Q&A: Is 'gross national happiness' the key to Bhutan escaping the pandemic?

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Dasho Karma Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies. Photo by: Maarit Kivilo / OPHI / CC BY-NC-ND

GRANADA, Spain — The coronavirus pandemic has triggered an international crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, impacting the health and economic well-being of people living in countries around the globe.

Against this backdrop of global insecurity, Bhutan — a tiny country wedged between China and India — has managed to emerge relatively unscathed: As of June 24, there were just 70 documented cases of COVID-19 in the country, no deaths, and next to no job losses.

How Bhutan, a lower-middle-income country, has managed to skirt the worst outcomes of the crisis has much to do with its unique approach to development, called the gross national happiness index, according to Dasho Karma Ura, who is director of the Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies, a former minister of planning, a member of the drafting committee of Bhutan’s Constitution, and key research designer of the GNHI.

What is the gross national happiness index?

The GNHI is a single-number index developed from 33 indicators and based on the concept of “gross national happiness,” a term created by former Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. As opposed to the concepts of gross domestic product or gross national product, gross national happiness maintains that sustainable development should focus on noneconomic aspects of well-being and have a holistic outlook on progress and development.

The indicators are categorized under nine domains: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Rooted in Buddhist philosophy, the GNHI was intended as an alternative to measurements of gross domestic product and consists of four primary pillars: sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.

“[Former Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s] insights were that there are many noneconomic sources of well-being omitted by the GDP that need to be preserved if you are to enjoy a more holistic source of well-being in society,” Ura said. “This has been the driving philosophy for Bhutan’s development ever since.”

Ura spoke to Devex about the role that the GNHI has played in Bhutan’s response to COVID-19 and how focusing on gross national happiness can help countries rebuild in the wake of the crisis.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why does Bhutan prefer the Gross National Happiness Index as a measurement of development rather than the gross national product or gross domestic product?

You may know that the state religion of Bhutan is Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact, since a Buddhist monk founded the country 400 years ago in 1626, Buddhism has been an unbroken institutional continuity in the country. So it has a great deal of influence on Bhutanese culture and society.

And in Vajrayana Buddhism, your own development depends on not only your own welfare but also on others’. There is a word for others’ welfare, and that is, of course, “happiness.” In Vajrayana Buddhism, we use the word “happiness” in a much broader sense than it’s used in Western psychology. It’s linked to the physical, environmental, economic, spiritual — all of these come together to constitute the happiness of a conscious being.

So when the fourth king of Bhutan developed the National Happiness Index, the king’s initial emphasis was to develop the economy but without losing the aspects of traditional societies which were supporting noneconomic sources of well-being — for example, the quality of relationships between individuals in a household or between households in a village that contributes to communal trust, or the quality of the environment or pursuit of spiritual practice to keep your mind and emotions healthy.

As stakeholders in international development attempt to respond to the economic and health challenges posed by COVID-19, what are some of the key ways that the GNHI can inform their efforts?

I think the best way to answer this question is to look at the measures that a country guided by the GNHI has implemented in response to COVID-19. In my opinion, Bhutan’s response has been comparatively outstanding, but because the country is relatively obscure and small, there is not much attention from the media on the steps we have taken since March.

Now we live in a world where most people are workers, which means that they do not have huge savings to tide them over for several years, and their incomes are certainly reduced because there have been furloughs and dismissals, and those who are self-employed don’t earn livelihood because the supply chain is disrupted. As a result, peoples’ insecurity and loss of hope and confidence in their lives becomes the first victim. That must never be allowed to happen.

“All faiths provide us with eternal goals of human beings. ... And it is my view that these values should play a bigger role in international relations and international development.”

— Dasho Karma Ura, director, Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies

Of course, if the scale and the extent of income loss is large, then only the state is capable of addressing the issue. So in Bhutan, income loss has been compensated thoroughly by the king. It is an income grant, where even if you have no work but you get full income for one year.

Second is: In a market economy, most businesspeople or most business owners have loans; they are indebted. And when the business is shut down, and the loans or the debt distress suddenly increase, they have no income, but the payments have to be made.

Now this brings me to the second point — that philanthropy, or societywide donation, has to be triggered. And the majority of the banks in this country are owned by the private sector, and they themselves have come forward to forgive interest rates for the next six months. To me, this is remarkable; this could happen only in a Buddhist country.

The point is that we are experiencing setbacks — but not as a sector or as individuals, but as a society. So these setbacks need to be addressed holistically by governments and also by society. So this response is very much in line with the philosophy behind the Gross National Happiness Index.

What are some of the lessons that stakeholders working in international development can draw from the Gross National Happiness Index to improve the impact of their work?

The Gross National Happiness Index is an approach to development that is much more holistic than poverty alleviation. Now in Bhutan, we have more or less overcome the poverty issue, so we have gone beyond the material issue and are tackling more complex ones, including the psychological makeup of an individual and what social supports are necessary to create the conditions for happiness.

'Where's God?': The role of faith in psychosocial support

Concerns of impartiality lead many humanitarian aid organizations to steer clear from putting spiritual matters at the core of their work. But meeting religious needs in emergency settings can be a key piece of mental health care, several aid workers and researchers tell Devex.

It is important to look at how you direct public investment. Is it going only for the increase of economic good? While economic development is important, it is also important to invest in other aspects that are the satisfiers of human happiness. For example, you must invest in health — not just physical health, but also mental health. You must invest in programs that support strong community trust and relationships, and also on preserving the environment.

In Bhutan, the gross national happiness approach is defined by whether the government investment is focused on nine areas, and it is also important that the progress in each of these areas is carefully quantitatively and qualitatively tracked so that we can measure impact. We do this by taking a survey once every five years, and these survey results are fed into our policymaking and planning in more systemic things. It’s not a perfect thing we are doing, but it is an ongoing process to improve these indicators and data systems and to continuously realign these goals with reality.

What role should faith-based communities have in international development?

In my limited understanding of diverse faiths, nearly all embody some kind of transcendental vision, of things that are seemingly impossible yet that are at the same time always held as realistic dreams of man. All faiths provide us with eternal goals of human beings — of peace, happiness, of love for all human beings, the values of compassion, and also some rules for ethical behavior.

And it is my view that these values should play a bigger role in international relations and international development. I think this has a great deal more appeal to human beings than dry, secular analysis.

Now, in Buddhism, there is a very important principle — regardless of whether you are a basic or more advanced practitioner — that your behavior should not cause harm in others. And that concept of the “other” extends beyond other human beings and also to animals, the environment, other nations, and future generations.

But the current way that international development and international relations interact puts them into daily conflict. The international development view is one of a harmonious world in which each is trying to help the poorest nations. On the other hand, the realm of international relations is highly focused on pursuing national self-interest, which leads to the legitimization of conflict and also of hierarchies that legitimize supremacy as a marker of more advanced nations.

This is inherently problematic, and I believe that we need a new vision to this hard realism that may only, perhaps, be furnished from the faith-based side.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.