever. Of course i agree it may contain its pros and cons like any other theories and ideologies. I’m afraid that you must have misunderstood the concept of GNH if you have any knowledge of it. It does not mean Bhutan should be filthy rich, its citizenry grossly happy, and service delivery and administrative system perfect just because we espouse GNH. GNH is just our goal and Bhutan is gearing towards achieving these ends since its inception in the early 1970s. I hardly sense any need for you undergo self imposed embarrassments when Bhutan strives to promote it globally. I have not seen any instances of our PM claiming Bhutan as a happiest place on earth, while delivering key note address in any international arenas. Rather he admits Bhutan is poor and have long way to go to achieve GNH. Therefore, i feel your viewpoints regarding GNH is non nonsensical, baseless and rather its your struggle to paint dark tints of GNH seen from your jaundiced eye and inherent spleen of disposition.

  5. All bullshit, GNH are for those who have red scarfs, land cruiser, money, orange scarf, have VIP connections. 

    For poor people like us, all we need is secure job, enough money to buy food, shelter, water, secure city, secure country, apart from this whether it is GNH OR GOT/GIVE NO HAPPINESS , I don’t care.

  6. In reality, Yangzom appears to have understood the deeper meaning of GNH. Every entity down to the last has the ability to perform a function in accordance with the way it appears. One should therefore understand the correct conventional truth to be that which arises in dependence on casues and conditions. In this material world of confusion, what some take as ultimate others take as conventional and what someone beleives to be his mother, soneone else believes to be his wife. In ultimatum there is no distinction of poor and rich, it is just conceptual construct of conventional entity.

  7. Rather than aspiring to become one of the happiest countries in the world, we should focus on ourselves – which is the the happiest village, the happiest gewog, the happiest district in Bhutan? GNH has been sold to the outside world but we haven’t been able to sell it to ourselves in Bhutan. Is something amiss here?

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