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Prahlad Singh Shekhawat

The lack of meaning, breakdown of communities, environmental degeneration, global warming and climate crisis, continuing poverty and hunger in large parts of the world, food crisis and the recent financial and economic crisis is concentrating minds on reconsidering development, progress and purpose in life in terms of what is truly most important in life and in the context of what indeed is a good life. Development as ever growing economies and consumerism or the viscous cycle of more production for more consumption to boost gross national product, is under scrutiny. A search for alternative modes of progress, of pursuits and of being and becoming is on. There is an urgency to reconsider development in a broader holistic manner and reclaim the concept of progress as genuine desirable change.

Asia has pioneered some significant alternative visions of progress in terms of Bhutan’s gross national happiness, Mahatma Gandhi’s approach of self sufficiency of local economies and the proposal to measure development as fulfillment of need and not greed, Thailand’s idea of sufficiency economy and the concept of Buddhist economics based on the experience of old Burma of the nineteen fifties, which Schumacher proposed in his book Small is Beautiful. The Thai Buddhist thinker and activist Sulak Sivaraksha argues that the idea of focusing on national happiness as opposed to economic production was first proposed by the Dalai Lama. It should be added that while GNH is concerned more with social and environmental conditions of happiness the Dalai Lama’s focus is on the art of mental happiness. The American founding father’s aspiration for the pursuit of happiness needs to be reclaimed so that it does not tend to be reduced to the happiness of the free market and the pursuit of wealth.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) has four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance. GNH was coined by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Wangchuck in 1972, who has opened up Bhutan to the age of modernization. It signaled his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Like many moral goals, it is somewhat easier to state than to define. Nonetheless, it serves as a unifying vision for the Five Year planning process and all the derived planning documents that guide the economic and development plans of the country.

After four international conferences and ever growing literature GNH has now become a catch phrase and a metaphor for an alternative global discourse of development and desirable change. Some have even hailed it as a new paradigm of progress. At the fourth international conference on GNH, in Bhutan where scholars, administrators and representatives of international organizations from 25 countries gathered to ponder over alternative indices, ideas and experiences, particularly in relation to the practice and measurement non economic conditions of happiness.

The GNH values are measured by tracking seven development domains including the nation’s mental and emotional health. The seven broad measures were incorporated into the first country wide GNH Survey recently. According to the  Director of the Center for Bhutan studies, Karma; after a process of discussions within the government and bureaucracy an index comprising of the total average per capita of the following measures was proposed:

1.    Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution

2.    Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic

3.    Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses

4.    Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients

5.    Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits

6.    Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates

7.    Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan emphasized the need to measure GNH as well as translate the indicators and data into public policy, which he thought was a more difficult task. He pointed out the three core values of peace, security and happiness which should guide GNH, and that the wellbeing and happiness of all sentient beings should also be included in the agenda. He called for a new internalized ethical consciousness and a new paradigm to combat consumerism.

The UNDP representative for South Asia referred to the various crises like climate, fuel, food, economy and poverty and hunger, afflicting the world and the need to focus attention on the most vulnerable in the developing countries who will be worst effected. John Hall of the OECD pointed out the need to measure welfare not output and this flaw adds to the mistrust of government data. Redefining development is called for in order to agree on goals and means, to manage and have more accountability, to provide informed choices and aid reformulation of policy. We have to ask what and how to measure and ensure that new measures are used effectively. He drew attention to emerging indicators like trust, social capital and vulnerability. OECD he said is committed to develop partnerships and networks as part of their project to measure progress of societies. OECD organized a significant conference this year in Istanbul on the role of statistics in measuring progress.

Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in London (NEF) narrated the growing movement in Europe to redefine progress as indicated by the OECD Measure of Progress of Societies, by the 2007 conference on Beyond GDP, organized by the European Council, by the Commission on Quality of Life, set up by President Sarkozy of France, which includes Nobel laureates like Professors Amartya Sen  and Sieglitz. The National Accounting of Wellbeing in UK divides wellbeing into personal and social. Personal wellbeing includes aspects like emotions, vitality, resilience, good functioning and satisfying life. The social aspects refer to relationships and social support, trust and belongingness. These measures put Scandinavia in general and Denmark in particular at the top of the list of countries. Nic emphasized the need to standardize and normalize the measures which will help in 1.understanding changes over time, 2. reviewing and evaluating policy decisions, 3. drawing comparisons, and  4. assessing differences within nations.

NEF itself have developed the Happy Planet Index which calculates the environmental efficiency with which countries around the world deliver long and happy lives for their people. NEF have also designed a survey to calculate one’s own personal Happy Planet Index.

Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI), inspired by Amartya Sen’s concept of human development as cabaplities, proposed multidimensional measures for poverty in the context of Bhutan’s cultural values which included indicators like Psychological wellbeing, cultural wellbeing, time use, governance, community vitality, ecology, education, health and living standards. Other poverty measures which OPHDI has been advocating are insecurity, sanitation, powerlessness, dignity, shame and humiliation and participation in decision making. She explained how the data can be aggregated with suitable weightage according to local cultural values and needs as well as disaggregated to reveal other detailed information. Individual head count is also possible. Thus the poverty indicators measure individual head count plus breadth plus depth of poverty, which provide a comprehensive picture of human development and poverty in the widest sense. It may be added that according to Amatya Sen happiness is only one of the functionings of human capabilities.

Mike Pennock from Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) Atlantic (Nova Scotia, Canada) pointed out that GNH and other such approaches provide a guideline for measures and indicators but what is more important is to develop a framework of national accounting where suitable monetary value can be placed on assets such as the environment and voluntary work so that the costs and benefits can be calculated and accounted for in a balance sheet  and the policy makers will not like to take or be able to take vital aspects of human and social capita and natural capital into consideration to frame and alter policy. What is not assigned a monetary valued is not valued by the society. In Newzeland they are now even measuring cultural capital particularly in the form of the preservation of indigenous culture and languages as an asset for progress.

The GPI Atlantic community survey incorporates dimensions such as core values, spirituality, security, community attachment, voluntary activities, social support, risk behavior and employment as well as measures of health and wellbeing. GPI survey found that self perception of wellbeing are supported by a variety of determinants which can have major compensatory effects between comparative communities and that measurements of wellbeing need to be sensitive to underlying expectation.

Apart from the OECD and a political scientist, conspicuous by its absence were representatives from the USA such as the Genuine Progress Indicators group and Hazel Henderson who have developed alternative measures. In order to have a major impact and mainstream alternative visions, it is important to have greater participation of America in the GNH and allied movements. Genuine Progress Indicators take into account quality and distribution of economic growth, and are particularly concerned with the value of housework, care for children and elderly, voluntary work, free time or family and community activities etc. These activities can be viewed as good for the economy and well-being although no money changes hands and no increase in GDP takes place.

The Country Futures Indicators developed by Hazel Henderson are (1) income distribution, (2) informal and household sector production, (3) deduction of social and environmental costs, (4) community based accounting, (5) military\civilian budget ratio. Some of the complementary indicators of progress include (1) education, (2) health, (3) nutrition, (4) basic services, (5) shelter, (6) political participation and democratic progress, (7) status of minorities, women etc.

As a Bhutanese journalist noted at the end of the conference; GNH and Bhutan need to be de-romanticized and one might say de-mystified. The GNH movement in Bhutan remains a top down proposal of the elite. It has not only to be internalized as a new national ethic but GNH ideas and indicators have to be reformed and further developed with the active participation and genuine voice of the ordinary Bhutanese in the countryside so that they can believe that the GNH based development and social change can positively effect their daily lives particularly in terms of poverty alleviation and empowerment.

With the emergence of democracy, arrival of satellite TV, internet and a growing number of young Bhutanese educated in India and Western countries, there is likely to be a surge of aspiration and rising expectations which can pose a challenge to the government and policy makers. Such a surge can be positive in generating a healthy debate and creative ideas but if not chanalized in the right direction it can also lead to a desire to ape western and bollywood life styles and consumerism, which will have side effects like alienation and frustration. As the experience of the West shows conditions for happiness cannot always keep pace with ever rising expectations.

GNH studies in Bhutan suggest that people in rural and remote villages are happier than the capital Thimpu, where there is more stress and  lesser sense of belonging to a community. The “Bhutan paradox” like in similar situations elsewhere is that even if people in the city are stressed and less happy or unhappy, they will normally not like to live in a remote village and most young people in villages will go to great lengths to be able to live in Thimpu even though they perhaps have more mental peace and sense of community in the villages. There are other considerations for living in a place besides happiness and wellbeing. People  need better jobs, income but there is also the need for more freedom, new exciting experiences, TV, internet, cinema, sex and intimacy before marriage, new and like minded friends and associations and interesting connections with and curiosity about the outside world

It was proposed that the diverse organizations and individuals should come together on a common platform to agree on a minimum consensus of values and indicators, so that a common and united voice can have a greater impact. There can be differing emphasis and norms for national indicators of wellbeing but at the international level we facing common problems like global warming and environmental depletion, poverty and hunger conflicts and wars, financial and economic crisis. We need to act as a common humanity to face them and therefore the need for a common platform. Such a consensus will send a strong message that an alternative vision of progress is possible that the economically developed and developing countries can agree on common solutions, that those with an alternative vision do not only have vague aspirations but also have indicators and tools to measure. Through a consensus, different concepts, terminology, measures and indicators can be standardized to facilitate a common global discourse an alternative paradigm of progress.

At this time there are two parallel global movements. The first is the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and IMF which support a certain kind of development and progress. On the other side we have the World Social Forum, the GNH and allied movements to redefine progress. This may be the time to build bridges between the two through organizations like OECD and United Nations Development Program so that the alternative vision and indicators can be mainstreamed and the mainstream bodies can be more sensitized to the alternative approaches.


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