Over the last two decades, Bhutan has made remarkable progress towards reducing national rates of poverty. The key to its success? Happiness. At the core of its development philosophy is Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) — the idea that sustainable development requires a holistic approach and needs to take into consideration all aspects of well-being.
The Origin of GNH
The phrase was first coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the fourth king of Bhutan, in 1972. He declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Bhutan created the GNH Index, a measurement of well-being, to use in policymaking. The GNH Index does not measure happiness alone, but also the overall well-being of Bhutanese citizens. It includes nine domains:
- Psychological Well-being
- Time Use
- Cultural Diversity and Resilience
- Good Governance
- Community Vitality
- Ecological Diversity and Resilience
- Living Standards
Each domain falls under one of four pillars: (1) good governance, (2) sustainable socio-economic development, (3) cultural preservation and (4) environmental conservation. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, aimed to be accomplished by 2030, fit well together with the GNI. Out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 16 of them fall under one of the GNH pillars.
Developments in the GNH
In 1990, Bhutan had roughly the same levels of poverty as other South Asian countries, with more than 50% of the population living in poverty. By 2010, Bhutan reduced its rate of poverty to just 4%, while poverty for South Asia, on the whole, dropped to 30%. Although people are falling back into poverty, Bhutan has made tremendous progress towards poverty reduction through its holistic developmental approach.
Reforms that helped to improve the standard of living through various five-year-plans and programs include the commercialization of agriculture, development of infrastructure and increased amount of hydropower projects. The commercialization of agriculture led to about 8% annual growth in crop production per hectare. Moreover, the creation of more roads and highways increased access to education. Notably, much of the poverty reduction has taken place in rural areas, while in urban areas there is a danger of poverty increases.
Hydropower and Carbon Emissions in Bhutan
The main driver of wealth in rural areas is hydropower projects. Almost all of Bhutan’s energy comes from hydropower and the country even sells hydro electricity to neighboring nations. This is a major reason why Bhutan is the only country in the world that is actually carbon negative. This means that it absorbs more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it produces. The small population size, larger forest cover, relative underdevelopment and use of clean energy make Bhutan a carbon sink rather than a source. This is a remarkable achievement; Luxembourg, which is even smaller than Bhutan, emits four times the amount of carbon. The nation’s (Bhutan’s) lack of carbon emissions falls under the environmental conservation pillar of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Yet, it also contributes to economic prosperity and development through hydropower projects.
Bhutan takes a wholly unique approach to govern its citizens by focusing on their happiness. The 1629 legal code of Bhutan states that “If the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.” For hundreds of years, concern for the well-being of its people has informed policymaking. It is the reason why poverty has been drastically reduced, why annual GDP growth is 7.5% and why the country is carbon negative. Countries around the world can draw significant conclusions from Bhutan’s focus on gross national happiness.
– Fiona Price