Image (CC BY 2.0) Nagarjun Kandukuru / flickr.com
Beyond GDP: Bhutan’s search for an alternative development approach
Guest blog by Fergus Lyon
04 December 2015
If looking for alternative measures of prosperity, the concept of Gross National Happiness being explored by Bhutan offers some intriguing insights. This small Himalayan state has hosted a conference on the subject of Gross National Happiness, drawing practitioners, policy makers and academics exploring happiness and wellbeing. There are a plethora of different approaches found around the world related to conservation, education systems, business innovation and development more generally that have sought alternatives to the ‘business as usual’ approach to maximising GDP growth. The conference explored this diversity but also provided a chance to explore what lessons there are for the rest of the world from the alternative approach being explored in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese experience of GNH is most evident through its alternative measures of development focusing on nine elements (Psychological wellbeing, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards). While measuring changes in such indicators are important, such measurement has slightly overshadowed the innovations in policy processes that have attempted to bring a GNH philosophy into decision making. The challenge for Bhutan, is showing how GNH can be an effective public policy tool.
In Bhutan, development interventions have to be checked against four pillars of GNH (equitable social-economic development, conservation of the environment, preserving and promoting cultural values, and good governance). While the use of these regulatory processes has varied in practice, the effects of GNH approaches in Bhutan may be more evident in what it has stopped happening, rather than in specific concrete policies or initiatives.
The lack of visible impact of these policies focusing on sustainability and wellbeing is a challenge for a country seeking to address poverty and youth unemployment, problems that are also found around the world. This has resulted in a degree of scepticism amongst many Bhutanese who feel that there has been too much attention on measuring and not enough concrete actions. Many Bhutanese also question the actual political processes related to regulating and implementing policies with some parts of society feeling excluded.
Reports on the Bhutanese media concluded that the Conference on GNH had been more important for foreign researchers and policy makers looking for inspiration. Indeed, many of the debates and discussions within the conference focused on issues central to debates about ‘degrowth’ and alternatives to conventional models of development. Topics explored the meaning of prosperity that goes beyond maximising GDP, the changing consumption patterns and resource use, the alternative business models, the importance of culture and the politics of implementing an alternative. These are all issues central to the new UK based research programme of the ESRC Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP).
So how can the experience of GNH in Bhutan shed light on ideas of sustainable prosperity. Firstly, it is innovating approaches to measuring what development should be. Secondly, the country is attempting to use a set of principles around sustainability and wellbeing to shape its policy making. The challenge is how to show the impact of these approaches in practice and on the everyday lives of people.
Professor Fergus Lyon is leading a programme of work on alternative business models at Middlesex University and is Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, (led by professor Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey). This Blog is drawn from material gathered when attending the GNH conference. The support of the ESRC PASSAGE programme is gratefully acknowledged.