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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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