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PA Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Bhutan
Bhutan is only slightly larger than the state of Maryland, but the predominantly Buddhist nation holds a powerful place both in history and the future. For centuries, the Kingdom of Bhutan remained independent and resisted colonization. Though the country joined the United Nations in 1971 and began facilitating foreign tourism in 1974, Bhutan’s government has remained committed to its legacy of autonomy. In 2008, the country gained fame with its enactment of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a philosophy and an index which monitors collective well-being. These top 10 facts about living conditions in Bhutan show how quickly the country has developed since the first road was paved in 1961, opening the way to modernization.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Bhutan

  1. Poverty rates are dropping every year. In 2007, 23 percent of the population lived in poverty. In just five years, the number fell by half, and as of 2017, only 8.2 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. Extreme poverty is nearly nonexistent, affecting less than 2 percent of the population. Despite these achievements, there is a disparity between rural and urban areas. Rural areas have a poverty rate of 11 percent while fewer than 1 percent of urban dwellers live in poverty.
  2. Bhutan’s economy is consistently growing. While agriculture is the main livelihood for 54 percent of Bhutanese people, the economy is also based on forestry, tourism and the sale of hydroelectric power (mostly to India). The GDP has skyrocketed from $0.14 billion in 1980 to $2.51 billion in 2017, and the economy’s average growth between 2006 and 2015 was 7.5 percent.
  3. Unemployment hits youth the hardest. Though the country’s unemployment rate is only 2.1 percent, 13.2 percent of youth (15 to 24 years old) are unemployed. Bhutan’s growing economy is largely driven by the hydropower sector, but the industry does not guarantee enough jobs for the growing population. Institutions like the World Bank recommend that Bhutan invest more in the private sector in order to diversify the economy and combat youth unemployment.
  4. Access to clean water is becoming a basic right. Over 98 percent of the population has access to improved drinking water, a huge success when compared to past decades. Improved water sources, however, do not always equate to safe drinking water. The Royal Center for Disease Control tested more than 5,000 water samples and found that only 44.3 percent were safe to drink. Still, the government remains committed to improving water quality for its citizens, and in 2016, developed the Bhutan Drinking Water Quality Standard.
  5. Public healthcare is free. Healthcare is a basic human right in Bhutan. Life expectancy is now 70 years old, a stark difference compared to the 1960s when life expectancy was 37 years old and only two hospitals existed in the country. Bhutan now has 28 hospitals, 156 basic health clinics and 654 outreach clinics. Nine out of 10 women have their children in hospitals or healthcare facilities, and the child survival rate is 93 percent.
  6. Seventy-six percent of the population is happy. According to the Bhutan Living Standards Report of 2017, more than 40 percent of the population is moderately or very happy. Every five years, 8,000 households are randomly selected to take a 3-hour-long happiness survey, with questions ranging from health, education, psychological well being, community vitality, etc. Participants are compensated for a day’s worth of work, likely increasing happiness.
  7. Education rates are low but rising. Bhutan has developed dramatically in the last decades, and education rates are reflecting this change. As of 2017, 95 percent of the population had completed primary school and 70 percent completed secondary school. Progress was slower because education is not compulsory, but primary and secondary education rates have drastically increased. In 1988, only 25 percent of the population had completed primary school, and still less (5 percent) got a secondary school education.
  8. Bhutan is committed to conservation and sustainability. Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. Its constitution mandates that 60 percent of its land remains forested, an area that absorbs more carbon than the country produces. However, modern times have brought new struggles in regards to conservation. As the economy and population grow, more strain is put on the environment. WWF Bhutan Country Representative Dechen Dorji explains that “We need to balance the need for economic development – like hydropower and tourism – with the need to protect natural resources.”
  9. There are no McDonald’s in Bhutan. Though it sounds funny, this fact is symbolic of Bhutan’s commitment to protecting its cultural heritage and way of life. Bhutan understands that foreign influence is inevitable, but the country seeks to strike a balance between modernization, foreign investment and tradition. Consequently, Bhutan follows a “high value, low impact” tourism policy, which requires tourists to spend between $200 and $250 each day. This controls the influx of tourists and guarantees investment in the country.
  10. Bhutan is the 27th least-corrupt country in the world. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, out of 168 countries, Bhutan is one of the least corrupt. Bribes are almost nonexistent in the court system, and only 1 percent of companies feel that the courts inhibit business. Furthermore, as citizens of one of the youngest democracies in the world, Bhutanese people are guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press, which allows government corruption to be critiqued and exposed by the media.

Sustainable development and investment in health, education and happiness have set Bhutan up for a bright future. These top 10 facts about living conditions in Bhutan demonstrate the country’s commitment to growth and collective well-being. There is still room for improvement, and by partnering with institutions like the World Bank and allying with local nonprofits like the Bhutan Youth Development Fund, Bhutan is addressing its development goals on all fronts.

