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Rethinking development – what the world can learn from Bhutan

Last week I had the benefit of attending the fourth dialogue hosted by the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS), featuring the UNDP Administrator, Mr Achim Stenier, in conversation with Dasho Kinley Dorji, the former Editor in Chief of Kuensel and Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications.

In the course of the discussions, there were several attempts at comparing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with Bhutan’s own development paradigm and its aspirations towards greater Gross National Happiness (GNH). Many fascinating similarities and differences were identified (see https://www.rigss.bt/w/live). There are, however, two rather profound aspects of the GNH, that I personally greatly appreciate, but which seem overlooked in much of the global development discourse. 

The first is the recognition, within the GNH philosophy, that external and material factors will never, on their own, be sufficient to attain happiness or contentment. While the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs focus exclusively on improving the external dimensions of our wellbeing such as schooling, healthcare, food and water, the GNH also incorporates internal dimensions, for instance psychological well-being and time use. These internal dimensions are then measured by indicators like how mindful people are and how much they meditate. Research over the last two decades has proven, rather conclusively, that various mindfulness practices, both in Buddhist and secular contexts, have had significant positive effects on people’s psychological and physical health. People in Bhutan, who are generally very familiar with Buddhist teachings, may smile at these ‘new scientific findings’ given that the Shakyamuni Buddha advised us, already some 2,500 years ago, that practising meditation (samyak samadhi) and being present-minded (samyak smrti) will be beneficial if we wish to save ourselves from dukkha, dissatisfaction and suffering. 

The second aspect of GNH, which I find inspiring is its recognition that happiness is something that we, as individuals, have a role in creating for ourselves. Yes, sure, government can and should facilitate, but quite regardless of what any given government says or does, we all have the power to alter our minds in such a way that we experience less frustration, less unfulfilled desire, and less attachment to all that which we must inevitably lose. 

By contrast, when reading the UN General Assembly Resolution that sets out the 2030 Agenda, we find ‘the Heads of State and Government and High Representatives, meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York…’ promising to do everything from ‘ending poverty and hunger everywhere’ and ‘protecting human rights’ to ‘ensuring lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources’. We ordinary people, you and I, we seem largely to be considered recipients of all these good things. It appears to be the benevolence of the ‘the Heads of State and Government’ that will ‘free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want…’ There is of course nothing wrong with that; I am sure we all want our governments to foster and safeguard prosperity, preferably without destroying the planet in the process. But all that falls slightly short of the GNH concept, which again goes a step further by suggesting that we, as individuals, have the innate power to cultivate happiness and contentment by training our own minds. This means that even if or when governments around the world betray their promises and fail to live up to their grand pledges, we need not be passive victims of this misfortune. 

The Shakyamuni Buddha noted ‘Ah, so happily we live, without hate among those who hate. Without misery among those in misery. Without ambition among those with ambition – We who have no attachments.’ (Dhammapada 15:197-200). The point I imagine he wished to make in that verse is that even when the external circumstances are rather dreadful and inconducive to happiness, we can still do something to uplift ourselves. The eightfold path is open to us all, right here, right now, and it remains open to us even should we find ourselves, as indeed the Shakyamuni Buddha often did, surrounded by hate, misery, greed and corruption.  

Now, surely, that is, not only immensely empowering, but it also shows a deep-seated trust in the ability of every human being, in the capacity of you and I, to change our situation for ourselves and for the people around us, and to attain happiness. 

In her vote of thanks, the UNDP Resident Representative reflected on the dialogue by saying that she thinks the people of Bhutan have a lot to contribute to the global discourse on development by helping us to better understand what happiness really is, how it relates to development, and how to realise it in our everyday lives. I certainly hope that we will have the humbleness and the wisdom to study and learn from Bhutan.  

Contributed by

Marcus Baltzer

Marcus Baltzer has worked on improving access to justice and the rule of law in various countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. He recently moved to Bhutan where he wishes to study the Bhutanese justice system in the context of the Gross National Happiness philosophy.

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