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 an interview with The Bhutanese.
1. Dr David L. Luechauer in a series of three interview articles has raised some fundamental questions about how GNH is currently being understood and implemented. Your overall views on his articles and ideas?
Dasho- Online responses to David were counted. They are of uneven quality: some are snorting tension-release outbursts, others are thoughtful. But if we disregard the differing weights of arguments, among the 97 remarks, 58% were broadly in favor of David’s arguments, 34% were against and 8% were neutral. David’s views on GNH are not fundamental in a conceptual sense, but he opens contemporary issues for meaningful discussion. Overall, his interviews encapsulate three views: his first view is broadly on education. On education, David’s interview relates a lot to his lived experiences in Gaeddu College of Business Studies (GCBS). What truly worries parents is that situation in GCBS could reflect rising disarray among staff, students and graduates in others institutions. There are thousands of Bhutanese graduates enrolled privately and living vulnerably off-campus, mostly in private commercial oriented Indian colleges, where discipline and academic standard are not demanding. I need not spell out the consequences.
His second view is on interface between GNH and Bhutan’s public policies and programmes; and his third view is on GNH and its dissemination within and abroad. As someone outside the structure of Bhutanese institutions, he analyzes things in a more forthright manner.
What each of us hears depends on ones social location, which is a node in the flow of biased information; hence we must always extend our ears in unaccustomed directions. We hobnob, meet, and compare most among our own professional groups and pursue interests that may become too sectional and sectoral. Inbreeding of views can be reinforced institutionally. Various agencies hold their annual conferences with ‘marchang’ fanfare and at considerable costs to the public. But outside voices (now I am not talking about David) are hardly invited and heard in these conferences. One can create and perpetuate echo-chambers and get trapped in the spiral of confirmatory bias, where you hear yourself, or what you like.
There is a positive role for outside voices in finding acceptable decisions and directions. When a group, whether politicians, judges, bureaucrats, or corporate management imposes its voice citing technical procedures over others in an adversarial way, the decision may be carried, but moral consensus is not achieved. Involving many voices generate consensus.
By the same token, I will justify later how Bhutan’s GNH view, as that of an outsider; can be useful abroad in catalyzing discussion about global change.
2. What is your view of the criticism that GNH in its current form has become a highly technical and intellectual subject beyond the grasp of the ordinary masses?
Dasho- People can live without technical knowledge of a certain thing. You can certainly carry on without knowing how a mobile phone works. An intellectual subject deals with much broader ideas affecting public thinking. By definition, an intellectual’s reach of understanding society is greater than that of a technician or professional.
On the question whether GNH has become a technical or intellectual subject, like other indicators, the statistical work to estimate GNH indicators is a bit technical. But it is not inaccessible; any graduate making effort for a few days will grasp its plain statistical work. Same is true with national accounts behind GDP. These estimates do not require smart people to understand; if they are not understood by interested laymen, those who are communicating it are at fault; they need to be better communicators.
GNH is ‘anti-intellectual’ in that everyone can participate in its discussion and contribute to its knowledge creation. Unlike any subject, every person speaks with authority on what makes her happy or miserable. We think on our own a lot about happiness – whether we can purge all traces of anxiety, whether relationships are more important than possessions, whether inner cultivation is more important than external conditions. Broadly every person knows how happy she feels, as an emotion. This universal ‘self-knowledge’ is beginning to take shape as a new science of happiness influencing other disciplines.
Many online participants repeat that an individual’s happiness is subjective because what causes her happiness differs from yours. The statement implies that nothing further can be done with regard to this most important human aspiration. But the statement begs research to shed more light on reliable findings on the relative causes of happiness, the variations in the cultural construction of happiness, and the extent of differences in happiness.
Having found researched answers, the next task is to improve the desirable conditions for all to be happier. Some conditions will have to be improved relying on government actions, others on individual behavior, and yet others on NGOs, communities and other institutions. Doing all of these will require both courage and brilliance because going forward into uncharted policy areas involves by and large innovation and creativity, not duplication. Happiness is subjectively experienced as all things are but it is collectively generated. Hitherto, public policies have had a passive role in promoting happiness. Happiness defined appropriately, will be recognized as an important basis of public policy in the way it has not been so far.
3. Critics accuse GNH of being an elitist philosophy more suited for elites who do not have to worry about the daily struggle for bread and butter. Your thoughts?
Dasho- The main purpose of GNH research is to find where, how and why some people are unhappy. This is not only central to GNH, but makes GNH highly relevant to policy. The reasons for unhappiness can be both material and non-material. The supposition that the privileged are necessarily always happier is a myth as much as the poor are constantly gloomy.
With respect to bread and butter, only a very small fraction of Bhutanese are unhappy because they have to struggle for their daily rice and chilly-curry. There is no evidence of Bhutanese who languish in food destitution, although there is of poor nutrition. But again, addictive sugary, salty and fatty food affects the wealthy as much as inadequate nutrition affects those near the food poverty line.
GNH in itself is not elitist, quite the opposite. Inbuilt in GNH index are incentives for the policies to decrease the number of unhappy people. The property of the GNH index is so designed that it does not rise by making the conditions better for the already very happy people. But attaining sufficiency level over a wide variety of conditions to make life fulfilling is absolutely crucial for happiness and welfare, and that is stressed in GNH theory.
Almost all policies and laws have been clearly for common man’s benefits. The widespread and rapid development attests to that. The attention to spreading benefits to all has been possible due to the singular leadership of the monarchy. Even though it is a two party system now, wise politicians are aware that they should never overplay their hands least polarization gets entrenched among three lakh voting citizens. Given the challenging geopolitical situation, the monarchy should, and will, remain the single most effective force that will bridge any potential fragmentation and thwart national security challenges. If Bhutanese people do not ignore history, they will understand that the monarchy becomes equally important in a democracy.
It was earlier easier to frame inclusive policies and laws because of a somewhat homogenous farming people. Land grants, disaster relief and humanitarian scholarships given to ordinary people by His Majesty are sparkling examples. Policies and programmes in water supply, health, education, rural electrification, and farm roads are splendidly admirable schemes funded officially. As a citizen, I am truly proud of all these publicly funded services although they can be made no doubt more expenditure efficient.
But faults can develop if we do not maintain equity as a principle yardstick. The situation can become complicated with the growth of commercial groups whose conceptions of the future are not the same as that of the rest. The rise of domestic and foreign companies who can compel policies to favor profits over ordinary Bhutanese people add to the complexity. Policy makers can shape regressive policies and laws, intentionally or unknowingly. Sometimes it can be due to precious little analysis of their regressive impact. Good intention is necessary but not sufficient for good policies. Analytic capabilities are needed to foresee their consequences over the long term, i.e., beyond the horizon of, say, 15 years.