– Kate McIntosh
Photo: Flickr

GNH in Bhutan
In 1972, the fourth King of Bhutan declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. This idea has since shaped the nation and was included in the constitution in 2008.

Defining GNH in Bhutan

Bhutan, as a developing country, has designed Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a more holistic measurement of progress and prosperity of a country. Specifically, GNH in Bhutan is based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and good governance. This special method of political quantification emphasizes wellbeing over material growth, environmental conservation and sustainability over economic growth.

Some doubt the possibility of creating a nation full of a happy population. However, Bhutan’s minister of education Thakur Singh Powdyel has that “GNH in Bhutan serves as an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society”.

Ever since elucidating the ideal of GNH in Bhutan, the government has laid out national policies on the grounds of sustainability. Namely, the country has pledged to remain carbon-neutral and set at least 60 percent of its landmass under forest cover in perpetuity. Moreover, Bhutan prohibited some profit-making commercial activities in forests, like export logging, and also established a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from roads.

Demonstrable Success

This visionary model has since demonstrated long-run success both economically and socially. According to the Bhutan Living Standard Survey 2007 Report, the nation successfully met a number of key Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations. Bhutan’s policies halved the number of children wasting or stunted, and the number of people without access to clean drinking water and sanitation. In addition, the nation has experienced strong and stable growth over the past 25 years.

The real growth in 2006-2007 was 8.5 percent and the GDP per capita was $1,313. Likewise, the Human Development Index was improved as well, from 0.325 in 1984 to 0.581 in 1995. This increase was unparalleled among all Least-Developed Countries and shifted Bhutan to the status of a Middle-Income Country. But overall, how effective has it been for Bhutan to lay GNH as the foundation of its national political agenda?

Challenges Remain for Bhutan

Despite its aspirational guiding principles, Bhutan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 25 percent of its population living on less than $1.25 a day and 70 percent living without electricity. The nation also grapples with rampant violent crime, gang culture and volatile global food prices.

The deep roots of poverty still linger in Bhutan and its people are nowhere near the top rankings of the U.N. Report of Happiness of Countries in 2017, with the ranking of 97. Journalists’ Association of Bhutan executive director Needrup Zangpo told NPR that the outside world “glamorizes Bhutan but overlooks a list of problems besetting the country.”

Bhutan still struggles with socio-economic problems like a widening income gap, youth unemployment and environmental degradation. On top of that, the mysterious reputation of Bhutan being a contented country has attracted many international visitors, which is aggressively encouraged by the government, at the expense of the local environment and culture.

It is difficult to truly quantify happiness, but the wellbeing of the Bhutanese population can indeed be encouraged by simultaneously caring for the environment and the economy.

– Heulwen Leung
Photo: Flickr

Ministry of happinessIn April, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan of India’s central state, Madhya Pradesh, announced plans to create a Ministry of Happiness. This new ministry will oversee the growth of the state in terms of Gross National Happiness, an alternative national development index.

In contrast to GDP, GNH measures the well-being of a nation in terms of “community, culture, governance, knowledge and wisdom, health, spirituality and psychological welfare, a balanced use of time, and harmony with the environment.”

Chief Minister Chauhan, a yoga enthusiast and a Master of Philosophy, hopes that the ministry of happiness will improve citizens’ mental and physical health.

The ministry of happiness is also set to run over 70 social programs such as yoga, meditation, spirituality, arts, and religious pilgrimages for seniors.

Building on existing programs, such as the state’s “Girl Child” program, the ministry of happiness will continue to financially reward families of female students for remaining in education. The funding will also be used to employ a team of psychologists dedicated to improving the well-being of citizens.

The ministry of happiness was proposed amid a severe drought that has left many citizens of Madhya Pradesh, a largely agrarian state, without income and has increased the rate of suicide among farmers.

In addition, Madhya Pradesh has seen 27 suicides of school-age children in the last year due to exam-related stress. The state also suffers from high rates of malnutrition, infant mortality and the highest rate of rape in the country.

Some citizens of Madhya Pradesh are skeptical of the need for a ministry of happiness, citing a lack of basic rights and resources as the main causes of suffering.

This has sparked questions about the legitimacy of government psychological and spiritual intervention. However, India is not the first government to try to track happiness.

Along similar lines, the United Nations World Happiness Report measures the well-being of populations using GDP per capita, as well as markers for social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

In Bhutan, the birthplace of the GNH index, the commitment to a holistic measure of well-being rather than solely financial measures one has led to positive results. By prioritizing well-being over material growth, Bhutan has become an example of alternative economic growth for the rest of the world.

“GNH is an aspiration,” said Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister of education, “a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path toward a sustainable and equitable society. We believe the world needs to do the same before it is too late.”

The idea for a ministry of happiness demonstrates Madhya Pradesh’s commitment to these guiding principles. Heading the charge, Shivraj Singh Chauhan hopes that a new emphasis on the ideals of equality and community will improve the well-being of the state’s citizens.

Lia Jean Ferguson

Photo: Pixabay