Ask someone about the country’s growth prospects, be it a budding economic student, like myself or an expert in the field, you will often hear them both provide some degree of critique or analysis about the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country. This is because, over the years where we have faced economic crisis and instability, the GDP, meaning the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy, during a given time period, has served as the primary indicator of societal progress, which has helped us reach the root cause and eventually, even the solution of such issues. However, one of the biggest drawbacks of the GDP as a measure of development is that it fails to distinguish “good progress” from “bad progress”. A nation may be experiencing robust growth in GDP, but it may be at the expense of the negative impact on the environment or rising inequality. Clearly, such growth marks only a short-term win as opposed to sustained development. Not only this, but the GDP also fails to account for the value of free time, leisure or unpaid work – conditions necessary to sustain life. So, despite years of analysis and indices based on it, we must review ourselves to ask whether the GDP can truly serve as a proxy for economic well-being?
Today, climate change, environmental pollution, political instability and cultural disintegration are among the leading global problems that can no longer be ignored. In such a sense, development must not be solely economic, but also needs to be coupled with balance in social and environmental aspects. This led the nations of the world to adopt the “Sustainable Development Goals”. However, with no proper international mechanism to enforce these goals, each country is free to adopt them in their national legislation accordingly, which has caused increasing inequality in their implementation on the global front.
A Possible Solution
The tiny state of Bhutan, landlocked in the Himalayas, understood such problems as it recognized the importance of happiness to be a guiding principle of public policy, under the leadership of its kings, many centuries ago. The 1729 legal code of Bhutan states “The purpose of the government is to provide happiness to its people. If it cannot provide happiness, there is no need for the governance to exist”. Thus, they coined the term “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) with the aim of harmonizing a sustainable approach to development, happiness and social progress. In 1988, the government of Bhutan established the GNH center to further refine this concept by adopting an index that measures the quality of life and well-being of its citizens.
The country’s policy formulation process is aimed at increasing its GNH by adopting measures to improve environmental conservation, equitable socio-economic development, promotion and preservation of culture and good governance. In fact, these principles are so well ingrained within the nation’s system that the government undertook an extensive retraining program with the Department of Education to implement the concept of “green schools” to align the country’s education system with the principles of GNH.
Feasibility of the approach
While the concept is unique and also a step in the direction of balanced future governance, has the inculcation of GNH really been a success? While the Government of Bhutan managed a rise in GNH by increasing the access to basic infrastructure like clean water supply, healthcare and electricity; a simultaneous and rapid modernization of the country is leading to gradual erosion of its deep-rooted culture while also contributing to widening disparities of income and unemployment.
Several experts have even raised contentions about GNH as a sustainable measure of growth as it makes the government responsible for the happiness of its citizens. But how can a qualitative concept like happiness be made a right under the constitution when the notion and extent of happiness differs for all? Such an index as the foundation of growth, especially in larger and developing economies is even termed primitive due to lack of proper and uniform measure of progress of the nation.
Nonetheless, GNH is an experiment – one which tries to strike political and spiritual balance, strives to combine modernity with traditions and aims to achieve a unique combination of ancient culture with a sustainable post-industrial future. Though not in its entirety, GNH is a framework that can be refined and implemented in line with other indices of growth to replicate this experiment in the pursuit of a just and harmonious society.
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