Brian Peckrill, IEM/MPA ’17

J-Term Practica, 2016


April 26, 2016

Everything that Shines Isn’t Always Gold: Bhutan’s Pursuit of Happiness

When I told my father about my intention to go to Bhutan for academic purposes, he responded, “what a unique and unusual place.” Dad was a reluctant Navy man; his atypical draft dodging ways brought him to Europe, Oceania, and Antarctica. He’s been to unique places, but following a 10-day tour of Western- and Central-Bhutan, I can’t bring myself to call Bhutan unusual.

Bhutan is no doubt unique. Squarely located in the Southern Himalayas, Bhutan feels the part of the isolated fortress caught in the crosshairs of Western values and the fight to maintain local traditions, beliefs, and cultures. A stroll through Thimphu reveals green, bucolic mountains towering above the quaint Capitol, vibrant traditional dress, meticulously-crafted architecture and ubiquitous reverence to the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. At the same time, English is becoming Bhutan’s lingua franca, the country has recently adopted a constitutional monarchical system, and federalized preventative medicine has greatly improved the lives of urban and rural citizens alike.

From afar, one policy has differentiated Bhutan from its contemporaries: Gross National Happiness (GNH). Characterized by its four pillars – good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation – Gross National Happiness is inscribed into public policy, and all legislation is weighted against these principles. GNH has been heralded worldwide as a development model with values, but talk with people around town and not everyone seems to think GNH promotes long-term contentment. Let’s consider Bhutan’s commitment to environmental conservation. Bhutan has taken many measures to limit commercial logging, and while these actions have preserved Bhutan’s natural beauty, it has limited Bhutan’s agricultural development. As it currently stands, Bhutan is reliant on India for food subsistence, leading to a nasty trade deficit. For many farmers, Bhutan’s vast forests fail to capture natural beauty, but rather represent lost opportunity.

After visiting Bhutan, the tension between modernity and maintaining cultural identity seemed far more complex than simply opposing values. For policymakers, promoting the environment and heritage over economic development is putting pride and privilege before pragmatism. GNH is an ideal; in a vacuum, the world is a better place with this compassionate approach to governance. On the other hand, Bhutan does not exist in a vacuum and there are people across Bhutan still struggling to find quality jobs and provide for their families. For policymakers, much is to be gained by protecting Bhutan, but the public hasn’t bought these arguments. What does this say about GNH?

Ultimately, I think the Bhutanese are realists and the government is idealists. It’s easy to find novelty in the Bhutan’s initial mass apprehension towards its government’s forced democratic mandate. Who wouldn’t want democracy? However, to forego monarchical rule presents a definite opportunity cost: in a nation where national 5-year reign supreme, constantly changing democratically-elected governments lack the requisite continuity and enduring mandate necessary to make the long-standing plans. Without the promise of a second-, or third-term, will the current regime make the necessary decisions to bring about sustainable change? If an elected regime starts to sputter, who says there won’t be instability, turmoil or revolt? Democracy may seem universal, but perhaps its appeal is only dogmatic. And from this realization, I came to understand: Bhutan and its people are pursuing happiness, but who is to say what makes one happy? In the US, these same sorts of conversations between individual and greater societal happiness still endure. I left Bhutan without a romanticized version of the land, but an appreciation for its humanity. Whether Gross National Happiness is idealism realized or the best national PR campaign ever launched, people are people, and we are not all that different.

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